Niners start shop at competitive disadvantage

Because of all the missed time due to the lockout, veteran-laden teams with unchanged offensive and defensive systems will carry a significant competitive advantage into the 2011 season, which leaves the 49ers playing from behind now that can finally get back to business with their new coaching staff.


Sometimes in the NFL, the old saying "better late than never," needs to be reversed.

Rarely in recent seasons has a player been signed as a veteran free agent, or reported late to training camp as a rookie or veteran who experienced a prolonged contract dispute, and had a profound impact. There are, to be sure, some examples of late arrivals who made a difference in the past. For the large part, though, the franchises that have enjoyed the most success are those that have had their rosters all but settled at the outset of training camp.

Detailed planning, stability and continuity have pretty much been the hallmarks of Super Bowl champions. And the consensus since the beginning of the lockout has been that those franchises that figured to experience the least turnover – those that did not have a new coach or starting quarterback or a dramatic schematic alteration on offense or defense – would realize a huge edge in the chaos that will be 2011.

The 49ers would fit into a category of teams with the most turnover. Under new coach Jim Harbaugh, only three assistants remain from the team's 2010 coaching staff. San Francisco has new coordinators on offense, defense and special teams, and there is still uncertainty at quarterback even though incumbent starter Alex Smith – who originally was expected to leave the team as a free agent - will return.

But Smith – not to mention his teammates – will be learning a new offensive system for the seventh time in seven years. With no offseason work to implement Harbaugh's new system – or the systems of his coordinators, for that matter – the 49ers figure to be behind most other teams when training camps open this week.

Such conventional wisdom may still be valid, and staid may equate to steady in the long run, but continuity will be a rare premium in a summer in which rosters may be more in flux than they are fixed.

"With the (free agent) timeline the way it is, yeah, you're liable to be adding players throughout camp, certainly after you begin," Cleveland president Mike Holmgren, a former 49ers offensive coordinator, told The Sports Xchange last week. "That's just the way it is. Everyone is going to have to adjust. ... I mean, let's face it, it's going to be different."

In the normal year, of course, free agency precedes the draft. Teams could adjust draft priorities based in part on what they had accomplished in the free agent market. In this most insane of summers, the planning process is backward, with teams drafting first and then using free agency to fill in the remaining holes. But even that reversal isn't as potentially dramatic as having to react on the fly to new players who are added on once camp begins.

Think about being in school and having the new kid transfer to your class a month or two into the semester. Only this is worse. In the school scenario, the new kid had to adjust to everyone else. With free agent arriving once camp begins, and trying to mesh with the whole, teams are going to have to react to the new guy.

Particularly if the new veteran is a significant one, more than just a role player.

"It's definitely going to be about adjustment," allowed Carolina general manager Marty Hurney.

That could be one reason why the beginning of free agency likely will be even more hectic, and the bidding incredibly competitive, than in past years. The rationale of many of the general managers, personnel directors and coaches informally surveyed by The Sports Xchange last week was that there will be an increased priority to get key free agents signed and into camp as early as possible.

But even then, there are going to be some "middle level" free agents – good, solid players who might not rate among the elite – who figure to be attractive in the so-called "second wave" of free agency.

Said one general manager during the break in last Friday's seminar to familiarize personnel directors and salary cap managers on the details of the new CBA: "Two or three weeks (into camp), teams are going to still be adding guys who are going to play for them. It's probably going to drive coaches crazy, but, hey, that's the way it is, you know? But coaches like to know what they've got to work with. Given what has gone on, that's not going to be completely the case."

That could level the playing field somewhat for the 49ers, who will be in the same position as other teams in that regard. But they also have a new general manager calling the shots this year, with Trent Baalke perhaps still learning the ropes as he attempts to keep up in the mad scramble that will be free agency over the next week.

Indeed, there will be more pressure than ever on coaches to shoe-horn players into positions of need.

A decade and a half ago, when this columnist covered the Indianapolis Colts and one of his favorite coaches, Ron Meyer, the master of malapropisms and colorful lines used to use the word "acclimatized" to refer to the ability to get a player up to speed and integrate him into a system and a culture.

Given the reality of what is about to ensue, especially as it pertains to the veteran free agent class, it might be a coach's ability to "acclimatize" that proves to be most critical for training camps.

Jim Harbaugh, how are you at "acclimatizing?"


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