A brash new coach of a winning team can apparently make a few enemies. Harbaugh and the 49ers have been learning all about it this year.
The acrimony between Harbaugh and Seattle coach Pete Carroll is well documented as it dates back to their college years at Stanford and USC, respectively. Harbaugh's harsh handshake with Lions coach Jim Schwartz following the team's 25-19 win at Detroit in October became an instant youtube sensation.
And now, there is some definite intrigue developing between Harbaugh and Payton, who took the Saints to a Super Bowl championship two years ago and is bent on getting them back there again this year with a record-setting offense that has New Orleans on a nine-game winning streak.
The 49ers and Saints meet Saturday at Candlestick Park in the divisional playoffs, which will be a rematch of their Aug. 12 preseason opener in New Orleans.
That game is still a matter of discussion five months later because the Saints blitzed a mind-numbing 18 times in the first half, which resulted in six sacks of San Francisco quarterbacks and several jailbreak hits on quarterback Alex Smith, which forced two fumbles.
Smith was fortunate to emerge healthy from the horse-whipping he got that night.
"Trust me, it surprised me, too, some of the calls he made early," New Orleans safety Roman Harper said at the time. "I enjoyed it. It definitely speeds up the process of the quarterback."
Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is known for his frequent blitzes and his audacity. He threatened then-Vikings quarterback Brett Favre before the 2010 season opener.
"We have to send messages to every offense about how physical it's going to be when they play us. Those messages are out there, starting with No. 4," he said, alluding to Favre's jersey number.
There was a suggestion from Saints broadcaster Jim Henderson that Payton was miffed at Harbaugh for not calling him before that game to talk about substitution patterns. Henderson has stood by that remark this week as the subject has been revisited.
On a conference call with Bay Area reporters this week, Payton said that report was "bogus."
"I wish I was wearing a mic," Payton said. "Because I don't think I've ever turned to (Williams) and said, let's bring on the blitz now. Just think about the idea of that – this phone call, this mysterious phone call that we were expecting, is crazy. If there ever was a time in the preseason, it's usually the fourth preseason game that you might make a decision in regards to what you may or may not do. But I know Jim and certainly worked with his brother very well. It was a bogus report now and it's crazy we're talking about it."
Payton is friendly with John Harbautgh, who's the coach of the Ravens and Jim's older brother. Jim Harbaugh said he has no issue with Payton and that the conjecture about why the Saints blitzed so much in the first game is irrelevant.
"Have great respect for him," Harbaugh said of Payton. "I know some of the other coaches that are on the staff there. So, yeah good visits every time I've been around him. Professional."
When asked specifically if there ever was call to make a "gentleman's agreement" before the game, Harbaugh veered away from the subject. Sort of.
"Don't know anything about that," Harbaugh said. "You hate to deal with hypotheticals. What somebody might have said and what somebody didn't say. It really becomes irrelevant. Certainly not aware of any gentleman's agreement. Even asked my brother. ‘Is there some kind of gentleman's agreement that you call a coach before a preseason game?' And he wasn't aware of any. Even if there was, we wouldn't do it anyway. We ask no quarter, we give no quarter, and that's how we approach things. "
The players certainly remember, particularly left tackle Joe Staley, who probably didn't like to see his starting quarterback and good friend smeared all over the Superdome carpet.
"We kind of come to the sidelines and we're like, 'They're blitzing every play. We have a week-and-a-half of the offense in right now.' So we weren't expecting that, no," Staley said.
Not that the 49ers need any extra motivation, but the memory of that summer game will likely be fresh in the minds of San Francisco players when the teams kick off Saturday afternoon.
--- The most memorable Saints game for the 49ers occurred on Pearl Harbor Day in 1980. Behind Archie Manning, the winless Saints built a 35-7 halftime lead. In a display that would foreshadow the power of Bill Walsh's West Coast offense, the 49ers stormed all the way back and won the game in overtime on a Ray Wersching 36-yard field goal. Looking back over his 49ers career. Walsh said, "There were only two games that produced absolute euphoria. This one and the 1987 game at Cincinnati, when we scored on the very last play."
--- The 49ers might know Saints quarterback Drew Brees and running back Darren Sproles better than people think. Brees maintains an offseason home in San Diego, and he engages in workouts with other NFL players who live in the area including Sproles, 49ers safety C.J. Spillman and 49ers tight end Justin Peelle. "Brees was on Sproles from the beginning," Spillman said. "He really wanted him to come to New Orleans with him."
--- Tight end Delanie Walker imparted a little more information on the broken jaw he sustained in Seattle on Christmas Eve. Walker was getting up after a cut block when linebacker Leroy Hill kneed him in the side of the head. Walker's helmet came spinning off but he said he didn't feel any pain. However, he knew his jaw was broken when he couldn't close his mouth. He had his jaw wired shut and could only drink from a straw for 10 days. Walker said he's back to running and working out, but he still can't eat hard foods. "For some reason, I have been craving McDonald's," he said.
--- The 49ers could have an advantage in this game because Jonathan Goodwin, the team's center, spent the last five seasons with the Saints. Goodwin went up against the Saints defense and blitz-mad defensive coordinator Gregg Williams daily in training camp. "I know things but it doesn't guarantee me anything," Goodwin said. "I don't know what they are calling."
--- Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said he had a four-hour interview with Penn State officials over the phone. The school was interested in Roman as their next football coach. Roman was interested in the job but said he didn't think about it once he got into his preparations for the playoffs. "It came out of nowhere," Roman said. "I was sitting at my desk one day when the phone rang. I was honored."
--- Alex Smith is from San Diego and occasionally works out with Brees in the offseason when he's visiting his parents. Smith was asked if he believes he can match Brees' production. "I have no idea. I don't care," Smith said. "I'm looking to out-score him. He can throw for however many yards he wants to."
--- Roman admits that Smith is often misleading teams with his many audibles at the line of scrimmage. "A lot of what he says at the line of scrimmage, there's not really much going on there," Roman said. "It's making people think we're doing something when we are not. But there are times when we do that, that we are really doing something. Alex is the kind of guy that can handle that."
--- Smith often stays late with the offensive coaches discussing the game plan. "I told him next year, we'll get him to bed a little earlier," Roman said. "I told him when we get an offseason we can iron some of these things out."
--- With the 49ers thin at wide receiver, rookie safety Colin Jones has worked exclusively at wide receiver this week in addition to his special teams duties. "He's fast, he takes instruction well. He's a really good football player. We'll see. He makes progress quickly. He's versatile," Roman said. Jones is instrumental to the 49ers coverage units on special teams. He's often the first player down the field on punts and kickoffs, and while he doesn't make the tackle frequently, he causes the returner to adjust, which allows the rest of the defenders to converge.
--- The 49ers have increasingly relied on wide receiver Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis in the passing game. Roman credits Michael Crabtree's recovery from foot issues as one reason. "Vernon is really getting comfortable in our system and I've noticed that the last four or five weeks," he said.
--- Staley has noticed a difference in how Smith is functioning. "He yells a lot more," Staley said, and he often yells at Staley, his Pro Bowl left tackle. "I probably know him better than anybody," Staley said. "I also like to chirp a lot." Staley said Smith is constantly telling Staley to get back in the huddle. "He'll say Staley, what the (bleep) are you doing! Get back in the (bleeping) huddle."