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Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Harbaugh's big risk will pay off

By Jeffri Chadiha
ESPN.com

The San Francisco 49ers are going to win the Super Bowl because they have a dynamic offense, a great defense and the experience that comes from suffering a heartbreaking defeat in last year's NFC Championship Game.

But that's not all. They're going to win because their coach, Jim Harbaugh, won the biggest gamble of this NFL season. He stunned plenty of people when he replaced starting quarterback Alex Smith with second-year backup Colin Kaepernick shortly after midseason. Now those same skeptics are realizing Harbaugh knew precisely what he was doing.

That move is worth focusing on because this postseason is once again reminding us how much nerve matters in the quest for a championship. A team can have everything on paper. It can have all the necessary regular-season achievements, including the double-digit win total and a locker room filled with Pro Bowlers. But it can't push deep into the playoffs if a coach makes the wrong decision in the toughest situations.

John Fox
John Fox has joined the ranks of coaches who discovered that the cautious choice isn't always the wise choice.

We saw as much when Denver Broncos coach John Fox decided that 31 seconds and two timeouts left in regulation weren't enough reasons to let quarterback Peyton Manning take a shot at leading his team on a potential game-winning drive. The Broncos wound up suffering a 38-35 double-overtime loss to Baltimore. The Atlanta Falcons -- given similar field position and time -- managed to set up Matt Bryant's game-winning field goal in their 30-28 win over Seattle a day later. The Broncos were faced with the chance to go for a victory on their home turf. Fox later explained that his decision was based on that fact his team was still reeling from surrendering a game-tying 70-yard touchdown pass in the final seconds.

It's not that Fox didn't have a valid reason to go so conservative in that moment. He has certainly won enough games to earn respect for his rationale. It's just that such decisions in tight playoff games rarely lead to victory. They can slowly suck the confidence out of a team and tell the opponent that doubt, no matter how subtle, is slowly seeping in on the other side of the field.

Fox isn't alone. Coaching greats such as Marty Schottenheimer, Bill Cowher and Tony Dungy all made similar mistakes by playing it safe in critical moments of their careers. Even Harbaugh has won with a conservative combination of a strong run game and rock-solid defense. But his decision to give Kaepernick the job after the young quarterback ably replaced the injured Smith during a Nov. 19 win over Chicago was the stuff of genius. That move alone gave his team a dimension that was visible in its 45-31 playoff win over Green Bay on Saturday.

It would be an understatement to say Kaepernick dominated the Packers that night. He made the Green Bay defenders look as if it was the first time they had played together as a unit. He ran for 181 yards, an NFL playoff record for a quarterback. He threw for 263 yards, including a handful of on-the-money darts that should have reminded observers of Dan Marino in his prime. Kaepernick basically showed everybody why Harbaugh believed in him so much in the first place.

Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick
Jim Harbaugh took the biggest risk of the NFL season when he went with Colin Kaepernick. Will he reap the biggest reward?

No one would have faulted Harbaugh for giving the starting job back to Smith. It would have been the politically correct move in a world where plenty of people preach that no player should lose his job because of an injury. Smith had blossomed under Harbaugh's tutelage, going from a punch line in San Francisco to a player who led the league in passing before sustaining a concussion against St. Louis on Nov. 11. Smith had led the 49ers to the brink of the Super Bowl last season. He was capable enough to take them there again.

We now know that Harbaugh saw in Kaepernick the ability to take his team even further. That's what the coach was betting on when he made that decision. Harbaugh spent 15 years as an NFL quarterback, which is long enough to know that backbreaking plays mean everything if you're truly seeking a championship. Smith gave the 49ers a solid game manager who could win by avoiding mistakes. Kaepernick gave the team a dangerous game-changer who could win with a highlight reel of memorable moments.

Harbaugh took a huge risk with his team. He might have divided the locker room. Instead, Harbaugh trusted his gut and rolled the dice. Don't think his willingness to go for broke hasn't mattered to his team.

As good as Kaepernick was during the regular season, Saturday's win was the most telling evidence that Harbaugh did the right thing. This was bigger than baffling the Bears' defense on a Monday night or leading the 49ers to a huge win in Kaepernick's first start in New England. This was about a young quarterback who had two weeks to hear the hype and feel the pressure that comes with playoff football. If you think that's overstating the case, just listen to what people are saying about Houston's Matt Schaub today or how they belittled Atlanta's Matt Ryan when he lost his first three playoff games.

Kaepernick's confidence partly stemmed from his coach's confidence in his talents. Harbaugh's players realize that he isn't afraid to do whatever it takes to give them a chance to win. That kind of faith matters plenty during intense, gut-twisting playoff moments. It's the difference between a team that reinforces its resolve in tight situations and one that stiffens in the most critical of circumstances.

We know the Patriots have that mental edge because Bill Belichick isn't afraid to tackle a daunting fourth-down situation. We can see it in the Baltimore Ravens as well; Harbaugh's older brother, John, fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replaced him with Jim Caldwell in the season's final month. But it's the younger Harbaugh who has most benefited from his courage these days. He followed his instincts at a time when he could have played it safe. Three weeks from now, the 49ers will be thrilled he did exactly that.