A battle of coaching masterminds between Jim Harbaugh and Bill Belichick

AP File PhotosMasterminds: Patriots coach Bill Belichick

AP File PhotosMasterminds: Patriots coach Bill Belichick

Jim Harbaugh picked up the “genius” tag faster than most geniuses, including “The Genius” himself.

Bill Walsh wasn’t considered a genius when the 49ers struggled through a 2-14 season in 1979. No one called Bill Parcells a genius after he benched Phil Simms for Scott Brunner during his first year at the helm in New York, a 3-12-1 campaign in 1983. And it’s easy to forget that New England Patriots boss Bill Belichick was canned from his first coaching gig in Cleveland 16 years ago.

Belichick is still the NFL’s reigning genius, with three Super Bowl rings in his pocket. But his team’s recent inability to win the big game is raising questions about whether his genius clock is ticking. At some point, the baton will be passed, and many think Harbaugh is destined to be on the receiving end.

This week’s showdown is overflowing with compelling plot lines: the Colin Kaepernick decision, Tom Brady vs. the 49ers’ defense, highly rated teams fighting for home-field advantage in their respective conferences. But the most intriguing matchup might be on the sidelines between the mastermind, Belichick, and his heir apparent, Harbaugh.

While the genius label is a little premature, it’s easy to understand why Harbaugh is receiving so much praise this early in his career. His quick rise through the football ranks is almost unprecedented.

Harbaugh took his first coaching job at the University of San Diego just a little more than eight years ago. In three years, he led the Toreros to two Pioneer League titles, compiling a 29-6 record in the process. Then he turned a 1-11 Stanford team into a national title contender before amassing a 23-7-1 record in his first 31 NFL games.

Like Belichick, Harbaugh is often referred to as an outside-the-box thinker and a master of deception. But he hasn’t been around long enough to cement his reputation with championships. This week’s game will be a good litmus test for how genius Harbaugh’s genius really is.

If anyone is insidious enough to hoodwink the second-year coach, it’s Belichick. He earned his stripes by baffling Peyton Manning at the line of scrimmage; you can imagine he has an ace in the hole for Kaepernick this week. Belichick will also benefit from having Brady in his corner.

But Harbaugh can buttress his image as football’s next great thinker by knocking off the Patriots at home, where they haven’t lost a December game in almost 10 years. If Kaepernick proves to be the X-factor with all the new folds he brings to the 49ers offense, tip your cap to Harbaugh for defying conventional logic like a true iconoclast.

On the flip side, if the 49ers lose because of Kaepernick’s inexperience, the word “hubris” might be better suited for Harbaugh than genius.

Of course, this is only a regular-season game; January will separate the champions from the pretenders. But if one team delivers a knockout blow, we’ll have a much better idea of whether Harbaugh’s really suited to carry the so-called genius torch.  

Paul Gackle is a regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner and also writes at www.gacklereport.com. He can be reached at paul.gackle@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.

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