As the quarterback of the Colts, Jim Harbaugh led his team to come-from-behind wins over the Chiefs and Chargers in the 1995–96 NFL playoffs along with a near upset over the No. 2 AFC seed Steelers. This earned him the nickname “Captain Comeback.” In my opinion, Harbaugh’s most brilliant comeback was last year. He took a team that was 5 – 10 in 2010 and turned them around to a 13-3 record. He altered the very culture that existed at 4949 Centennial Blvd in Santa Clara. His biggest impact has been how he has restarted Alex Smith’s career. Judging from what we’ve seen so far, 2011 was no fluke. Just how has this former QB turned Head Coach been able to make his mark?
The number one thing Harbaugh has done is simplify things for Alex Smith. No longer do the 49ers employ the predicable and elementary offense that was used by Jimmy Raye. Alex Smith is now able to be in an offense that has a rhythm. He is able to make easy reads. He has attempted over 200 passes without an interception (a 49er record). There is a degree of swagger with Alex Smith now. He is no longer the defeated man that he was under Mike Singletary. This week Jim Harbaugh joking referred to the resilience of Alex Smith by saying: “He’s tougher than a $2 steak.” That’s just one of Harbaugh’s many attempts to build up his once beleaguered QB.
Jim Harbaugh has also done a great job of circling the wagons. What I mean by that is he has brought the locker room together by adopting an “us against the world” mentality. He motivates his players with quotes that are strategically displayed throughout the locker room. Harbaugh has even challenged his players to present him with quotes that motivate them. His hard work mindset is shown by his post game attire which includes a mechanic’s style shirt with his name inscribed on it. The 49er locker room is completely void of the silly distractions that you see in other NFL locker rooms. The entire team is selfless. Look at how they rallied around Kyle Williams after the loss in the NFC Championship game. Noone pointed fingers and almost everyone stayed in the area for non mandatory off season conditioning.
A wise man always surrounds himself with people who know just as much if not more than he does. Jim Harbaugh is no different. His coaching staff consists of some of the best coaches at their respective positions. Vic Fangio has been an awesome Defensive Coordinator. Last year the 49er defense was among the top five overall defenses and had four players named to the All Pro team. No team in NFL history has allowed fewer rushing touchdowns in a 16 game season. Fangio’s defense led the NFC in points allowed per game (14.3), first downs allowed (267), opposing team’s QB rating (73.6) and yards per game (325.9). Fangio’s defense also contributed to setting an astonishing +38 turnovers.
This year the pass defense has improved already as shown by dominant performances vs the Packers and Lions thanks to the continued work of Defensive Backs coach – Ed Donatell. Coach Donatell is one of the most respected DB coaches in the NFL. Brad Seely is the best Special Teams coach in the NFL. Last year the 49ers didn’t allow a single return for a TD. Rick Gosselin named Seeley the Special Teams Coach of the Year in 2011. Harbaugh also retained Mike Solari and gave him the task of working with the 49ers offensive line which features three first round picks. The 49ers rely on the offensive line to establish a very physical presence from the start. Often times the 49ers bring in two additional offensive linemen in their jumbo or elephant formation. The 49ers are now a true contender for the Super Bowl.
There’s a different aura that is in the air. This is a far cry from the miserable years under Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary. The change in culture and attitude from 2010 to 2011 is a testament to how great of a coach Harbaugh is. Being named the NFL Head Coach of the Year in his rookie season is yet another display of his success. Rarely do you see a Harbaugh led team getting out coached or not being up for a game. As a lifelong 49er fan it is truly refreshing to see this franchise get revived by a coach with such an infectious winning attitude. 2011 was a really great year but I have a feeling 2012 has the potential to be an even greater one. WHO’S GOT IT BETTER THAN US??
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