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San Francisco 49ers believe they're on a path back to success

Tight end Vernon Davis leads San Francisco in catches (19) and yards receiving (224) and is one of four 49ers with a touchdown catch through four games.

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Tight end Vernon Davis leads San Francisco in catches (19) and yards receiving (224) and is one of four 49ers with a touchdown catch through four games.

TAMPA — Like any good football player, Vernon Davis has aspirations. He wants to play in big games, and win division titles and achieve things his team will be remembered for.

Until this point, those dreams have seemed out of reach. But the 49ers' sixth-year Pro Bowl tight end has reason to believe things finally might be different.

"Since I've been here, we've been struggling," Davis said this week. "I haven't seen the playoffs since coming out of the University of Maryland, and I'm thirsty. I'm ready to go and see what it's like. I give my all every Sunday to help this team get to where we need to go."

The 49ers are one of the great franchises, with five Lombardi Trophies to prove it. One of the game's most revered coaches (Bill Walsh) and some of its finest players (Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young) have worn their colors.

But the team hasn't seen the postseason or won more than eight games in any season since 2002.

As the Bucs travel cross country for a game Sunday against the 3-1 49ers, they'll encounter a team that believes it is changing for the better.

With new coach Jim Harbaugh at the helm, the 49ers displayed their new-found determination in a rally from a 20-point deficit Sunday at Philadelphia. It was a game that recent 49ers teams likely would have surrendered, but there was a different vibe in the huddle during that confidence-building victory.

"It's all will, man," Davis said. "It all has to do with will. If you're willing to put everything on the line and sacrifice your body to help your team win, then you'll do it. That's what we were able to do this past week."

The team has taken on the tough-minded, no-nonsense approach of Harbaugh. The 49ers play aggressive and physical defense, lead the NFL in turnover margin and have an edge. "I think that's in our nature as a football team," Harbaugh said.

Few know Harbaugh's personality — and that of his football teams — better than Bucs quarterback Josh Johnson, who played for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego.

"They're playing tough, physical football games," Johnson said. "I know that's the kind of mentality he tries to put on his team, and that's how they've been winning in hard-fought, physical football games. In this league, that's where it starts when you're trying to create a foundation.

"If you can come out and be tough and be physical, you give yourself a chance to win. That's why we've been having success. (The Bucs) have been able to run the football and win the line of scrimmage. That's where it starts."

As Bucs coach Raheem Morris prepared for the game, he noticed different attributes about the 49ers when watching them on tape.

"You can just tell the attitude's different," Morris said. "You can see everybody has a plan, a direction. … You can just see the sense of urgency. Those guys played hard for (Mike) Singletary, but they're certainly playing hard for Harbaugh, and they certainly feel a certain sense of urgency to go out and win this year."

Credit Harbaugh with making what looks like a good decision at quarterback. A former No. 1 overall choice criticized mercilessly for his past performance, Alex Smith has seemed to be in constant jeopardy.

But Harbaugh, who helped make Stanford's Andrew Luck the prize of the 2012 draft while coaching the Cardinal, has played to Smith's strengths and simplified his decisions.

"A lot of the credit goes to (Smith)," Davis said. "Alex is coming out and knows he has no time to waste. He has to make plays for us. He has to step up and be a leader. He's trying his absolute best, and I think he's doing an excellent job."

Smith, who has never completed more than 59.6 percent of his attempts, has completed 67.3 percent this season.

On defense, where former USF coach Jim Leavitt coaches the linebackers, the 49ers are a handful. Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman, in a conference call with San Francisco reporters, said, "Their front seven is the best we're going to see all year."

In San Francisco, the 49ers are hoping it all adds up to a long-awaited different result.

Times staff writer Rick Stroud contributed to this report.

San Francisco 49ers believe they're on a path back to success 10/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 7, 2011 10:09pm]
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