Commentary

Harbaugh driving a 49ers revival

The rookie coach's attitude is contagious, and his plan is already producing results

Originally Published: October 17, 2011
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Jim Harbaugh was over the top. He should not have over-zealously slapped Jim Schwartz's back or shook his hand so hard. He is a coach in the National Football League and needs to be poised, even after a big win.

The saying is: Act like you've been there before.

But after San Francisco came from behind to beat the previously unbeaten Detroit Lions, Harbaugh's players said they loved his postgame exuberance. A chest bump? An obscenity? Those are just details the league will have to investigate.

The 49ers' locker room was abuzz after a 25-19 win bumped their record to a surprising 5-1. They had a victory and yet another reason to love their rookie coach. Harbaugh burns to win as much, if not more than, the players do. They could see it in the way he celebrated the victory, how he slapped hands with them and pumped his fists.

It has taken time, but Harbaugh has won over his players by being charismatic yet firm. He encourages his guys to play fast and loose but to be accountable. He is interested in the smallest detail of how a snap, hold and kick works on a field goal attempt, yet he has his eye down the road several months, if not several years. This season's success might be happening ahead of schedule, but it is not happening by accident.

[+] EnlargeSan Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioJim Harbaugh was pumped up following San Francisco's victory over Detroit.

To a man, the players point to Harbaugh as the reason. He is their facilitator, their emotional motivator. The Niners used to never win on the East Coast. This year, they've come from behind to win games at Cincinnati, Philadelphia and now Detroit.

The franchise that never could win close games in recent seasons hung around Sunday and did not panic. When the offense had to make a play on fourth down in the fourth quarter to win the game, it did. Last weekend the Niners blew out Tampa Bay at home, 48-3. This weekend they won their fourth game of the season by a touchdown or less.

"A year ago, there were games like this we lost," said San Francisco tight end Delanie Walker, who made the game-winning 6-yard grab on a slant from quarterback Alex Smith that gave San Francisco a 22-19 lead with less than two minutes to play. "I can't say could we win these games [last year], I just know from the past, we would've lost. So that's the turnaround this year. We're a lot more mature. The confidence level is high here, and we're just playing physical football."

"I think all of it comes from Coach, just the way he acts, the way he talks to us, the way he treats us. You could see it. It's coming out this year."

Harbaugh has been able to manage his quarterback, and put him in a position to win with a competent running game that gained 203 yards Sunday. The Niners' defense kept Calvin Johnson out of the end zone for the first time this season and held him to a relatively quiet 113 receiving yards. They sacked Matthew Stafford five times and forced him to misfire on 22 of 50 passes.

It was a grind-it-out game, and San Francisco was able to do it. The Niners got a huge 40-yard punt return from Ted Ginn Jr. that gave them the ball at the Detroit 35-yard line with just over 5:00 remaining, trailing 19-15. Smith drove San Francisco to the Detroit 10 with a series of running plays.

After throwing consecutive incompletions to bring up fourth-and-goal from the 6-yard line, Smith calmly found Walker, who muscled his way across the goal line for a score on a play that was upheld after a lengthy review.

"That was a really emotional game," Harbaugh said afterward.

Of the altercation with the equally fiery Schwartz, Harbaugh said: "I was just really revved up, and it was totally on me. I shook his hand too hard, and I really went in. It was a strong slap-grab handshake … A little too hard, the handshake."

Someone asked Harbaugh if he was agitated after the game. Harbaugh laughed. "No, I was not agitated, believe me. Not agitated. Very happy. Very happy with the win. Great thrill of winning. Great feeling of victory. I'm really proud of this football team."

Later, after Harbaugh talked about surviving 15 penalties, including a handful of false starts inside the raucous Ford Field, and winning on the road, someone asked him if so openly showing his emotions might eventually hurt him.

"Ah, we'll see," Harbaugh said. "I don't think I'm that emotional. I think, like I said, I am very emotional about the outcome and the way our players play. I'm really proud of them. Hopefully you can understand that."

"When you work with a group of guys, you're on a team, you're trying to do something special and to see your guys go out there and perform that way, yeah, I do get emotional about that. It fires me up. It fires me up a lot. I'm not going to apologize for that. If that offends you or anybody else, then so be it."

"If that offends you or anybody else, then so be it." That is part of the Jim Harbaugh vernacular. He has pet sayings he so frequently recites that his players can rattle them off, mimicking Harbaugh's tempo and tone. There is "soldier up," which Harbaugh tells his players when they are obviously tired or hurting. Another is, "Who's got it better than us?" which Harbaugh asks his team after every San Francisco win. (His players reply in unison, "Nobody.")

And there is the money phrase Harbaugh uses when he realizes he might have been too blunt. It goes to the heart of who he is.

"With him, it's not open for debate," San Francisco long snapper Brian Jennings told me last week. "This isn't a democracy. He's not negotiating. He's saying, 'I don't care how you feel.' He's very matter-of-fact and hard, and at the same time he's very charismatic and keeps it light. He's like this awesome, interesting, charismatic guy with absolutely no soft or punk about him."

No punk, but plenty of spark. The Niners players saw that from their head coach Sunday. It gave them yet another reason to love him, even if Harbaugh could stand to be a little more humble after a big win.

INSTANT REPLAY

What I learned from Week 6:

[+] EnlargeJim Schwartz
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesJim Schwartz, who is a bit brash himself, needs to grow thicker skin.

Jim Schwartz can't cry about a hard handshake. As much fist-pumping and smack-talking as Schwartz has done this season, he can't turn around and complain when another young coach having early success gets a big win. There's a code of professionalism, as Schwartz noted after the game, but he also violated it. He needed to take the loss with a bit of humility, not go after his counterpart for being overly exuberant.

They got their interpretation of the "process of a catch" rule right this week. Otherwise, Schwartz might have really gone nuts. Johnson was famously denied a touchdown in Week 1 last season when he lost the ball after seemingly completing a touchdown catch, and Nate Burleson was under review Sunday.

Early in the fourth quarter, Burleson caught a 5-yard pass from Stafford, got both feet in bounds, then lost the ball when he used it to brace his fall against the netting in the back of the end zone. Under review, referee Mike Carey ruled that Burleson had control of the ball, two feet down and enough time to make a football move. This time, on a play eerily similar to one that cost the Lions a game last year, the ruling was a touchdown.

Tampa Bay might be young, but the team's got character. A week after getting blown out by the Niners, the Buccaneers bounced back with a 26-20 win over New Orleans. They allowed Drew Brees to throw for over 350 yards, but they got a huge stop when outside linebacker Quincy Black intercepted Brees in the end zone with just over three minutes to play.

Josh Freeman was able to run out the clock, and now Tampa Bay is 4-2 and tied atop the NFC South with the Saints. It was a huge, gut-check win for a team that needed it.

The Eagles can stop the run. Shocking, I know. Philadelphia held Washington to 42 rushing yards, including just 22 by Ryan Torain, who blistered St. Louis for 135 yards in Week 4.

After the game, Eagles coach Andy Reid deflected questions about an altered defense, but the team did deviate from defensive line coach Jim Washburn's wide-9 technique on obvious rushing downs to try to contain the run. The defensive ends moved inside the offensive tackles instead of playing outside. That tweak, coupled with starting Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman at safety, helped an Eagles team that desperately needed a win.

The talk about Rashard Mendenhall being soft is ridiculous. Mendenhall missed last week with a hamstring injury, but returned Sunday for Pittsburgh and rushed 23 times for 146 yards and a touchdown against Jacksonville. He had an 8-yard touchdown run and a 68-yard rush to the Jaguars' 2-yard line that set up a field goal. Mendenhall might not get to 1,000 yards this season like he has the past two, but he is running behind a makeshift offensive line and remains the Steelers' best option.

SLEEPING IN THE OFFICE

Issues that will keep coaches awake this week:

[+] EnlargeMike Shanahan
Geoff Burke/US PresswireMike Shanahan has painted himself into a corner where his quarterback situation is concerned.

Mike Shanahan has no choice now. Shanahan benched Rex Grossman after Grossman threw his fourth interception against the Eagles, and now Shanahan must move on to John Beck.

Grossman has thrown nine interceptions this season, tied with Carolina rookie Cam Newton for most in the NFL, but his interception percentage of 5.5 is the highest among qualifying quarterbacks. Beck wasn't bad in relief, completing 9 of 15 passes for 117 yards and rushing for a touchdown. But will Shanahan want to turn to Beck with the Redskins' next two games on the road, at Carolina and at Buffalo? This isn't exactly the greatest timing.

Note to Tampa Bay: Do not kick off to Devin Hester in Week 7. The man has 17 returns for touchdowns in his career, including a 98-yard kickoff return against Minnesota on Sunday night. Why kick to him? Hester is only 28 years old. At this rate, he's going to grab a football out of the sky and run it straight to Canton, Ohio.

Oakland has a huge decision to make at quarterback (and no Al Davis around to make it). The Raiders are two games over .500 for the first time in nine years, but if they are going to stay in the hunt for the AFC West, they will have to find a suitable replacement for Jason Campbell, whose season ended Sunday when he broke his collarbone.

Kyle Boller could manage for a week or two, but he isn't the answer for the rest of the season. Neither is Terrelle Pryor. Oakland needs to try to coax a trade for Kyle Orton out of Denver, because Cincinnati isn't going to trade Carson Palmer. The Raiders' other option is to sign David Garrard off the street, which presumably would be an easier transaction. Oakland has Kansas City this weekend and then the bye. It would be wise to bring someone in this week.

St. Louis has real problems. Maybe coach Steve Spagnuolo saw it coming. Before the season started, Spagnuolo was preaching patience and told me that just because the Rams won six more games in 2010 than they had in 2009, that did not mean the upward progression would continue in 2011.

Boy, was he right. After losing at Green Bay 24-3 on Sunday, St. Louis is last in the NFL with just 49 points and is the only team averaging fewer than 10 points per game. The Rams have scored just four touchdowns, by far the fewest in the league, and Sam Bradford has been sacked a league-high 21 times.

Perception is reality with the Jets. In trading Derrick Mason to Houston last week, Rex Ryan and the Jets showed they are just like everybody else in the league. They aren't player-friendly. They are out for themselves.

Jets players know Ryan sent Mason to the Texans for a conditional seventh-round pick because Mason ran his mouth. It wasn't about giving rookie Jeremy Kerley more playing time. The only reason you deplete your wide receiving corps is for self-preservation. That is what Ryan did.

RANT AND RAVE

A coach who will be under review today:

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
Stew Milne/US PresswireJason Garret has questions to answer after his strategy backfired against the Patriots.

Jason Garrett played not to lose. With a three-point lead over New England and the ball with 3:30 left, Garrett went conservative. He called consecutive run plays that netted minus-3 yards. Then the offense committed a false start, which pushed the Cowboys back into a third-and-18.

After Tashard Choice gained 8 yards, Dallas punted, giving the ball back to Tom Brady with 2:09 remaining. It gave Brady plenty of time to do his thing. Brady completed 9 of 10 passes on the drive, including an 8-yarder to Aaron Hernandez for the go-ahead touchdown that gave New England a 20-16 win.

"Whenever you get the ball into the hands of a player like Brady at home, you've got problems," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "We are up here on the field and we knew what the odds were, so we flipped a coin and it came up against us. We know what they are about, and we knew what our challenge was here."

The Cowboys needed to keep the ball out of Brady's hands. They needed to move the sticks. Maybe Garrett did not trust Tony Romo to protect the ball, but by going conservative Garrett let a game Dallas should have won slip away.

TWEET THIS

Notable tweets from around the league:

"Both coaches got Swag points from SJ13. Jim for being overly swagged with the handshake. & other Jim for not puttin up with Jim's Swagger OD" -- @StevieJackson13, Buffalo wide receiver Steve Jackson, on the tiff between Harbaugh and Schwartz.

"This dude @D_Hest23 never fails to impress. Wow" -- @LarryFitzgerald, the Arizona Cardinals wide receiver, after Hester's return touchdown against the Vikings.

Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.