San Francisco 49ers face steep learning curve in Jim Harbaugh's first season

The first two practice games have been meaningless, but 49ers fans should get some idea of how fast players are assimilating Jim Harbaugh’s offense in Saturday night’s game against the Houston Texans.

The problem with evaluating a team in the first two exhibitions — and the fourth one, when the starters hardly play — is that coaches are calling plays to see how they work in specific situations, not to win that specific game.

For instance, in the game against the Raiders, the 49ers twice had the ball inside the Oakland 10 and didn’t throw a pass.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said this week that they were trying to see how specific runs worked in that situation. They didn’t work at all against the Raiders. Roman said he couldn’t be sure they’d call the same plays in a regular-season game, but you can bet they’d work in at least one pass, perhaps more.

The other problem with the first two games is that there are many players who won’t even be on the team during the regular season. If you get a starter on one team playing against a nonentity on the other team, what you see is not what you’re going to get in the regular season.

The game against the Texans will be more meaningful because both teams will have game plans drawn up to win the game, not just to work on specific plays.

“Traditionally, in the third game, you game plan the same way you do in the regular season, and that’s what we’ll be doing,” said Harbaugh in a media session at camp this week.

So, we’ll all get a better idea of how the 49ers are grasping Harbaugh’s system.

Don’t expect miracles. I know 49ers fans don’t want to hear that they have to be patient for yet another season, after enduring constant frustration since Steve Mariucci was fired in 2002, after the 49ers’ last winning season, but the 49ers are trying to build a solid foundation, from the coach through the top of the organization.

Harbaugh has inherited a much better team than Bill Walsh did in 1979, but his approach is much the same: Put in the system, then bring in better players to run it.

That may start with the quarterback. Harbaugh likes Alex Smith, but he doesn’t have boundless faith in him. Smith has a one-year contract and, if he does not live up to Harbaugh’s expectations this season, he will probably be gone.

Harbaugh’s expectations are not that Smith will lead the team to the Super Bowl. He knows from personal experience that the best quarterback can’t do it without a lot of help, and Smith doesn’t have a championship team around him right now.

Harbaugh will be looking for more subtle signs: Is Smith making the right decisions? Is he using the whole field? Does he have the confidence of his teammates?

One thing we can expect: The 49ers will be a much better organized team this year, reflecting Harbaugh’s personality. In time, this will be a championship team. Just don’t expect it this year.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on Email him at

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