How has Jim Harbaugh performed a near-miracle with the 49ers? Here are some of the qualities I’ve observed:
1. He always stays positive about his team, often praising players and never criticizing. If a writer frames a question around a critical comment, he will respond with, “You’re saying that, I’m not.” Players always do their best for a coach who has their backs.
Significantly, Harbaugh will not even criticize players who have disappointed him. Braylon Edwards was expected to be a big contributor this season, but injuries and his attitude destroyed that hope. For a time, he didn’t suit up because of an injury, but when he regained health, Harbaugh still didn’t make him eligible, and Edwards was released the next week — without a comment from Harbaugh.
2. He’s great at evaluating his team. Looking at videos in February, he realized that defense would be the 49ers’ strength. He also realized quickly that Alex Smith could be the quarterback he needed. Though Alex wasn’t signed, they came to an informal agreement just before the lockout, so he could give him the playbook and Alex could conduct his own workouts with receivers, building a bond for the season.
3. He shares the credit. After the stirring win over the New Orleans Saints, he gave Greg Roman credit for calling the run on which Smith scored the go-ahead touchdown and quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst credit for calling the winning pass play.
4. He’s a great motivator. Nobody outside the team knows what he tells players before the game or on the sidelines, but they believe. The 49ers have played at a consistently high level for almost the entire season, which is very unusual. Just ask the Green Bay Packers, whose only regular-season loss was to the much weaker Kansas City Chiefs.
5. He’s a great game manager. All season long, the media critics harped on the 49ers’ conservative game plans, and the willingness to settle for field goals. Harbaugh paid no attention because he knew his defense could contain the other team while the Niners were kicking field goals. He was interested in wins, not style points.
But when it was important for the 49ers to be aggressive, in the playoff game against the Saints, they were. A field goal would have given them the lead late in the fourth quarter, but he went for a touchdown and got it. On the last drive, with just a few seconds left on the clock, he could have gone for a game-tying field goal but instead, went for the touchdown — and Smith and Vernon Davis got it.
6. He knows exactly when to use a trick play. Against the Rams, he had David Akers pass instead of kicking a field goal, a play suggested by special teams coach Brad Seely. Michael Crabtree was wide open on the sideline, and he scored an easy touchdown. On third down against the Saints from the shotgun, Smith had the choice of going right or left. Seeing the blitz coming from his right, Alex ran left for 28 yards and the score.
All these traits were shown at Stanford, too, as Harbaugh resurrected that program. Now, the Niners are benefiting.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.