SANTA CLARA When Alex Smith wrapped up two player-run minicamps this summer, he made it clear to teammates that the 49ers were behind.
They would have to work hard this offseason, the quarterback said, to catch up to the teams that hadn't gone through coaching changes and had maintained an element of continuity during the lockout.
They'll take on one of those teams, the New Orleans Saints, today at 5 p.m. The Saints' core players have been together for years. They've run the same complex and aggressive offense since 2006. And their starting quarterback, Drew Brees, is an extension of head coach Sean Payton.
What's more, Brees and the Saints were the paragon of professionalism during the lockout. The New Orleans players organized six weeks of player-led practices at Tulane University that attracted upwards of 40 players and included training staffers and film work.
"They're a top NFL team with a lot of pieces in place," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said this week. "They had a tremendous offseason. They did very well in free agency and have a tightknit group. So, yeah, it's a big test for us. We'll know where we stand a lot better."
The 49ers acknowledge that they are behind established teams like the Saints. But they've also used their starting position as motivation.
There's a sense of urgency to Harbaugh's first training camp, in which everything is done quickly and, in recent practices at least, performed sharply.
"I think everything is moving a lot faster," defensive end Ray McDonald said Thursday. "I mean, not to disrespect coach (Mike) Singletary, but everything is a lot crisper. There's not a lot of standing around; guys are actually doing stuff. You know, the tempo is a lot more upbeat."
Harbaugh said he expected training camp to look rough initially, especially because certain veteran free agents, such as Smith and McDonald, weren't able to practice for the first week. So he's asked that the players improve a little bit every day.
And in that way, he said, they've succeeded.
Harbaugh was happy with the past three days of practice, which were used to tune up for the Saints, and was especially pleased that Wednesday's session wrapped up early.
"It's not 100 percent perfect, not 100 percent right," Harbaugh said of recent practices. "But to be honest with you, I wouldn't want it 100 percent right or perfect. Then it wouldn't be challenging enough. Our guys are really pressing the envelope on tempo. And practice ended 12 minutes early (Wednesday) because of that, because the tempo was so good. At some point, that will bode well for us. That will help us win games."
Adding to the sense of urgency is Harbaugh himself, who is in constant motion and who is not shy about demonstrating how to throw a block or run a route. Mostly, the 47-year-old former quarterback works with his passers.
"It's great to see it," Smith said. "I know for all of (the quarterbacks) it's great to have a visual explanation sometimes, instead of it getting told to you. To get to see it happen even from an old guy it's good."