Commentary

Decision-maker in chief

Jim Harbaugh leading 49ers his way; convention, fairness aren't issues

Updated: December 18, 2012, 11:09 AM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

There's something about Jim Harbaugh that makes you wonder whether he's putting everybody on. He's self-confident to the point of arrogance, and his public manner usually straddles the line between outright mockery and a brand of pretend stupidity that nobody's buying. He has no apparent interest in conventional thinking, or any kind of thinking that takes place anywhere beyond the confines of his own head.

Arrogance -- in the spirit of the season, let's call it potent self-assurance -- is a wonderful quality in an NFL coach. It might not be quite as welcome in other aspects of life, but it's damned near a job requirement in Harbaugh's chosen field. Only someone with Harbaugh's 100-proof brand of self-assurance would make the decision he did four games ago, and only someone with Harbaugh's straight-ahead vision would put his head down and forge on without a second thought.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesJim Harbaugh is leading this 49ers team his way.

Think about it: Harbaugh took a quarterback situation that was perfectly functional, a situation that took him to within a game of the Super Bowl last year and was significantly better this year, and tore it up. Alex Smith was playing the best football of his much-maligned and oddball career, completing 70 percent of his passes for a team that was 6-2 before he suffered a concussion in Week 10, and he hasn't played since.

How many NFL coaches would trade half their roster, right now, for the chance to have the quarterback problem Smith presented Harbaugh?

But that's the thing about Harbaugh. He just doesn't care. He doesn't care about Alex Smith, he doesn't care about the perception created when a guy loses his job because of a concussion and he certainly doesn't care if there are people out there who believe it's just not fair. Fairness, in general, is a concept reserved for those who don't get paid to play.

While most coaches are being criticized for their reluctance to make bold decisions, whether it's going for it on percentage-wise fourth-down situations or benching an underperforming, established player in favor of a younger one, Harbaugh took a good situation and risked destroying it for the possibility of creating a great one. It's completely against convention, against the book and so much against the conventional practice of stuffed-shirt NFL coaching that it might just be unprecedented.

(And this Sunday he gets to match up against Pete Carroll, the NFL's other reigning doesn't-give-a-damn iconoclast. They have a history, of course, from Stanford-USC days, but they've never stood sideline-to-sideline in a game that means quite as much as this one. Rub-it-in fake punts and unnecessary two-point conversions for everyone! Should be fun.)

Harbaugh's gambit is working, too. San Francisco is 4-1 with Colin Kaepernick in charge, and Sunday night's win over the Patriots, sketchy as it was at times, leaves you shaking your head and admitting -- grudgingly, maybe -- that Harbaugh is just self-assured enough to put a kid in a crazy position and have it work out just on the strength of his will. When you strip sentiment from the equation -- and that seems to be Harbaugh's best asset -- you can see what he sees: Kaepernick's skill set is far more conducive to big-time, win-the-Super-Bowl-now success than Smith's.

There remains a healthy debate in the Bay Area about the 49ers' quarterback situation. Smith had two problems -- he took too many sacks and his arm strength was below average. Kaepernick has his flaws (we'll get there momentarily), but his feet are fast enough to outrun the pass rush and his arm is strong enough to out-throw the coverage.

Like most young quarterbacks, Kaepernick can be a bit of a mess. He fumbles quite a lot, which Frank Gore made sure didn't hurt him as much as it could have Sunday night. He struggles with the play clock, often calling timeout when a 5-yard penalty would be a better deal. But he's incredibly accurate and makes fewer bad decisions than most veterans -- and Andrew Luck, for that matter. And the velocity he gets on his passes is just a little Elway-like; pick up a regulation NFL football and you realize how tough it is to make it travel through the air like something far smaller and far rounder. It's a gift not many have.

But back to Harbaugh: He might appear to have an unconventional sense of decorum and interpersonal relations, but in the NFL it's all good until it isn't. There's a sense from people who have been around him that he's going to do two things: (1) win a Super Bowl; and (2) wear out his welcome, with the second coming shortly after the first. If and until then, he's betting it all on the river. As long as you're not Alex Smith, it's hard to ask for more.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com