This article was originally submitted on January 16, 2012 by Rodimus Dunn. Enjoy.
By and large I used to subscribe to the theory that there are no great coaches, only great players. Yes coaches can have a very significant impact on the outcome of games, but a coach isn’t going to win anything significant without a boatload of talent. Everyone used to say that Mike Shanahan was a genius … turns out he just had John Elway, Terrell Davis, and an amazing offensive line. Jimmie Johnson was good, but not without Aikman, Irvin, Emmitt, and maybe the best offensive line in history. Belichick knows how to do a lot of things well, but he’s got no rings without Tom Brady, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Rodney Harrison (remember he coached the Cleveland Browns prior to his stint in New England … his record there was 36-44). My opinion was completely turned on its head when I saw the San Francisco 49ers defeat the New Orleans Saints last night. Jim Harbaugh is the reason the 49ers won the game, not his players.
Everyone is well aware of the 49ers 1980s glory and recent stint of mediocrity. Harbaugh inherited a talented but directionless squad and turned them into a force to be reckoned with. Interestingly enough, the talent isn’t as awesome as people generally think it is, and is actually worse than it was even 1-2 years ago. If one looks at the 49ers on offense, the only players who would start on another NFL team are Vernon Davis and Frank Gore. And in all actuality the elephant in the room is that Gore is nowhere near the back he was a few years ago. Looking at the stats doesn’t tell the whole story. His yards and yards per attempt are in line with his career averages, but if one watched his games this year he got the bulk of his yards on 1-2 big carries in each game, but was more or less bottled up more than usual the rest of the game. Furthermore, he only had 17 receptions all season, which is even more disappointing considering he also had 7 drops, and that he averaged 51 receptions per season his last 5 years. The receivers are a complete joke (anyone who thinks Crabtree is a #1 receiver is dead wrong), and the offensive line is average at best. All that being said, Harbaugh makes the team believe, he puts them in a position to be successful, and he makes sure they have a clear identity.
Belief is a powerful motivator in sports. There is no victory without the expectation of victory. Harbaugh took the 1st step by rallying around Alex Smith, pumping him up at every possible moment, and making his own assessment. No one thought the 49ers could win 13 games this year nor beat a red hot Saints team. No one considered Alex Smith a viable quarterback at this stage of his career. Smith and great will probably never be mentioned in the same sentence, but with a little bit of belief he was able to have career highs in yardage, completion percentage, yards per attempt, interception percentage, quarterback rating, and rushing yardage. He’s still Alex Smith (only above average accuracy, not a risk taker, not great against the blitz, sometimes skittish in the pocket), but with all the Harbaugh love and support he believed he was a winner and a team leader. Under the leadership of Mike Singletary players didn’t know where they stood from week to week; it’s hard to have belief when there is no evidence of it. Players reference Harbaugh’s loyalty, stoicism, and honesty all season long. All the players bought in, but it was most necessary with starting quarterback Alex Smith. Despite not even being under contract with the 49ers during the lockout, Harbaugh still referred to Smith as his quarterback. When the team drafted a QB with their 2nd round pick it seemed like a foregone conclusion he would be handed the mantle at the 1st bonehead play by Smith. Harbaugh stuck with Smith, the QB change never happened, and the rest is history.
Despite being outgunned by New Orleans, Harbaugh put the team in a position to be successful all game. On their 1st offensive series the 49ers showed seven different formations. This is amazing considering that the backup tightend (and 2nd best receiver on the team) Delanie Walker is hurt and the team literally has only three legitimate receivers (Crabtree, Kyle Williams, and Ted Ginn, Jr. Williams would be a 3rd or 4th stringer on any other team, and Ginn is fast, but can’t even catch a cold). Somehow on the last two drives Harbaugh was able to get the team’s one deep threat, Vernon Davis, matched up one-on-one multiple times. New Orleans didn’t blitz much in the 4th quarter, so this was quite a feat. The best call of the day was the designed QB run on third down that went for a 28 yard touchdown. Smith isn’t Mike Vick, but he’s pretty quick, and the play was completely unexpected. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is one of the best in the league, and he was outwitted by a guy whose biggest game was an Orange Bowl victory back in 2010. In the Mike Nolan and Singletary days the 49ers essentially lined up in the same two formations every play. It wasn’t difficult to scheme against them because everyone knew that Vernon Davis would run a seam route on every pass play … a complete waste of his talent. Davis burned New Orleans deep in the 4th quarter running a wheel route on one play, and on a fly route (split out wide by the way) later in the quarter. This is what coaching is about, putting the exceptional talent in a position to exploit their advantages. Singletary could have also used Davis in a variety of ways, but decided to let him run the same pattern all game, every game, for three seasons. Not to disparage a Hall of Fame player too muc, but Harbaugh obviously gets it.
It’s obvious from this one season in San Francisco and his time at Stanford that Harbaugh is all about identity. His teams are going to be power running teams with hard hitting defenses. When players believe, are put into a position to win, and have an identity to hang on to, positive things start to happen. Singletary helped make the defense tough, but Harbaugh gave them direction, and made the offense as tough. This may sound weird, but it really matters. Consider the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their identity used to be power football and hardnosed defense. That changed now that Ben Roethlisberger is the key guy. The defense is still tough, but on offense they play finesse football. That’s an identity mismatch. Green Bay won the Super Bowl last season with an opportunistic defense and a great offense. In the playoffs they were unguardable with Aaron Rodgers being awesome, AND James Starks getting 79 yards/game on the ground. This year the team’s leading rusher managed only 44 yards/game. How can the defense be tough when the offense isn’t? Ray Lewis implored his team to feature Ray Rice and not Joe Flacco. He understands that the team identity of being hard to face on both sides of the ball is integral to success (and that Flacco sucks). At any rate, teams know the 49ers are going to hit you in the mouth on offense, defense, and special teams. It helps build the 49ers belief, and it subconsciously can tug against the belief of their opponents.
Here is a video of what transpired in this picture: Pierre Thomas jacked up
Although it’s still a long shot, the 49ers still have a shot to win the Super Bowl, a year after going only 6-10, and somehow having a losing record in what was historically one of the worst divisions in NFL history. If the guys in scarlet and gold can actually claim the Lombardi trophy, it will be mainly because of the awesome coaching job of Jim Harbaugh. He has the team believing, he puts them in a position to be successful, and he has given them a solid identity.