Jim Harbaugh 49ersAnyone who follows the San Francisco 49ers knows that Jim Harbaugh has a lot of phrases he likes to use repeatedly. Let’s go through some of the more well-known Harbaughisms:

  • Mighty men
  • Humble hearts
  • Iron sharpens iron
  • Enthusiasm unknown to mankind
  • Who’s got it better than us? Nobody!

There are plenty of others I’m forgetting, but one specific phrase Harbaugh doesn’t like is a pretty common one in NFL Circles.

practice squad

Blech, Harbaugh says. Ewww, yuck and grody. How are we supposed to make this group unique? How are we supposed to make these players feel proud, determined, and most of all, a part of the team, the team, the team (there’s another one, borrowed from Bo Schembechler) if they have a lame name like “practice squad”?

From Harbaugh’s Sept. 12 press conference, transcript courtesy of the 49ers:

Did somebody get an award at the end of the week for practice squad?

“Yes. Developmental squad. Developmental squad you mean? Yes, offensive was [TE] Garrett Celek. Special teams was [WR] Nathan Palmer. Defensively was [LB] Cam Johnson.” 

Why do you like to call it the development squad instead of the practice squad?

“Because that’s for developing future starters on future championship teams.” [laughing]

This was something Harbaugh said all year long. “Developmental squad.” And that last part, “developing future starters on future championship teams,” will probably stay in Harbaugh’s lexicon for as long as he’s an NFL football coach. But he trotted out a new name for the practice squad on the NFL Network yesterday:

For a team that seems to be loaded, is getting a kicker icing on the cake or is it an integral part?

We look at every one of those positions as integral. Every position on the 90-man roster, every position on the 53-man roster, the opportunity squad roster, every one of those spots is, I think you said ‘integral,’ yes I would concur with that word.”

“Developing future starters on future championship teams” sounded so natural, and it’s hard to figure out how Harbaugh is going to come up with something similar once someone asks him why he now calls his practice squad the “opportunity squad.” He’ll probably say something like, “because they’re players with an opportunity to compete and contribute to a winning team,” but I’m holding out hope that this means one of Harbaugh’s favorite movies is Opportunity Knocks, the Dana Carvey vehicle from 1990. Sounds ridiculous, but so did the idea that Harbaugh once shared the spotlight with Screech on Saved by the Bell: The New Class. And that wasn’t ridiculous at all, it was glorious, humorous and touching.

The interesting thing about all this is Harbaugh’s attitude toward the practice developmental opportunity squad isn’t just different, it also appears to be successful when it comes to promoting loyalty among a set of players who usually can’t wait to get off said squad.

Jim Harbaugh revealed that four current or past members of the 49ers’ practice squad declined opportunities to sign contracts with other teams this season. By signing, those players would have landed on another team’s 53-man roster, but they invoked their right of refusal. And kept earning a punier paycheck.

The obvious question: What were they thinking?

“That would probably be the first thought that pops into everyone’s mind,” offensive lineman Al Netter said. “What I’ve been telling people is it came down to making a decision for the long run, instead of making a decision based on the immediate future.”

A four-year starter at Northwestern, Netter believes he’s in San Francisco’s plans and didn’t want to sign with another team and get cut weeks later. The fact that San Francisco’s practice-squadders travel with the team – an uncommon practice in the NFL – and are routinely referred to by Harbaugh as “future starters on future championship teams” also made him feel valued.

Maybe there’s something to all these funny things Harbaugh says…