Commentary

Others whiffed on Harbaughs

Brothers were considered for other top jobs before Ravens, 49ers landed them

Originally Published: February 1, 2013
By Adam Schefter | ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- Long before the country focused in on the Harbaugh brothers, other teams did.

The first team to interview Jim Harbaugh for an NFL head-coaching job was the New York Jets. Four years ago, in an airport in Arizona, Jets owner Woody Johnson and three of his lieutenants spent hours meeting and discussing New York's head-coaching job with Harbaugh, according to sources.

They were the first ones to identify and interview Harbaugh for an NFL job. The Jets thought Harbaugh was dynamic, energetic -- but not quite ready. So they went with Rex Ryan instead.

The Detroit Lions also contacted Harbaugh to gauge his interest in returning to Michigan, where he attended college, sources said. But the conversations with the Lions never advanced far before Detroit offered its job to Jim Schwartz and Harbaugh signed a contract extension with Stanford.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
Jason O. Watson/US PRESSWIREThe 49ers weren't the first NFL team to take notice of Jim Harbaugh at Stanford.

And then, the day after Harbaugh signed his extension, the Kansas City Chiefs weighed in, seeing whether the Stanford coach would be interested in leaving, sources said. The irony was that Harbaugh's wife, Sarah, is from Kansas City. Had the Chiefs called 48 hours earlier, before Harbaugh gave his word and signature to Stanford on an extension, he might have been enticed. But the Chiefs were a little late, a delay-of-game penalty that would haunt them. Harbaugh stayed at Stanford, and Kansas City hired Todd Haley.

Any of those three teams -- the Jets, Lions or Chiefs -- could have hired Harbaugh ahead of his time, before he was ripe. They correctly identified him, just didn't act in timely enough fashion. The 49ers did, luring Harbaugh to San Francisco before the Dolphins could bring him to Miami.

And if those moves leave those fan bases shaking their heads, think of what's happening at Boston College and UCLA. Back in January 2007, Boston College narrowed down its head-coaching candidates and, in the end, opted to hire Jeff Jagodzinski over Eagles special-teams coach John Harbaugh.

But John Harbaugh had another opportunity as well. He was a finalist for the UCLA job in December 2007. But as much as UCLA liked Harbaugh, it liked Rick Neuheisel even more and hired him instead.

[+] EnlargeJohn Harbaugh
AP Photo/George WidmanBoston College and UCLA decided not to hire John Harbaugh when he was the Eagles' special teams coordinator.

Before they became the celebrated coaches they are today, just shy of Super Bowl XLVII, the Harbaugh brothers first were repeatedly rejected. How much would NFL teams and colleges like a mulligan on those decisions today?

Not to single out the Jets, but which NFL franchise has been more crossed than theirs? They once wanted but missed out on drafting Southern Mississippi quarterback Brett Favre, once watched Peyton Manning return to Tennessee for his senior season when they had the No. 1 pick, and once witnessed Bill Belichick resign as head coach of their organization as he was attending the news conference that was supposed to announce his hire. Now, Harbaugh can be added to the list of Jets whiffs.

And there's a lesson in there for all these teams and colleges that embark on coaching interviews at the end of each of their seasons. Sometimes the men who are hired are not as capable as the ones who are bypassed. Sometimes teams believe they are making the right choice, but the only way it can be verified is through time. And sometimes teams make as many mistakes as the head coaches who lost their jobs.

Like drafting players, hiring coaches is a crapshoot. Sometimes teams nail it, and other times they flub it. The Jets, Lions and Chiefs made questionable decisions, as did Boston College and UCLA. The 49ers and Ravens, who square off Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII, did not.

Who made better moves than they did? Nobody.

On to this week's 10 Spot:

1. Undrafted impact: Sometimes the men who mark this game are not exactly the usual suspects. Super Bowl history is strewn with players whom teams once didn't want and then, ultimately, could not win without. As ESPN colleague Trey Wingo noticed this week, undrafted free agents have had some of the biggest impacts on the Super Bowl. Kurt Warner, the quarterback with the three highest passing yard totals in a Super Bowl, was an undrafted free agent. Jake Delhomme, the quarterback with the record for the longest Super Bowl pass, was an undrafted free agent. Willie Parker, the running back with the record for the longest run in Super Bowl history, was an undrafted free agent. James Harrison, the linebacker with the record for the longest return in Super Bowl history, was an undrafted free agent. It gives hope to the 26 undrafted free agents in Super Bowl XLVII -- including Baltimore's Vonta Leach, Brendon Ayanbadejo, Jameel McClain and Justin Tucker, as well as San Francisco's Chad Hall, Michael Wilhoite and David Akers -- that any one of them could make a play that brings his team a world championship and himself immortality. It also goes to show the college players eligible for this and other years' drafts that not getting selected does not prevent a player from making teams and achieving dreams. Others have done it, and more will have the chance to do it Sunday.

2. Bo knew Harbaughs: Few people would enjoy the upcoming Harbaugh matchup any more than the late, great former Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, whose influence will be all over Super Bowl XLVII. Father Jack Harbaugh served as an assistant on Schembechler's staff for seven years, during which time John and Jim both starred in Ann Arbor youth league and high school football. Jack Harbaugh learned about coaching from Schembechler, as did each of his sons, especially Jim, who went on to play at Michigan and develop his own unique relationship with Schembechler that Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom documented in 1986. Last season, Jim Harbaugh even turned Schembechler's well-known "The Team" speech into a mantra for the 49ers, citing it in news conferences leading up to the 2011 NFC Championship Game. Of all the people who made a mark on Jack Harbaugh and sons John and Jack, few made a mark as lasting as the one left by Schembechler, who would have reveled in this super matchup.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsIf he'd landed in San Francisco instead of Denver, Peyton Manning might have been getting ready for the Super Bowl instead of playing in the Pro Bowl.

3. Peyton ripple effect: At this time last year, San Francisco was mulling whether to pursue free-agent-quarterback-to-be Manning, going so far as to watch him work out in North Carolina and then put him through a physical. Jim Harbaugh later downplayed his team's interest in Manning, telling reporters: "It's silly and it's untrue. It's phony ... the perception that we were pursuing [Manning]. We were evaluating. I've said it all along that Alex Smith has been our quarterback. There's no scenario, other than Alex choosing to sign with another team, that we would consider him not as our quarterback."

Everyone sees how that turned out. But everyone also sees that San Francisco went further without Manning than Manning went without San Francisco. It would have been interesting to see how much football, and this season, would have been different if Manning had signed with the 49ers team that represented his best chance to reach the Super Bowl rather than the Broncos. Had that happened, Smith might have wound up moving to Miami, Colin Kaepernick might not have found his way into San Francisco's starting lineup and into this game, and Denver might have been forced to keep Tim Tebow rather than trade him to the Jets, who endured a tumultuous season full of turmoil. Manning's decision impacted that many teams and individuals. Last offseason's biggest storyline was the team that Manning would choose. But one team he didn't actually turned out to be better for it.

4. NFC's super trail: Based on recent NFL seasons, there's a strong possibility that Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans or Tampa Bay will represent the NFC in the next Super Bowl. In each of the past seven seasons, including this one, an NFC team from the division that played its non-division games against the AFC East during the regular season wound up in the Super Bowl. The 49ers played the AFC East this season, but they just continued a trend that started back in 2006, when the Bears played their non-division games against the AFC East and advanced to the Super Bowl. In 2007, the Giants did it; in 2008, the Cardinals did it; in 2009, the Saints did it; in 2010, the Packers did it; last season, the Giants did it again. And this season, San Francisco made it seven straight. Next season, the NFC South is scheduled to square off against the AFC East in the regular season, which assures that a South team has a real chance of winding up in Super Bowl XLVIII.

5. Laying it on the lines: No players are discussed less yet are more important than this game's offensive linemen. The Ravens' offensive line has dominated this postseason despite not being used as a unit on one snap during the regular season. But before the playoffs, Baltimore lined up left tackle Bryant McKinnie, left guard Kelechi Osemele, center Matt Birk, right guard Marshal Yanda and right tackle Michael Oher. Since then, the unit has played every snap together this postseason while allowing Joe Flacco to be sacked only four times on 99 drop-backs, an average of one sack for every 24.8 drop-backs. That's considerably better than the one sack per 16.3 drop-backs that Baltimore's offensive line allowed during the regular season. The 49ers' offensive line -- left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati, center Jonathan Goodwin, right guard Alex Boone and right tackle Anthony Davis -- has had the same five starters for each of the 18 games it has played this season. San Francisco's line is one major reason the 49ers have averaged 236 rushing yards in their two postseason games, the highest postseason average since the NFL champion Chicago Bears in 1941.

6. How history favors 49ers: San Francisco finished this season second in the NFL in scoring defense, which gives it a decided advantage in Super Bowl XLVII. Teams with top-two scoring defenses are 16-5 all time in the Super Bowl when not facing another top-two scoring defense, including eight straight victories. Meanwhile, Baltimore's scoring defense finished tied for 12th in the NFL, and the Ravens' defense has looked leaky at times this postseason. It has allowed at least 398 yards in all three of its playoff games while becoming the only team in NFL history to win three postseason games when allowing 375 or more yards in each of them. If a strong defense is a strong indicator of a Super Bowl advantage, then the edge goes to San Francisco.

7. Ravens' cap is tight: Baltimore is pressed up against the salary cap enough in 2013 that many Ravens could be playing their final game with the team Sunday. As it stands, the Ravens are projected to be about $5 million over the salary cap, but that's before either slapping Flacco with the $14.6 million franchise tag or signing him to a long-term deal. Once Flacco is retained -- and he will be -- Baltimore will be closer to $20 million over the salary cap, which means it will not be able to keep all its free agents and will have to cut players to free up salary-cap space. Two prime candidates are wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones, whose departures would free up a combined $9 million against the salary cap. Ray Lewis' retirement will save $3.8 million more. Baltimore can restructure the contracts of Terrell Suggs, Yanda and Haloti Ngata to save $7 million. But Baltimore will want to try to keep some of its unrestricted free agents such as defensive backs Ed Reed and Cary Williams and linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe. Still, it'll be impossible to bring back everyone. Some yes, most no. It all means that Lewis is hardly the only Raven playing his last game with Baltimore.

[+] EnlargeNaVorro Bowman
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellLinebacker NaVorro Bowman is under contract with the 49ers throught 2018.

8. Niners' future is bright: One of the best parts of this run from the 49ers' standpoint is this: San Francisco is set up for seasons to come. San Francisco has only two starters not under contract for next season, safety Dashon Goldson and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who is not an every-down player. Every other 49ers starter is locked and loaded for at least the next two seasons, and some for plenty more. For example, Iupati, Davis, Chris Culliver and Frank Gore are signed through 2014; Aldon Smith, Ray McDonald, Vernon Davis, Boone and Carlos Rogers are signed through 2015; Patrick Willis and A.J. Jenkins are signed through 2016; Staley and Ahmad Brooks are signed through 2017; and NaVorro Bowman and Andy Lee are signed through 2018. Even coach Jim Harbaugh has three more seasons after this year. These 49ers are not just good. They're good for years to come.

9. Start spreading the news: The fact that next season's Super Bowl will be played in New Jersey sets up some potentially delicious storylines in advance of the big game. Next season's NFC champion will spend the week at the Giants' practice facility in East Rutherford, N.J. in preparation for Super Bowl XLVIII, while next season's AFC champion will spend the week at the Jets' practice facility in Florham Park, N.J. Imagine if one of the Giants' division opponents -- the Redskins, Cowboys or Eagles -- wins the NFC championship and spends the week in its rival's building. The Giants would have to clean out their belongings well in advance. Even better, imagine if the Patriots won next season's AFC championship and got to spend the week in the Jets' building. Two organizations that like each other less than any other two organizations in sports would be forced to share the Jets' training complex. It would be one of the oddest scenes in a crazy New York week that could feature many of them.

10. A nice bonus: As if winning a conference championship game and earning a trip to the Super Bowl weren't victory enough, there also are financial rewards. Big ones. Each Ravens player already has made an extra $84,000 in playoff bonuses -- $22,000 for a wild-card win, $22,000 for a divisional playoff win, $40,000 for a conference championship win. Each 49ers player so far has made $62,000 in bonuses. And plenty more is at stake. A Super Bowl win is worth $88,000 for each player, while a Super Bowl loss is worth $44,000 per player. So by the time this postseason is complete, each Ravens player will have earned $128,000 if Baltimore loses the Super Bowl or $172,000 if it wins. Each 49ers player will have earned either $106,000 or $150,000 depending on the win or loss.