Retooled 49ers offense shines in debut

Benny Sieu/US PRESSWIRESan Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh's experience speaks for itself.

Coach Jim Harbaugh makes his living by delivering the unexpected.

In 2007, he took over a Stanford football program that was coming off of a 1-11 season and, in just three years, he turned the Cardinal into a national title contender.

The 49ers’ 13-3 record in his first NFL season last year speaks for itself.

But this year’s team is already considered a Super Bowl contender, so how could he possibly shatter expectations again?

How about opening the 2012 season by storming into Lambeau Field and throwing a near-perfect game against a Green Bay Packers team that boasts one of the best offenses in NFL history?

OK, I’m sure there are plenty of homers out there who called this one months ago. But did you really think Harbaugh’s retooled offense would be this prolific in the first game of the season?

The thing that makes this win so incredible is the way in which it was done. Last year, the team was near the top of the league in several statistical categories (turnover ratio, run defense), but down in the basement in a few others (receiving yards, red-zone offense). Now, the gaps are filled and the strengths are strengthened.

Obviously, the wide receiver position needed an upgrade. In the NFC Championship Game, 49ers receivers combined for a grand total of one reception for 3 yards. On Sunday, Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss and Mario Manningham caught 15 balls for 152 yards and one touchdown. Suddenly, the 49ers have an aerial attack to complement their power rushing game.</p>

Of course, everyone knew the offense could be explosive with the addition of Moss and Manningham, but offseason moves rarely work out so perfectly.

With Moss and Co. out there, the Packers couldn’t stack nine in the box against Frank Gore and he delivered 7 yards a carry (16 rushes for 112 yards), including a crucial 23-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.

The beefed-up receiving corps also showed that Alex Smith is more than just a game manager. He went throw-for-throw with one of the league’s best quarterbacks, completing 20-of-26 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns. Smith also broke Steve Young’s franchise record for consecutive passes without throwing an interception (184).

With new toys in the chest, the 49ers also seemed to have solved another nagging deficiency: red-zone offense. Last year, San Francisco ranked 30th in that category, converting only 40.7 percent of its trips inside the 20 into touchdowns. The Niners, however, put six on the board both times they reached the red zone Sunday and those points were the difference against the Packers.

Another stark improvement was Crabtree’s performance. Against Green Bay, he led the team in catches (7) and receiving yards (76) and suddenly looked like a true No. 1 receiver, probably due to Moss drawing significant attention.

Of course, no team has ever won the Super Bowl in September and injuries can spoil a season as fast as Peyton Manning’s release. It’s only Week 1 — take a deep breath.

But if you can expect one thing with Harbaugh on the sideline, it’s that the expectations have no limit.

Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at paul.gackle@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @PGackle.

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