SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers look significantly more complex in their second season under Jim Harbaugh. For one thing, take the inspirational quotes.
Jack Harbaugh's old rallying cry -- "Who's got it better than us?" -- was good enough a year ago to help the 49ers blast out of mediocrity and into the NFC title game.
Now, to avoid the pitfalls of increased expectations after a 13-3 finish, the 49ers are looking for words of wisdom beyond the coach's pop. Players are quoting from Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Vince Lombardi, Tupac Shakur and Greek statesmen as they prepare for a Super Bowl-or-bust season.
History backs the fear of a backslide: As ESPN.com has noted, all 19 teams that won at least 13 games between 2004-10 finished with fewer victories the following season. The average drop was by 4.1 wins.
To avoid such a letdown, Harbaugh called upon his players for inspiration.
He started a new tradition of having a different player each day provide a quote for the team's bulletin board. The schedule is random -- receiver Michael Crabtree draws the names out of a hat. And the player always poses for a photo next to his selection. (Harbaugh joked that the pics would make a nice coffee table book.)
This might all sound like pep rally hokum, but newcomer Brandon Jacobs has seen it work before. "Tom Coughlin was a big quote guy, too," said Jacobs, who won two Super Bowls under the New York Giants coach.
The running back said the 49ers quotes helped him understand his new teammates. He's learned what drives them. Consider the day defensive back Perrish Cox, freshly acquitted of sexual assault charges, selected a line from Morgan Freeman's character in "The Shawshank Redemption."
"I find I'm so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain."
"A quote can tell you what kind of guy you've got on your team," Jacobs said. "You see what matters to him and think, 'Oh, wow. That guy believes in that?' Then you kind of know what that guy is about."
With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the 49ers' words to live by in 2012:
"The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights." -- Muhammad Ali
Alex Smith wants you to know that he picked that one long before someone else found the quote in a framed photo and hung it above the bulletin board. The 49ers quarterback put it on the board early in camp and likes it so much he can boil it down to two words. "Preparation wins," he said.
Smith ought to know. A year ago, he orchestrated Camp Alex practices as a way of keeping the 49ers afloat during the NFL lockout. Now, having enjoyed a proper Camp Jim, the question is whether Smith can find a level more befitting of a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Smith's so-called breakthrough season was still ho-hum when compared to the NFL's great gunslingers. He ranked 27th in the NFL in passing yards per game and 17th in touchdown passes.
The 49ers ranked 31st in third-down conversion rate and 30th in red zone touchdown percentage. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said the problem wasn't Smith, running back Frank Gore or tight end Vernon Davis. It was that the 49ers didn't have time for a proper installation of their red-zone package in 2011.
This year, the 49ers could finally dedicate a large portion of training camp -- "far away from witnessess"-- to rehearsing plays inside the 20. The upgraded offensive personnel at wide receiver (adding veterans Mario Manningham and Randy Moss and first-round pick A.J. Jenkins) and running back (Jacobs and second-round pick LaMichael James) will help.
"This year it's all about taking the next step down there in the tight field where it's a challenge to the offense," Roman said. "You must be precise. You must be sharp."
"Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence." -- Vince Lombardi
Patrick Willis didn't pick that one; fellow linebacker Ahmad Brooks did. But the five-time Pro Bowler liked it so much he cited it at his news conference later that day to sum up the mentality of a defense that returns all 11 starters from last year's dominant unit.
The 49ers amassed a plus-28 turnover differential last season, the second highest mark in the NFL since the 1970 merger. The 49ers also allowed the fewest rushing yards (77.3 per game) and fewest points per possession (1.19).
The only major change is that linebacker Aldon Smith (14.5 sacks) will transform from situational specialist to every-down player. He'll go from chasing quarterbacks to chasing perfection.
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." -- Martin Luther King Jr.
To running back Anthony Dixon, who wasn't expected to make the roster because of a crowded backfield, those words resonated. "I know it was an uphill battle to make the team, but I wasn't going to quit," he said.
Instead, Dixon honed his craft as a special-teams ace. Harbaugh now calls him a "core guy" on the punt- and kick-off coverage units that rank among the NFL's best. The 49ers led the league in average opponent field position (24.3-yard line).
The MLK quote might also hit home with returner Kyle Williams, whose two fumbled punt returns doomed the 49ers in the NFC title game. They also fit kicker David Akers, who once settled for work as a part-time waiter, but remained as strong as ever last year when he set an NFL with 44 field goals.
The final word
"Some men give up their designs when they have almost reached the goal; while others, on the contrary, obtain a victory by exerting, at the last moment, more vigorous efforts than before." -- Polybius (200 -118 BC)
A team employee provided that one but didn't want to give his name and detract from the players' contribution. But the line sums up the 49ers' challenge: For this season to be deemed a success, the 49ers need to make the leap from quoting Greeks to playing in a game with roman numerals.
Contact Daniel Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org