It wasn’t my intention to write this after week 4, but I wanted to get a full picture of the situation before putting final thoughts to paper, so to speak. This is the situation: One man has changed the San Francisco 49ers from a playoff contending team with a solid defence and an exciting offence to a team with an offence and a defence. That’s the nicest I can say thus far. Here are three things former head coach Jim Harbaugh (one man) did before leaving/being let go from the 49ers, in no specific order.
Examining the art of possibility
I remember seeing a clip of Harbaugh at the opening press conference he gave after being hired by the 49ers General Manager. He talked about the possibility of winning a Lombardi trophy and having what he called “unshakable confidence.” It’s one thing to say this out loud to a bunch of reporters when you’ve just inherited a team that’s gone through coaches, offensive coordinators, defensive coordinators (and the like) as if they were cans of Miller Lite. There’s plenty more where that came from they probably said (FYI, a lot of people drink Miller Lite at football games). It’s another thing to say it’s possible to win a Lombardi trophy with “unshakable confidence” and Alex Smith as your quarterback. Looking back I have a suspicion Harbaugh knew Smith was going to be the starting QB at the time. Harbaugh knew it was possible. The fans didn’t and neither did the press. I have another suspicion Smith didn’t know either. San Francisco’s record that year: 13 wins and three losses. The previous year: six wins and 10 losses.
Getting fired up
Harbaugh wore cleats on the sidelines, probably showered with his hat on and would absolutely lose it when a dubious call would not go the 49ers way. His reaction after losing challenge calls (asking the refs to take a look at a replay to see if they made the right call), which I doubt he won any, was particularly memorable. That gets a team fired up. The players didn’t have to look for story lines in the press to get fired up for each game. Their coach did it for them. And for awhile it worked. San Francisco dominated teams with a ground and pound run game and a defence that would fight for every play. I mentioned Alex Smith earlier, and that topic itself warrants its own piece, but at the time Harbaugh started coaching the 49ers, Alex Smith was unanimously dismissed as a flop. San Fran drafted Smith with the first overall pick in 2005 and after six seasons the 49ers didn’t make the playoffs once. Something changed in the seventh season. Enter Harbaugh.
He really wasn’t kidding at the first presser. Unshakable. During Harbaugh’s four years as head coach the entirety of the Bay Area had confidence in their team. The 49ers were talented, sure, but when a team is confident it almost doesn’t matter the caliber of players. That confidence is felt by opposing players and there’s a level of respect that’s afforded to those confident teams. It’s a confidence so strong you can even feel it watching a game on TV. There’s this feeling a team can always come back no matter what the deficit is. It doesn’t last forever and during the final season Harbaugh was in charge the 49ers struggled. Other teams got confident too and now the situation is, like I mentioned above, an offence and a defence. Some folks might say the 49ers aren’t as good anymore because they lost several key players and veterans. At that point it didn’t matter. Harbaugh was already gone and with him the spirit of the team. No Lombardi trophy, but they were damn close.