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Friday, November 4, 2011
The 49ers' Harbaugh a fashion icon

By Adam Schefter
ESPN.com

The failures of Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino now have been neutralized, at least partially, by the accomplishments of Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers. San Francisco is so far ahead in the NFC West that it's no longer a question of if the 49ers will win their division, but if they'll earn a first-round bye.

Just last week, one NFL executive said Harbaugh's success will make it easier for teams to go back to school to find a head coach.

Harbaugh has made hiring college head coaches fashionable again.

He has Sinatra-ed it, doing it his way. Harbaugh brought along his offensive and defensive coordinators from Stanford, whereas the last three college-to-NFL flameouts -- Spurrier, Saban and Petrino -- opted for experienced NFL coordinators. Harbaugh's defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, did have plenty of NFL experience, but he refined his game at Stanford and now has fielded the NFL's top-rated run defense.

But Harbaugh has been the conductor of the orchestra. Heading into Sunday's showdown in Washington, he has the 49ers four games up in the NFC West with nine games to go. At the season's midway point, he is the lead candidate for the NFL's Coach of the Year. And in the process he has shattered not just one widely believed notion, but two: that a rookie head coach would struggle after the lockout, and that a coach from college would struggle to make the transition.

Harbaugh has made it look easy. He has made 49ers president Jed York look prescient in his pursuit of the former Stanford coach. And maybe most impressive, he has squashed the stigma of hiring a college head coach.

On to this week's 10 Spot:

1. Midseason awards: Halfway through an NFL season that just as easily could have gone the way of the NBA, there have been some standout performances, worthy of the midseason awards.

  • Most Valuable Player -- Packers QB Aaron Rodgers: Simply the best player in football. Runner-up: Bills running back Fred Jackson.
  • Fred Jackson
    Running back Fred Jackson has become a favorite of Buffalo Bills fans.
  • Offensive Player of the Year -- Bills running back Fred Jackson: Might be the best all-around running back in football. "Our [No.] 22 equals the old [No.] 21," Bills cornerback Drayton Florence said, comparing Jackson to his former San Diego teammate, LaDainian Tomlinson. "I see flashes of LT in Fred blocking, catching, good in space and power." Runner-up: Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
  • Defensive Player of the Year -- Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis: He is back to engulfing wide receivers and winning football games. Runner-up: Packers cornerback Charles Woodson.
  • Offensive Rookie of the Year -- Panthers quarterback Cam Newton: Stunning. Jaw-dropping. Entertaining and iconic. Runner-up: Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.
  • Defensive Rookie of the Year -- 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith: Seventh in the NFL in sacks with 6.5, Smith has been a defensive difference maker. Runner-up: Broncos linebacker Von Miller.
  • Comeback Player of the Year -- Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith: One year after disappearing and nearly departing Carolina, Smith leads the NFL with 918 receiving yards -- 364 more than he had all of last year. Runner-up: Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
  • Coach of the Year -- 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh: He might make other head coaches mad, but he is making 49ers fans really happy. Runner-up: Bills coach Chan Gailey and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis.
  • 2. Draft day preview: No one will be watching Saturday's LSU-Alabama game any closer than the NFL. It will be a smorgasbord for NFL scouts. LSU's highest-rated, draft-eligible prospect is cornerback Morris Claiborne, this year's Patrick Peterson. Claiborne has ball skills and instincts that already have the NFL's attention. LSU also is loaded with talented underclassmen, including cornerbacks Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon, defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, safety Eric Reid, defensive tackle Michael Brockers, wide receiver Odell Beckham and running back Spencer Ware. Alabama also is loaded. Its top prospects are running back Trent Richardson and linebacker Courtney Upshaw. Other Alabama players drawing the NFL's attention include defensive tackle Josh Chapman, linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Nico Johnson, defensive backs Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron and Robert Lester, wide receivers Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks, offensive tackle D.J. Fluker and running back Eddie Lacy. Many of the players who will make their mark in this game already are being targeted at the next level.

    3. Panthers the big winners: When Andrew Luck officially decided to remain at Stanford, a feeling of dejection swept through Carolina, where the Panthers owned the No. 1 overall pick. Carolina was stuck with the controversial Cam Newton, who so many people around the NFL questioned and criticized before the draft. Yet even if Luck had turned pro, it is hard to imagine he could have matched what Newton has done for Carolina. Through eight games, Newton has passed for 2,393 yards -- more than any other rookie quarterback in history. Scouts continue to believe that Luck is the top quarterback prospect to come out of college in years, maybe since Peyton Manning. But there never has been a rookie quarterback who has produced or impressed the way Newton has.

    4. Change for the better: If Bengals owner Mike Brown had his way in April, he very likely would have drafted Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett instead of Andy Dalton. But as the Bengals' second-round pick approached, and as Dalton remained on the board past the picks of Indianapolis and Seattle, where many suspected he might land, Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden (among others) was instrumental in helping to change Brown's thinking. And it was a pick that helped change this, and future, seasons. Had the Bengals drafted Mallett instead of Dalton, they might not be taking a 5-2 record to Tennessee on Sunday, and they might not have been willing to trade Carson Palmer to the Raiders for two premium picks.

    Aaron Rodgers
    Aaron Rodgers has thrown 20 TDs and only three picks.

    5. Rodgers' run: Remember the type of season Kurt Warner had in 1999, when he shredded defenses and the NFL record book? Or the same type of season that Tom Brady had in 2007, when he did everything Warner did except win a Super Bowl? Well, Aaron Rodgers has been every bit as good this season. Rodgers has joined Warner and Brady as the only three players since the merger to have at least 20 touchdown passes and no more than three interceptions in his team's first seven games. While much of the quarterback conversation this season has revolved around Newton and Tim Tebow, Rodgers quietly has produced in a way few players ever have.

    6. That run-down feeling: Few teams in football have done a better job of stopping the run than Pittsburgh. And no running back in football has enjoyed more success against Pittsburgh than Ray Rice. The two meet again Sunday night in the game within the game in a matchup that could determine which team leaves itself better positioned in the AFC North.

    In its past 58 games, Pittsburgh's defense has allowed only three 100-yard rushers -- and Rice accounts for two of those performances. Rice rushed for 141 against Pittsburgh in 2009 and for 107 in this season's opener. Pittsburgh also surrendered 155 rushing yards to Arian Foster earlier this season, so if there ever was a time when the Steelers' linebacker-depleted run defense has appeared vulnerable, this might be it.

    7. Patriots' defense bottoms out: As the Patriots prepare to play the Giants on Sunday, they are grappling with something as uncommon as an October snowstorm (and yes, there was one of those last weekend). Whereas New England's defense typically has been one of the league's most reliable units, this season it has been anything but.

    New England now ranks last in the NFL in total defense and pass defense. Through seven games, New England has allowed 2,969 total yards, which is the fourth-worst defensive performance since the merger in 1970. The only teams that have allowed more yards through seven games were the 2002 Chiefs (3,087 yards), the 1976 Chiefs (3,058) and the 2005 49ers (2,991).

    8. Heading into the grinder: With a two-game lead in the tough NFC East, New York has given itself a cushion it might need. Few teams have a schedule as demanding as the Giants' in the second half. It starts Sunday at New England, then continues at San Francisco, home for the Eagles, at New Orleans on a Monday night, home versus Green Bay, at Dallas, home against Washington, at the Jets and home against Dallas. Moments after the Giants erased the Dolphins' lead and squeaked past Miami in Week 8, a reporter asked Giants coach Tom Coughlin how he would characterize the upcoming part of his team's schedule. "Let's just enjoy this one first," Coughlin said. "One at a time." The right attitude from a superb coach. New York has a long road ahead.

    9. What a kick: One of the little-noticed but quite significant stories this season is the frequency and success of long-distance field goals. It's startling, frankly. Through eight weeks, kickers have made 45 of 63 field goals of at least 50 yards this season (71.4 percent). If it continues, it will be the highest number and percentage of 50-plus field goals in NFL history -- by a lot.

    The highest percentage of long-range field goals was 62.7 percent in 2008, when kickers made 32 of 51 field goals from at least 50 yards. Kickers are on pace this season for 99 field goals of at least 50 yards. It's almost as if the ball is juiced.

    But it's not just on the 50-yard field goals. The success rate on field goal attempts of 40 to 49 yards this season is 78 percent, a rate that if maintained would be better than the mark of 74.5 percent, also set in 2008.

    And it has been an altogether impressive season for kickers. Through eight weeks, they have made nearly 86 percent of all field goals, which if maintained would better than the record of 84.5 percent set in 2008. The weather's getting cold, and kicks will be tougher, but to date, there never has been a season like this.

    10. One more year: The shorter kickoffs that got so much attention at the start of this season look like they could be in place next season, too, according to sources. The NFL would like to wait two seasons to see the full effects of the shorter kickoff and if it has accomplished what the league wants, which is to reduce the number of injuries and make the game safer. The competition committee is expected to take up the issue again this offseason, but chances are it wants a larger sample size of games before it decides whether to make the kickoff change permanent. Thus, the shorter kicks are likely to be back for one more season -- at least.

    The Schef's specialties

    •  Game of the week: Green Bay at San Diego: If San Diego wants to try to save its season, it needs to start doing it against the defending Super Bowl champions.

    •  Player of the week: Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer: He's expected to make his first start for Oakland against one of the league's weaker pass defenses (Denver's).

    •  Upset of the week: Washington over San Francisco: The key will be stopping Frank Gore, but if the Redskins can do that, they stand a chance. And if Washington goes to 4-4, it has Miami next week with a chance to go to 5-4.

    Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.