Life as a 49ers fan – and why Harbaugh is changing it
Before I begin, a quick hello. I’m John Porter, a 22 year old 49ers fan from Preston, England. While I’m quickly plugging/introducing myself, I’m also a coach at the Manchester Titans, bringing american football in all its glory to Manchester.
Anyway, moving on to my first column. Basically, I’ve been a 49ers fan since around 1998. Supporting this team has often made me a source of mockery, particularly since I actually started being able to follow the team properly (through Sky and the Internet), since 2004, otherwise known as the cellar-dwelling years (which led, directly or indirectly, to Alex Smith – more on that later). You will notice that 2004 refers to the time when the team was run by Terry Donahue, a GM so professional he took up residence in Los Angeles and did most of his work from there, and Dennis Erickson, the poster child for ‘college coaches that should just stay in college’. After finally achieving what was seemingly Donahue’s dream, via many years of striving for mediocrity, and taking up residence in the NFL’s toilet in 2004, both Terry Donahue and Erickson were fired. Could things get much worse? No, but they didn’t get a whole lot better either.
To be fair, like most bad and abusive things, there were chasms of light in the darkness. Under the next coach, Mike Nolan, things took the odd step forward. There were even a few times when we were on the playoff bubble, but ultimately, it fell apart. One of the main reasons for that was the players seeing through the smoke and mirrors of his gladhanding with the press, and realising that, really, while he could talk the talk, on the field, his teams rarely walked the walk. That’s even without mentioning his propensity for dividing locker rooms (his comments on Jonas Jennings and Alex Smith, for example). Therefore, it came as no great surprise when the players finally became weary of it, and stopped playing for him, and stopped caring about the words he said – not before, as far as I am aware, the NFL’s only experiment with a D that basically chose – by coaching decision – not to stop the run. (Forever a victim of the Big Sub defense).
So he was fired, and after an interim spell, replacing him was the ultimate force of nature, Mike Singletary. There’s no doubt he made his presence felt, very early and very loudly. To this day, I WANT WINNAZ has become a phrase that brings 49ers fans out in hives. At the time, however, there can be no doubt that it was impressive, bombastic, and unmistakeably raw and real. We certainly lived in hope for a while there – first of all he dealt with the big ego problem in the locker room (Vernon Davis), and gradually, restored some belief in the team. But the cracks quickly showed. No offensive imagination, rows with players (Smith, again) and a seeming increasing detachment from reality with each press conference that went by. ‘I’ve gotta look at the film’ is yet another cliche that 49er fans will be familiar with from the former coach, Singletary. It therefore, again, came as no great surprise, when after much bombast, pomp, circumstance and ‘we’re going to win the NFC West’ proclamations, the team crashed and burned again.
After all this, no 49er fan wanted to believe that anything positive could be done by the front office. However, after an extremely short coaching search, and drama to rival The Bachelor (incidentally, our most successful coach in the time I’ve been watching before Harbaugh, Steve Mariucci, was reportedly fired while watching this show), a new hope was hired. Jim Harbaugh, recent Orange Bowl winning coach of the Stanford Cardinal . And through a combination of blue-collar work ethic, interesting statements, unconventional ideas, and rumbles in the jungle with Jim Schwartz, the team was dragged to respectability, then success, and then an unprecedented run to the NFC Championship game. You all know this. You all know how it ended. For most fans, a heartbreaking loss in the NFC Championship would be enough to want to forget the season forever. But even now, I get flashbacks, and the good memories. Slowly pushing the old ones out. For the last year, after the horrors of Erickson, Nolan and Singletary, I genuinely feel like one season with Harbaugh, heartbreaking loss or not, has been like therapy. But when analysing it, what really changed?
First off, the solving of the Alex Smith conundrum. There is no doubt that the fate of Alex Smith caused the fate of the two previous coaches, at least in part. Nolan questioned his heart, and lost a fairly large percentage of the locker room as a result. Singletary continued his coronation as a public embarrassment by having a shouting match with him live on Monday Night Football, before going on to replace him with Troy Smith, among others (I’ve blocked out the memory of that season. Was it David Carr? Brain just told me it was). Strangely, for Harbaugh, this was unlikely to be an issue – Smith was a free agent, and the team could be expected to start afresh, rebuilding around a new quarterback. However, having chosen to keep him, he went about doing something no one seemed to have done before – actually putting him in position to succeed. While I still don’t believe Smith is a Superbowl winning QB (more on that, maybe, in a future column), there’s no doubt in the change in both his demeanour (the Smith of 2005-2011 trashtalking?) and play since Harbaugh arrived. Not only has it lifted him, it seems to have lifted the entire franchise.
Secondly, in game and player coaching. This barely needs explaining. Players who looked clueless and lost under Nolan/Singletary, being led by coaches who looked clueless and lost, suddenly were replaced with people who knew their jobs, knew their assignments, and could execute them. If they couldn’t, there was no ‘looking at the film’ or excuses, or big talk – they went out of the lineup. One great example is Shawntae Spencer. Having started for as long as I can remember, last season he barely sniffed the lineup. Why? Because the coaches didn’t feel he was capable of playing in the system. While I was a fan of his, I have to say that the decisions being made on performance, not reputation, be it on the coaching staff or on the playing staff, made me jump for joy. By virtue of Harbaugh’s arrival, the franchise finally saw a system and opinions formed by both an increase in accountability and an emphasis on perfection, and it brought the correct results.
But frankly and finally, the biggest difference I would identify between the two previous coaches and Harbaugh is less about the Xs and Os on the field, but comes down to personality, in essence, how they are and/or want to be viewed, not only by their own fans, but by the rest of the league. Mike Nolan, while wanting to be the man and leader, the single voice and the cult of personality at the top of the 49ers, always gave off the vibe to me of a used-car salesman, or a local by-election candidate for your constituency. I always used to describe him – and I vividly remember this, as it was one of my better moments of analysis – as the David Brent of the NFL. The reason being that he struck me as the boss from hell each time he spoke, or did something publicly – meaningless soundbites, meaningless statements, and a personality that turns people off in a hurry. Not exactly good qualities for an NFL head coach to have. Compare that with Singletary, who probably could qualify – easily – as a cult of personality leader, but who had little idea to do anything else, and was resistant to change. Some would say, having looked at his offensive schemes, resistant to evolution in the game, even. The summation of all this is that these two men were everything Harbaugh is not – they wanted to be people they weren’t, or bend people to their own will. They made excuses, made exceptions, and tried to fit everything around their image of themselves and the people who followed them. The franchise followed that. No one was made accountable, or held up against standards. The 49ers continually rotted, like a fish, from the head.
Now the head is Harbaugh. Without doubt, the man has his quirks (if Crabtree really does have the best hands in the NFL, then I’m Dutch), but the fact is, he is a football coach. Unapologetically, unswervingly, and unremittingly. There is no airs, no graces. The team gets well prepared, goes out, stays competitive and gives 100%. But more so than that, the guy with his hands on the controls is prepared, and understands his job. Not thinking about his next press release, not the next motivational stunt, but the next down, the next battle, and how to win. There is no room for anyone who doesn’t follow this line, and there never will be.
I can’t say that this season will match, or better, the mark he and his team set themselves last year. The schedule will be a lot tougher, the teams a lot better prepared. But with the man we have at the helm, I know we’ll be up there, and at least worth watching. After the last few years, that’s all any real 49er fan can want. No more statesmen, no more motivational speakers – it’s just football. Man on man, and if we’re better than they are, then we’ll win. Look at the roster – anything’s possible. That’s why, prediction wise, I have this for the 2013 season – continued recovery. If that’s the case, there’s only one man responsible (maybe two, including Trent Baalke) – Jim Harbaugh.