49ers embracing offensive changes under Harbaugh

SANTA CLARA, CALIF. (AP) - A week of strenuous three-hour practices had some San Francisco 49ers feeling that not much has changed in training camp since last year.

“We’re having some long, tough days out there,” running back Anthony Dixon said Monday, when the team returned to the field after a players’ day off. “I remember at one point, I was like, ‘Is coach Singletary out here?’ That’s what it felt like. But, you know, it’s coach Harbaugh now, and coach Harbaugh is a tough dude.”

But that’s where the similarities end between Jim Harbaugh and his predecessor as 49ers coach, Mike Singletary, who was known for conducting physical summer practices.

Harbaugh has brought some big changes to a team that has gone eight years without a winning season, and several of them are coming on the offensive side of the football.

The 49ers started a new week Monday in Harbaugh’s version of the West Coast system, a style that is quickly winning over many of his players and has them excited about its potential for the upcoming season.

“It’s making better use of the talent we have all across the board,” receiver Josh Morgan said. “It just puts everybody, even the quarterbacks, in the best position to be successful. And I mean everybody.”

The 49ers signed Harbaugh to a five-year contract in January to replace Singletary, whose expertise was on defense. Harbaugh, who played 15 NFL seasons at quarterback, built a reputation for offensive success while turning losing programs into big winners at the University of San Diego and Stanford before coming to San Francisco.

Harbaugh’s system is quickly grabbing hold of his new team, which has fielded one of the NFL’s worst offenses over the past decade.

The 49ers finished 24th in the league rankings for total offense last year during a disappointing 6-10 season, and that ranking was actually an improvement over the season before.

Despite stockpiling some quality young talent on offense in recent years, San Francisco has not finished higher than 23rd in total offense since 2003. The 49ers have finished 26th or lower five times in the past seven years.

This year promises to be different. Fullback Moran Norris has been with the 49ers since 2006, and he has yet to play in such a diversified offense since joining the team.

“I love this whole offense,” Norris said. “It suits everybody. Every role matters and I don’t think any (position) stands out more than others. It’s all in one big pot and you just mix it up together.”

The 49ers added to the mix late last week with the addition of free-agent receiver Braylon Edwards. A Pro Bowler in 2007, Edwards fills a void while Michael Crabtree, San Francisco’s No. 1 receiver, remains sidelined with a foot injury that could keep him out the rest of this month.

Edwards joins other former Pro Bowlers at the skill positions in running back Frank Gore and tight end Vernon Davis. With incumbent starting quarterback Alex Smith returning to run the offense last Thursday, the offense has picked up the pace with San Francisco’s preseason opener looming Friday at New Orleans.

“They’re executing it well, they’re learning it well, and there’s been a lot put in so far in the first eight days of meetings,” Harbaugh said. “Then, you go back and teach the parts. You put in the whole and then you put in the parts. We’ve got quite a bit in now, and I really have not noticed them hit the wall mentally, which is a good sign that bodes well for us.”

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