When Jim Harbaugh took the job, the San Francisco 49ers were damaged goods. Good damaged goods, but damaged just the same. Not only were the 49ers losing more games than they were winning, their previous coaching staff traded on blame-shifting. Worse yet, they didn’t make football all that interesting.
Sure, the 49ers were tough. And that could very well have a lot to do with Mike Singletary, one of the best and toughest linebackers to ever play the game. But Singletary also believed in each player having a singular focus, both for their positional responsibilities and for each game plan. The key wasn’t to adjust or adapt, but rather to just try harder.
In a recent story about Harbaugh written by William C. Rhoden of the New York Times, Harbaugh made himself unavailable for comment (because the story was about him, undoubtedly). Denny Green’s somewhat of a comic footnote after his infamous press conference, which is kind of a shame for a guy who can also say something as astute as this:
Green said: “The guys who haven’t done well didn’t have that, they didn’t have any experience, so they came in and related to the pro game like they related to the college game, like they’re the same, and they’re not.
“In pro football, they get down to business quickly. The players don’t look at you as a coach as much as you’re the guy who’s supposed to have the answers to help them keep playing. As long as you have those answers, they’re ready to follow you. If you don’t have those answers, they lose interest real quick.”
Not only did Harbaugh have answers, he made the game fun. NFL players aren’t idiots. The best athletes in many areas of this country are drawn to the game, and the dullards among them are weeded out by the time they get to the NFL — except Jerome Simpson and Sam Hurd … ZING!
Harbaugh and his staff brought answers, but they also brought fun. Could anyone imagine Joe Staley or Isaac Sopoaga catching a pass when Singletary stalked the sidelines? Or Mike Nolan? But before the fun, Harbaugh had some healing to do.
That may be the most amazing thing about where the 49ers are in Harbaugh’s first season. He and his staff had to build up a team that had been beaten down by all that losing, then sustain that positive energy while keeping the team humble. It’s a delicate balance in any line of work, let alone a violent one where the team’s normal preparation time had been slashed by a lockout.
It’s like every ounce of Harbaugh’s being is split amongst two endeavors. First, embodying all the great things about Bo Schembechler. Second, protecting his team from all outside forces who could pick apart what’s great about the team, question the team’s strengths or pit different people in the organization against each other.
That’s where the media comes in.
You’re either with Harbaugh or you’re against him, and if you’re unwilling to communicate on his terms exactly … well, you’re against him just as much as Tom Coughlin, Sean Payton, Jim Schwartz or Pete Carroll are.
Harbaugh’s point isn’t to belittle or be mean just because he’s vengeful — although many reporters who’ve been made to feel small by Harbaugh may disagree — it’s to create an environment where he won’t be expected to give out state secrets or become hooked into a reporter’s preconceived narrative (cough … Lowell Cohn … cough). And as Harbaugh’s team has gotten better and better, and now one win away from the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance in 17 years, he’s using the media to his advantage.
How involved have you been with Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio, I know you talk about all of the communication you have on the offensive side of the ball, but will you look at the defensive game plan for the Giants, how involved are you with Vic in that?
Harbaugh: “Very little. Vic runs the defense along with other coaches on our staff. I have complete confidence in Vic Fangio. I’ve always had great respect for him before I had a chance to work with him. I think he’s one of the best defensive coordinators in the history of the NFL. That’s what I want his legacy to be. He’s doing a great job.”
How could you not want to work with a guy like that? After getting cut by the Eagles, David Akers would probably say the same thing, even if Harbaugh didn’t have this exchange during Thursday’s media session:
If you had to identify your team in a word or two, what comes to mind for you? Secondly, what has K David Akers meant to this team? What kind of year has he had?
Harbaugh: “In a word or two? Define the team? I’ll use six: The Team, The Team, The Team. With this team, that’s not just a mantra, that’s who they are. David Akers really could be our most valuable player. Maybe our most talented player. Really going along with who we are, [DT] Justin Smith can’t do David Akers’ job. David can’t do Frank Gore’s job or [QB] Alex Smith’s job or [DT] Ray McDonald’s job or [S] Donte Whitner’s job. It’s that kind of group that it’s really who they are. They’re a team. They all understand what they had to do. Specifically David Akers, he’s probably the most talented guy at what he does, not only in the league this year, but it may shake out that he’s the best of all time.”
Fangio: one of the best in the history of the NFL. Akers: could be the best of all time. People scoffed when Harbaugh said Alex Smith should go to the Pro Bowl, but Smith’s dad also scoffed when Harbaugh told him how much he wanted Alex around a year ago. Harbaugh believes everything he says. His belief in everyone affiliated with the team is why the 6-10 49ers from 2010 believe they’re the best team in the NFL now. And they may be right.
Harbaugh’s “they don’t respect us” card
Many feel like the Giants are too experienced, too balanced and playing too well as of late for the 49ers to prevail. Harbaugh has paid all due compliments to the Giants, but one theme has popped up a couple times in his media sessions.
You may not be into the labeling of #1 receiver, #2 receiver, but is WR Michael Crabtree in your mind of that level, a #1 type receiver? What kind of year do you think he’s had?
Harbaugh: “Michael’s had a 14-3 year as a receiver. All of our receivers have had that kind of a year, in terms of executing their job. I would say that about our offense, about our defense, about our special teams. I’d say the same thing about the New York Giants receivers. They’ve had a Super Bowl contender year. Everybody’s good at this point. Both teams are good.”
Talk about the offensive line. Alex’s development has been credited far and wide. What have you seen from the day of the start with the offensive line to where they are now?
Harbaugh: “They’ve gotten better and better. I think that’s a group that really has taken to heart being better today than they were yesterday and being better tomorrow than they are today. It’s helped that they’ve all played together. They’ve all stayed healthy. They’ve all played 17 games. It’s a pretty expansive question, what you’re asking. Let’s go back to day one and detail out every way that they’ve performed. They’re 14-3. That’s how they’ve performed. That’s the kind of offensive line that they’ve been. They’ve been a 14-3 type of offensive line.”
There’s no way Harbaugh’s downplaying the Giants as a team and telling his players, “You don’t have to worry about these guys, they went 9-7 and barely won their crappy division.” But there’s something very calculated about everything Harbaugh says, and he knows that the 49ers’ record is a reason to believe in the team when others may not. Harbaugh knows everyone is either listening or reading, and at every turn he has continuously built up and encouraged every coach and player on his staff, while at the same time refraining from lifting any one person above his peers.
Jim Harbaugh would call himself nothing more than a coach. Actually, he does that all the time. Like when someone asked him about his influence on Alex because of his own experience as a quarterback, to which Harbaugh replied, “Yes, been able to work with him. Hopefully given some sound advice. (I am) not a quarterback anymore, just a coach. Your question doesn’t resonate with me any further than that.”
But Harbaugh is at the same time a coach, strategist, teacher and healer, all while acting as a force field against the media, keeping the players mentally stimulated and creating an environment where the players yell, “Who’s got it better than us? NOBODY!” and mean it. It all sounds like too much praise for one man, too good to be true … unless you’ve watched the 49ers all season.