Run the ball + stop the run + adapt readily + emphasize fundamentals + play strategically + build a brand + have a horseshoe
Let's break it down.
Run the ball
Pretty self-evident. And easy enough at Stanford when you had Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor and a line with three eventual All-Americans in Chase Beeler, David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin. The Niners, however, have been another ball of wax entirely, with the offensive line's struggles in recent years well-documented. Yet Frank Gore has 1,202 rushing yards on the season, his best total since 2006, with the lowly Rams still on deck. The play-calling must be superlative (and we saw plenty of evidence of this at Stanford, with the staple play of power Exhibit 1A), as must the coaching of technique.
Stop the run
Harbaugh took the 2010 team's core strength – defending the run – and strengthened it further. The squad allows an NFL-best 75 rush yards per game. Through 14 games, they hadn't allowed a rushing touchdown all season, tying an NFL record…
…But then, in Game 15, under a coach from USC, a tailback from Cal managed an opponent's first rushing touchdown of the season, and the first 100-yard game in 37 tries against the Niners. No matter. Their greatest strength neutralized, San Francisco kicked a late field goal, forced a last-minute fumble and hung on yet again, 19-17, against Pete Carroll, Marshawn Lynch and a hot Seattle Seahawks squad fighting in vain for their playoff lives. The Niners pulled it out because they stopped an eminently stoppable Tarvaris Jackson, who threw for just 163 yards on 28 attempts, and made Seattle run the ball 27 times to get their 126 yards. They didn't stuff the box with 10 guys to preserve the 100-yard streak; they adapted and got the win. Similarly, at Stanford, you saw Harbaugh convert tight ends into de facto when the receivers lagged, and saw the Cardinal running on third and sevens with Toby, because they had faith that he could pick it up.
Adapting also means tailoring your scheme to your personnel. Offensively, the team has defined the playbook and leaned heavily enough on Frank Gore to take the pressure off Alex Smith, a man consistent in his inconsistency. Smith, a former No. 1 pick who has struggled ever since, hasn't thrown an interception all month, which is a minor miracle in of itself, as long-suffering Niners fans know. With Andrew Luck, Chris Owusu, Doug Baldwin and a stable of pro-caliber tight ends, Harbaugh and Greg Roman weren't afraid to chuck it downfield on the Farm. When I was in the stands to watch Niners visit the Redskins, however, I don't think Smith threw it more than 15 yards past the line all day.
None of the above points are independent, with each point tying into the Bo and Woody-style football Harbaugh grew up with. Playing with physicality. Running the ball. Stopping the run. Not turning it over. Being solid in special teams. (Both David Akers, 42-of-49 on field goals this season, and Andy Lee, netting 44 yards per punt, are putting together Pro Bowl-caliber seasons.) The Niners have lost at home only once, in overtime in Week 2 against playoff contender Dallas, and Stanford was similarly superlative at home. The Niners haven't scored more than 27 since Oct. 9, but they're 8-2 in that span, in large part because of their mastery with these basic building blocks of football.
The Niners are 6-2 in games decided by a score or less. Part of the reason is plain luck. Part of reason is an inevitable byproduct of being 12-3 – you're going to have a good record in close games, blowouts, home games, road games, night games, division games, games against teams beginning with the letter "S", however you slice it. However, part of this mark in tight games is strategy too. Part of the strategy is the complexity of the playbook, including the pre-snap shifts. At Stanford and now in ‘Frisco, the Harbaugh special is something like running three tight ends in motion, only to run them all back into the original formation, partially to see if the defense will show the slightest hint -- and, in my opinion, partially just to mess with the defense and give them one more thing to worry about. Why not?
Part of the success in tight games is due to choking the life out of games, by running and running with a lead to drain the clock, prevent anything stupid from occurring, and leaning on the D to close it out. Part of the success is identifying and acquiring talent – we saw this in spades in recruiting, we've seen it in 49er free agent signings, such as cornerback Carlos Rogers, and we're starting to see it in their draft classes too. Part of the success in close games, though, is the plain genius we loved the guy for on the Farm.
Exhibit 1A came on a fourth and two in last week's squeaker over Seattle. Harbaugh took a timeout and publicly and histrionically (as only he can) lit into his offensive line on the sidelines, in full view of the television cameras. Seeing this tantrum, Seattle naturally sold out to stop the run, and so the Niners' play-action pass was the rock to the Seahawks' scissors. Harbaugh reversed expectations to his advantage at Stanford as well, often leaning on a strong running game to open up the pass. Toby threw a key play-action touchdown pass late against Notre Dame. Stanford busted the Orange Bowl open by going play-action to the tight ends in the second half after using them to run block in the game's first 30 minutes.
Part of Harbaugh's strategy, as well, is putting himself in positions to succeed. It's probably not a coincidence that he chose to take over a 1-11 Stanford team with 5-7 talent and a 12-0 academic reputation, location and campus. When he bumped up the quality of the talent to the quality of the infrastructure, the record followed, and so he looked like a genius. By the same logic, it's probably not a coincidence that of all the NFL jobs he could have taken, Harbaugh chose a team that had been underachieving for a long while in the NFL's weakest division. He could have done an equally masterful job in a lot of other cities, such as Miami, but those teams wouldn't be anywhere close to serious Super Bowl contenders.
Build a brand
The consensus at Stanford was that Harbaugh was a dick, but he was our dick, and he was genuine in his dickishness – what you saw was what you got. While it's probably not the personality most mothers aspire to see in their children, Harbaugh is nothing if not consistent in who he is, which I think has helped him in manifold ways.
On the field, while he adapts on a micro level, based upon down or distance or personnel, the team's identity and his goals as a coach do not waver: win the battle of the trenches, be physical and let the rest come from there. Off the field, Harbaugh always displays bravado and never backs down, whether it's a "what's your deal" to Pete Carroll, or the I-still-don't-know-exactly-what with Jim Schwarz and the Lions (and talk about a juicy potential playoff matchup.) It's the "who's better than us" cheer at San Francisco and the Tunnel Workers Union at Stanford. It's possibly my all-time favorite story about the guy, Jim stopping his day for 45 minutes to watch someone direct traffic because Harbaugh appreciated talent whenever and wherever he saw it, including in a man's ability to shepherd along cars and trucks at an out-of-order stoplight.
He may eccentric but, more importantly, he's real. As a result, players buy in, coaches remain loyal, and players and coaches alike stay around, leading to much-needed continuity. It's hard to estimate the intangible qualities of leadership, and the difficulty and importance of uniting a group of 55 or 85 players and however many coaches and support staff. Harbaugh appears to be a master here though. He dines regularly with his kicker, punter and long snapper, players traditionally overlooked on a football squad. The 49ers are one of the league's only teams to travel its practice squad players to road games, all the better to build cohesion.
Have a horseshoe
Ultimately, though, Harbaugh's success is still inexplicable. His first year at Stanford, he beat USC and Cal, conservatively a 10,000-to-1 parlay based on the +42 and +19 lines. I'm not denying that the guy is legitimately good – he is. However, he has been genuinely lucky as well. Say every year there are five or 10 up-and-coming coaches talented enough to make their own luck, but the pieces fall into place to allow only one of them to do so. Harbaugh's lottery ticket was the winner.
Maybe that's just as well. If we could explain Jim Harbaugh's success fully, that'd strip away all intrigue.
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However it's happened, the Niners are 12-3, a record only the Green Bay Packers can best, and looking at a first-round bye in the playoffs. The Packers are vulnerable if the fourth estate is to be believed, and if I'm San Francisco, the rest of the NFC scares me far less than the AFC's Baltimore/ Pittsburgh/New England triumvirate. If the chips keep falling the right way then, Jim Harbaugh could be on the verge of true greatness.
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