Coach Jim Harbaugh came to the 49ers via Stanford, a la Bill Walsh. Harbaugh is implementing the West Coast offense, a system made famous by Walsh. Can Harbaugh win on the road like Walsh's 49ers teams of the 1980s?
The 49ers' first road game under Harbaugh takes place Sunday at the Cincinnati Bengals' Paul Brown Stadium, a venue where the 49ers lost 41-38 in their only other visit in 2003.
"If you look at Bill Walsh, they tried to win their division games, and they tried to go undefeated on the road," 49ers president Jed York said. "The home games, it's not that they aren't important, but championship teams need to win on the road."
York lured Harbaugh out of Stanford for a five-year, $25 million pact. York wants Walsh-ian results.
Although Walsh lost every road game as a rookie coach in 1979, the 49ers had a winning record away from Candlestick each season starting with the 1981 campaign. That momentous season ended with a Super Bowl XVI victory over the Bengals, who also suffered a December loss at home to the 49ers and Walsh, a one-time Bengals assistant under Paul Brown.
The 49ers' road records during Walsh's Hall of Fame tenure: 0-8 in 1979, then 2-6 in 1980, 6-2 in '81, 3-1 in strike-shortened '82, 6-2 (5-0 start) in '83, 8-0 in '84 en route to a second Super Bowl, 5-3 in '85, 4-3-1 in '86, 7-1 in '87 and 6-2 in '88. (The 49ers went undefeated on the road the following two seasons, each capped by a Super Bowl triumph under coach George Seifert.)
"You've got to play with a lot of poise and understand what you're doing, especially in the chaos of a road game," Harbaugh said. "You win games because you deserve to win them. You prepare for them, you practice for them, and get motivated to go play them."
The Bengals sport the same 1-1 record as the 49ers, who are coming off a 27-24, overtime home loss to Dallas. (Walsh's 1979 team also lost to Dallas in Week 2, en route to a 2-14 season.)
Quarterback Alex Smith, who sustained a concussion during Sunday's defeat, has been cleared to start. Smith is 6-22 all-time as a road starter, and he's experienced wins in only four cities away from Candlestick: St. Louis (three times), Seattle, Denver and Detroit.
This will be Smith's debut in Cincinnati, and after that is another road game at Philadelphia. In between, the 49ers will spend five days in Youngstown, Ohio, to cut down on the travel and adjust players' so-called body clocks.
Smith endorsed that extended stay: "Whatever it takes to win. I think obviously there's a lot of data out there on West Coast teams traveling east."
The 49ers are 3-19 in the Eastern time zone since 2003. But they're 0-0 there under Harbaugh, who said this week that his ideal offense features an equal amount of runs and passes.
In that case, the receiving corps will have to make do without Braylon Edwards (knee surgery), and Frank Gore must improve upon his average of 2.5 yards per carry. Plus, the offensive line must prevent another six-sack effort as the Cowboys had against Smith, who played through his concussion and did not seek medical treatment for it until after the game.
One aspect that has been hiding from the 49ers' arsenal is Vernon Davis' receiving chores. Davis, the NFL's highest-paid tight end, voiced surprise at being used primarily as a blocker during a two-catch outing against Dallas. He and fellow tight end Delanie Walker could get more action against the Bengals, who'll likely match them up at times against ex-49ers linebacker Manny Lawson.
Defensively, the 49ers will be facing rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, who produced passer ratings of 102.4 and 107 in his first NFL starts.
The 49ers secondary looks to rebound from getting torched in the Cowboys' comeback, and that includes safety Donte Whitner, who spurned the Bengals at the last minute to join the 49ers as a free agent. Fellow safety Dashon Goldson might make his season debut after missing the first two games with a knee injury.
"Nobody won or lost a Super Bowl last week. I think we've gotten better," York said. "But we aren't to where we need to be. The only way to do that is day by day. It's a slow process."
Harbaugh has echoed that "process" mantra, and York is firmly behind his new coach.
"He's still trying to figure out all the nuances," York added. "But he has a picture framed on his wall that says, 'Just coach the team.' The more coaches that listen to that and just coach the team, the better they're going to be."
A road win Sunday would serve as a sign of better things to come from a franchise that's struggled mightily for nearly a decade, both at home and on the cruel road to nowhere.
For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers.