49ers' coach Jim Harbaugh, himself from a coaching family, loves opposing coaches so dearly that he almost always gives them a chance to come back and win games against his own team. He seldom runs up lopsided scores against his brethren, and, even in the playoffs, prefers close nail-biters to potential blowout games that might possibly embarrass his cohorts. Even, as in the recent Green Bay playoff contest, when his squad had dominated the first few series one-hundred-forty-one yards to one, the gentlemanly Jim obligingly allowed the Packers to regroup, and make a competitive game of it. No wonder Pete Carroll, and now Mike McCarthy, adore him unreservedly.
But one should not let Sir James's sartorial dandyism, his soft-spoken tone with reporters, nor his outright chivalrous treatment of referees, obscure his main virtue. The man can coach:
What ever happened to Eric Mangini?
Sounded good at the time: Hire a former head coach with sufficient brains to do some self-scouting. But, other than his assists on select challenge-flag follies during the regular season, we haven't heard much about the Mangenius. And yet, in the end, whether from Mangini or other coaches, the self-scouting paid off against Green Bay.
During last year's playoff game at Candlestick, Colin Kaepernick ran against the Packers like a gazelle gone wild, and embarrassed cheeseheads everywhere. In this season's opener, with Green Bay's brain trust intent on stopping the Kaep, the 49ers simply threw the ball to Anquan Boldin, who pasteurized the Packer defense. So for this past Sunday's playoff on the cheese-gone-bad gray tundra of Lambeau Field, the 49er staff, anticipating rather than retro-wishing, shifted the focus to Michael Crabtree, especially when the tattered Green Bay secondary became even more battered. Nice job, Jim, the Mangini hire, though you're much too modest to say so.
What ever happened to Colin Kaepernick?
During much of the regular season, the young QB looked bewitched by NFL defenses, bothered by his lack of success, and bewildered by his Twitter account. Coach Harbaugh, ever the kind-hearted nurturer, returned his fledgling star to the safe nest of his teammates, and took the pressure off young Colin by winning games with stout special teams, a few-yards-and-a-cloud-of-disgust running game, and a stifling defense. Meanwhile, the fatherly Jim favored his charge with passing plays that featured simplified reads, and restricted the lad's running almost altogether, and mainly on important plays, such as the late-game keeper during the second Seahawk game, minimizing the chances of injury.
Gradually, the avid apprentice regained his confidence. When he also regained one of his favorite receivers, the sticky-fingered Mr. Crabtree, the in-season adjustment was almost complete. But not quite. In the final regular-season game, against Arizona, Coach Harbaugh contrived a way to let the Cards, overwhelmed in the early going, get back into the game. True, this gambit further exemplified Jim's magnanimity toward his fellow coaches, but it also allowed Kaep to lead a fourth-quarter comeback, thus bolstering the youngster's confidence even more, precisely in time for the playoffs. The same scenario, with variations, repeated itself in Green Bay Sunday.
The Green Bay playoff game also featured the two things that Colin does best: power throws, both down and across the field (devotees of triangle passing-pattern schemes sometimes call these "apex throws") and speed runs, both planned and unplanned. In other words, Harbaugh unshackled Kaepernick's arm and de-hobbled his legs, while limiting the things he does poorly (read defenses, make quick decisions, maintain footwork). Even in the cold, Colin fairly cavorted. The kid loves the game again, the crease gone from his forehead, the heavy lead of excessive sophomore expectations lifted from his newly lightened heart. Nice going Coach Jim, you warm and fuzzy fellow. QB mistakes may follow, but Harbaugh realizes that to win in the playoffs one must unleash the beast, and ride out the attendant risks.
What ever happened to the 49ers' pass rush?
The same thing that happened toward the end of the 2012 campaign: at the end of seasons, at the end of games, the Niners' defensive linemen/outside linebackers, beaten up, bruised, and worn down by high-protein diets, get weary. Yes, they do get weary. Except that, this season, as per his recent wont, Coach Jim has decided to try a little tenderness. Not only does he coo to his defensive players after practice, but he lately actually plays the backups during games, thus preserving some freshness for his starters. Said starters, particularly Brooks, the Smiths, and Old McDonald, all heretofore somewhat late-season stolid, perked up against the Packers, and danced on Rodgers shadows, unperturbed by the Astaire-like grips of the grasping Green Bay offensive linemen. The starters not only revived their pass-rush steps, but stood up against the run.
This rest-the-weary-chorus strategy has additional dubious benefits as well. With the starters out, opposing offenses delight in more easily sustainable success against the backups, allowing trailing-on-the-scoreboard teams to rally. Much of the yardage gained during Green Bay's two touchdown drives, both by land and by air, came with backup front-line defenders in the game. Thank you, generous Jim Harbaugh. The Carolina coaches, as they watch game-film, will no doubt wistfully applaud your jolly-good sportsmanship. Then again, what choice does Coach Jim really have? He learned from late last year to keep those starters fresh.
What ever happened to the season-long debate among 49er fans?
Mostly this debate, sometimes disguised and sometimes overt, divides 49er followers into two often-cramped camps. The first bunch frets over the play-to-play details that potentially spell doom, while the second batch counsels faith in the overarching organization-wide view of the Niner brass. Coach Jim, a peacemaker by disposition, has succeeded in proving both camps correct. He has patiently set about alleviating some of the specific concerns savvy fans have harbored since, lo, even this past off-season, while simultaneously hewing to the long-term plan. Just in time for the playoffs, he has his team playing their best ball of the year: the passing game reborn, the coaching more imaginative, with the players at their most confident and combative. Jim, you subtle, unassuming, shrinking-violet. Have we crasser creatures but mistook you all the while?
Years from now, when Jimmy Harbs and his colleagues gather around a virtual fireplace in the old-coach's-home to relive past glories and tell tales of yesteryear, surely some of his fellow coaches will express their eternal gratitude to Jim for having allowed them, yes, even deep into games, at least the illusion that they might win several from him. Maybe by then, more will have recognized Jim's true gentility, his generosity of spirit, his mild-mannered grace, his intentionally wasted timeouts. But some old campaigners might just notice, too, the tiniest trace of a gleam in the very far corner of this choirboy's eye. This miniscule hint of a glint will represent Jim's fond remembrance, in tranquil retrospection, of his overall record. Of course Coach Jim would never hoop nor holler, let alone stoop to gloat, even in retirement. But he may well yet come to deserve that devious little beam.
Say what you will, 49er fans, but through all the exasperation, doubts, bad bounces, and buzzard luck, Coach Harbaugh usually fields a competitive squad. No, he's not Bill Walsh. Hell, he's not even Bo Schembechler, though closer than most. But give him credit. Again, this unprepossessing, egoless, sweetheart of a gentleman can coach. Long may he continue to court success.