49ers Have Struck Gold With Harbaugh

Jim Harbaugh is doing a phenomenal job this year and is leading the race for Coach of the year honors if he keeps the team playing at such a high level. There are many successful coaches that are in the NFL today but few have been able to get an entire franchise on the same page in the first season on the team. The 49ers are 10 years removed from the playoffs and seem to be on track to seal a first round bye for the first time since 1997.

Having Harbaugh calling the shots has done wonders for player morale in all aspects of the game, especially that of Alex Smith. Harbaugh put his faith in Alex Smith and offered him a contract and a chance to compete, which is all Alex Smith has done throughout his career. The Faith placed in the 2005 1st overall pick seems well placed with 2/3 of the season in the rear view mirror. Although the team is 29th in passing yards per game they are 9th in points scored per game with 23.8.

Let us not forget that Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has the defense playing at an elite level. The defense is allowing a league low 14.6 points per game and is the only team to not allow a rushing touchdown all season.

Harbaugh has gone on record saying that the 49ers spend more time than probably almost every other team on special team situations and that too has shown on game day. The 49ers average field position is near the top in the NFL. Ted Ginn Jr is a big important piece of the 49ers special teams and is a major factor for the terrific average starting field position. Special teams coach Brad Seely has done wonderful things in Cleveland with Josh Cribbs and now is having similar success with the pieces the 49ers have collected. Having a shorter field to work with makes things that much easier on Alex Smith and allows Harbaugh more flexibility in his play calls especially since David Akers has made all six field-goal tries from 50 yards or longer.

[caption id="attachment_152" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Special teams coach Brad Seely talks with Long Snapper Brian Jennings, Kicker David Akers, and Punter Andy Lee"][/caption]

It is superior coaching in every aspect of the game that has allowed the 49ers to keep up which seems like an unsustainable rate of victories this year. Looking at other top coaches in the NFL, very few have shared the kind of success that Jim Harbaugh is enjoying in his first campaign in the NFL.

Coach Team First Year Wins Losses
Belichick CLE 1991 6 10
Belichick NE 2000 5 11
Coughlin JAX 1995 4 12
Coughlin NYG 2004 6 10
Reid PHI 1999 5 11
Payton NO 2006 10 6
Tomlin PIT 2007 10 6
John Harbaugh BAL 2008 11 5

Looking back at some of the rookie seasons from current respectable NFL coaches reveals that there is usually a pretty poor success rate of getting the boat steered in the right direction so quickly. Some coaches are lucky enough to have strong core unit such as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin who inherited a team that was only a year removed from a super bowl win and was able to go on to win two division titles in a row.

Another successful coach on the list is Payton who inherited a team coming off a pitiful 3 win season in 2005. Payton took the job in a city that had been ravaged by hurricane Katrina the year before. Payton lucked out when the San Diego Chargers allowed Drew Brees to hit free agency after his shoulder surgery. The Saints took a shot on Brees despite speculation he wouldn't be the same. Brees and Payton have made a great combo, similar to that of Belichick and Brady (6th round pick) in New England. Two cases of coaches happening into elite QBs seemingly out of the scrap pile. The catalyst for their greatness however, is the coaching. The situations in New Orleans and New England are similar in the respect that both have an offensive minded gunslinger mentality. At least that is what they did to get the 4 Super Bowl wins between them. Now teams are catching on and forcing them into situations that don’t play to their strengths, both teams lack of running attack has kept them from getting the Lombardi trophy back in their hands and both teams have adjusted for that this year. This gunslinger mentality is part of the new age of the NFL. It seems as though most recent situations have only proven positively in a coaches favor when they are able to get a QB that is able to put up 300 yard games and carry the load on their shoulders from time to time, which is something Harbaugh has not had to ask of his QB this year and hopes he doesn’t have to either.

NFL wins are hard to come by and it usually takes a few years before even the best minds were able to get winning records. Having a strong defense helps in almost every case. Although success does seem to run in the family, John Harbaugh, Jim’s brother, had a great first season in the NFL in Baltimore. In the case of the Harbaugh brothers, both were implemented after disappointing losing seasons and somewhat low expectations for the next. In his rookie season as a head coach, John Harbaugh guided the Ravens to an 11–5 regular season record, which was good enough to qualify them for the playoffs as a wild card team. In the playoffs, John Harbaugh oversaw upset victories over the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans before losing for the 3rd time that season to the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the AFC championship game. John, like his brother Jim, had a defense that boasted one of the most terrifying front 7 on defense that the NFL has ever seen. Baltimore was lucky enough to find a QB and RB via the draft in the first 2 rounds of Johns first year, Flacco and Rice. Harbaugh had help in Baltimore for his first season when he managed to keep defensive coordinator Rex Ryan on for one more season before he went out seeking a head coaching job elsewhere.

John Harbaugh might be the closest comparison that can be drawn to Jim Harbaugh based off the players that were handed down to them but when it comes to coaching personnel, Jim Harbaugh decided to bring in most of his coaches from Stanford along for the ride. 49ers D-line coach Jim Tomsula was the only one to be held over from the previous coaches due to his knowledge and the respect he commands from his players. Both offensive and defensive coordinators are very familiar with Harbaugh from the time they spent with him at Stanford and know what it is he wants and how he goes about business.

Considering the lockout, most would assume that bringing in new coaches and a new system would mean even more time should pass before a system could be successfully implemented, but that is not the case in San Francisco. The players are young and ready to be molded and have their games perfected. Jim Harbaugh has lived life from one week to the next focusing only on improving and game planning for the next opponent on the schedule. He doesn’t give excuses, he tells it like it is and gives everyone an equal opportunity despite pay grade or draft position. He is also actively involved in the learning process for every position on the field. Whether that means helping the TEs with blocking technique or showing Alex Smith what is expected of him when executing roll outs, Harbaugh is hands on involved in bettering his team and the players are responding quicker than anyone anticipated especially considering the lack of an offseason.

Harbaugh is a man focused on getting the win for his team on any given Sunday despite how the stats look. That is evident from his lack of a vertical passing attack. Further evidence can be seen by looking at the Bengals game in which Harbaugh elected for an intentional safety by the punter on 4th down near the games end to waste out extra seconds before giving the ball back to the Bengals offense. He is a man of percentages and man who has almost finally determined who are the playmakers that he wants involved and how it is he can make the adjustments to get them involved, whether that means moving Crabtree from X receiver to Z or whether it is asking the tight ends to split out wide or even shifting defensive lineman and linebackers based on matchups. Harbaugh has been expanding his playbook the more he understands his players and what they are capable of. Now with WR Josh Morgan on IR, you can expect to see a lot more diversity in offensive personnel which will keep team guessing well into the playoffs. Teams will need to worry about covering everyone, even the offensive or defensive tackle going out for a pass in the flats. Making the most out of every player available on his roster has made Harbaugh stand out above the rest.

[caption id="attachment_151" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Harbaugh addresses the team after practice"][/caption]

Yes it is still mostly the Frank Gore show as in years past and opposing teams know this, but stopping it will be difficult with new blocking formations appearing on game day every week and with rookie Kendall Hunter averaging 4.3 yards per carry (slightly less than Gore with 4.5). Physical football on both sides of the ball has been something he implants on every team he has coached and the 49ers have been striving for that mentality for years and have it nearly perfected with Harbaugh pulling the strings. This is a team that is dangerous because it is still developing into its full potential, and as long as Harbaugh keeps instilling that mentality to his team, keep them humble, and keep them improving, the sky is the limit for this young talented team.

Back to the San Francisco 49ers Newsfeed