The 49ers are off to embark on another week-long trip to Youngstown for the third year running. The last year under Mike Singlestary, the 49ers played in Carolina and then spent a week in London before beating the Broncos.
Last year, the team beat the Bengals 13-8, then retreated to Youngstown, the hometown of the York family. Then they travelled to Philadelphia for their defining 24-23 win over the Eagles.
For a team that doesn't go away for training camp, their Youngstown junkets seem to serve the bonding experience a training camp might have.
"I'm looking forward to it," 49ers tackle Joe Staley said. "I thought last year was very beneficial to the football team. It was almost like another training camp. You get to spend a lot of time with the team; we got very close and that's kind of where we got into our groove last season. After that week, playing Philadelphia the next week, it was very beneficial and I think it can have the same kind of effect."
They were down 23-3 when quarterback Alex Smith broke loose in the third quarter by leading two touchdown drives and posting a career-high 179 yards in a single quarter. The game ended when 49ers defensive end Justin Smith punched the ball out of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin's arms after the 290-pound Smith caught Maclin from behind. The 49ers recovered with 2:15 to preserve the team's first back-to-back road wins in five years.
But it wasn't just the galvanizing win that made the 49ers repeat their Youngstown journey again this year. They do it, more than likely, because research says they should, which is an unrecognized quality of head coach Jim Harbaugh. Many get distracted by Harbaugh's competitive zeal and his frenetic sideline and post-game behavior, and Harbaugh probably likes it that way.
Harbaugh is a closet intellectual, who is constantly reading studies. The 49ers stay in the Eastern time zone because research probably says that it's advantageous to do so.
"Very intelligent man," Staley said. "Everything he does has a reason and a purpose. Everything he does is very thought out."
Harbaugh, at times, will offer hints to his research. In discussing why he wants to dress a third quarterback, he said that on average two teams per season will use their third quarterback in a game. When asked about traveling across two time zones, Harbaugh said, "There have been plenty of studies done. We've looked at quite a few of them. And you try to do what you can to have the players be in the best shape they can be in physically and emotionally, and get their rest, eat right, hydrate. I'm not going to go into all of them."
One player said Harbaugh will even call Stanford professors if he has a question on their area of expertise.
Harbaugh also reaches out to coaches when he sees a play he likes, even if it's in high school. That's where he got the idea for the "fly sweep," a play where the speedy Ted Ginn Jr. goes in motion, takes the handoff and sprints around the end.
"It's interesting, because he's the complete opposite of what you think he is," guard Alex Boone said. "He is a tough guy, but he's also very smart."
--The 49ers have quite the playoff history with the Vikings. Minnesota and wide receiver Anthony Carter beat possibly the best team Bill Walsh ever fielded in the divisional playoffs following the 1987 season. That year, the 49ers were ranked first in offense and defense and finished with a 14-2 record. But Carter ruined everything by catching 10 passes for 227 yards in Minnesota's 36-22 win. After the game, Walsh was stripped of his team president title. He never forgave then-owner Eddie DeBartolo and after the following season in which the 49ers won the Super Bowl, Walsh quit.
--Jim Harbaugh uses stories to motivate his team. Recently, Harbaugh's father, Jack, met Muhammad Ali at a Baltimore Ravens practice. Ali's wife told Jack Harbaugh a story about Ali training before he fought Sonny Liston in 1964. At that time in Miami, the fight was held at a hotel that didn't allow African Americans. Ali stayed five miles away and Ali refused to be driven to the Hotel. Every step of the way he said someone is going to pay for this and it was going to be Sonny Liston. Ali, of course, won the fight. Harbaugh related the story to the team last week.
Harbaugh doesn't interpret the stories he tells.
"We don't break it down, Barney style at the end of a story and try to tell people what we think the message is or what the message should be," Harbaugh said. "We just kind of put in there. These are smart guys, they relate to it in ways. .. I love the feedback of what the message they took from it."
--Left tackle Joe Staley sustained a huge gash on his nose in the opening game win in Green Bay. Now, the wound has been reduced to a scab and a bruise. Staley sustained the injury on the first play of the game when his helmet cracked him on the bridge of the nose. Not to be outdone, quarterback Alex Smith also had a gash opened up on his nose when Lions safety John Wendling's forearm got through his facemask on a tackle.
"Yeah, that's a pretty good one," Staley said. "We're the nose brothers."
--Harbaugh has a tradition of having players talk to the team on their birthdays. He also buys them a cupcake, milk and writes them a card that he delivers personally.
"I got a cupcake. It's very delicious. It's a velvet cupcake with cream cheese frosting," said Staley, who was born on Aug. 30. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree said, "I love me some red velvet cupcake."