Jim Harbaugh: Bling or Bust?

The San Francisco 49ers’ recent hiring of Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh brought lots of smiles to faces in the Bay Area.  After the unsuccessful tenures of Dennis Erickson (overall record of 9-23), Mike Nolan (overall record of 18-37), and Mike Singletary (overall record of 18-22), the news of the Harbaugh hire had Niner Nation wondering if the glory days of Bill Walsh were set to re-emerge. While Bay Area columnists like Mark Purdy have been quick to dismiss any comparisons between Walsh and Harbaugh[1], I would argue that Harbaugh’s offensive pedigree (both at the University of San Diego and Stanford) coupled with his willingness to reinstate the West-coast offense suggests that a Walsh-like system is at least more likely to emerge now than at any other point thus far in the 21st century.

For those unfamiliar with the 49ers’ new head coach, Jim Harbaugh grew up in the Bay Area and attended Palo Alto High School, before heading to the University of Michigan to play his college ball.  Then, after being drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1987, Harbaugh played quarterback in the NFL for a number of teams, including the Colts and Chargers, until 2001.  He then served as an offensive assistant and quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders, before getting his first head-coaching gig at the University of San Diego.  While there, he compiled an overall record of 29-6, winning 2 Pioneer Football League Championships in 3 years.  In 2006, Harbaugh replaced Walt Harris as the head coach at Stanford, and turned around a slumping Stanford program, boasting an overall record of 29-21 (including two 2nd place finishes in the Pac-10) in four years.

Now to evaluating the hire…

The Pluses

1. Harbaugh is an offensive mind.

The San Francisco 49ers have not hired an offensive-minded coach since Steve Mariucci (unless, of course, you count Denny Erickson as an offensive mind).  Erickson aside, though, Nolan and Singletary were both known for their defensive prowess.  Their defensive mindset, however, did not jive well with well-respected offensive coordinators (namely, Nolan with Norv Turner, and Singletary with Mike Martz).  The result: 6 different offensive coordinators over Alex Smith’s 6-year career.

Unlike Nolan and Singletary, Harbaugh brings an offensive mind to the head coaching spot.  In his first press conference as the 49ers’ new head coach, Harbaugh pledged to reinstate the West Coast offense, stating, “Absolutely we will install the West Coast offense in San Francisco, the birthplace of the West Coast offense.”  Moreover, he brings with him from Stanford a pro-style offense which borrowed heavily from Walsh’s West Coast style.

2. Harbaugh grooms quarterbacks.

A quarterback himself both at Michigan and at the pro-level, Harbaugh has specialized in grooming quarterbacks since entering the coaching ranks.  While in Oakland, he helped reinvigorate the quarterbacking career of Rich Gannon.  Moreover, while at Stanford, he groomed Andrew Luck, a quarterback that almost all draft experts had going 1st overall in the draft, until he elected to return to Stanford for his senior season.

Beyond just grooming quarterbacks however, Harbaugh also acknowledges the importance of the position – something (ironically enough) not recognized by his immediate predecessor.  During his two-and-a-half year tenure in San Francisco, Mike Singletary repeatedly claimed that the quarterback is not the single most important position on a team.  And, well, Singletary’s record speaks for itself.  As for Harbaugh, his answer was quite the opposite: “Everybody’s role is important. But the quarterback does touch the ball every single play. Maybe I’m a little biased, but it is the most important position on a football team. It’s the most difficult position in all of sports.”

3. Harbaugh adds offensive prowess while keeping Singletary-esque fire.

Let’s give credit where credit is due.  Despite being a poor game-manager, Singletary did bring fire and discipline to the sidelines.  But he probably took it one step too far.  Mooning the players and straightening out Vernon Davis were positives, but him taking the discipline “shtick” too far was best exemplified in the final game of the season, when he was seen engaging in a shouting match with then-quarterback Troy Smith.

Fortunately, Harbaugh, at least at the college level, has proven to be a better game manager than Singletary.  Plus, he brings the right kind of fire to his team.  He is less of a disciplinarian and more of a guy who pumps his players up.  That is to say, his fire results in more positive energy than negative energy.

The (Big) Minus

1. Harbaugh lacks NFL coaching experience.

What do Nick Saban, Dennis Erickson, and Pete Carroll all have in common?  They’re all coaches that made the jump from the college game to the Pros.  And all of them met with very little success in the NFL, despite having illustrious careers as their respective college programs.  There’s no doubt the college game differs drastically from the NFL, and that many respected names have misjudges how difficult making the transition would be.

So will Harbaugh just be another name added to that list?  Let’s hope not.  I think his success will largely turn on the 49ers being able to recruit a solid QB as well as a strong group of assistant coaches.  With DC Manusky appearing to be on his way out and Mike Johnson unlikely to remain the offensive coordinator, Harbaugh must fill these vacancies with NFL-proven coordinators.  If he does, and the 49ers are able to do better than A. Smith at QB, the future looks bright for Niner Nation.


[1] From Purdy’s January 9th article in the San Jose Mercury News: “Walsh was cool jazz. Harbaugh is Metallica. Walsh liked to motivate his players with quiet psychology and occasionally with sarcastic challenges. Harbaugh likes to pump up the adrenaline and promote man-to-man combat. Walsh cleverly jousted with the media. Harbaugh likes to dictate his own terms.”

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9 Responses to Jim Harbaugh: Bling or Bust?

  1. Flying Haque says:

    I think the best thing for the Niners is that Harbaugh is an offensive minded coach. The only reason Alex Smith had something like 15 offensive coordinators in 5 years (that could be a slight exaggeration) is because their head coaches didn’t know offense, and when the team struggled (due to their own ineptitude), they had to blame somebody. I also think Alex Smith is really unlucky. He had great success in the spread offense, but it killed the Niners running game. A West Coast offense could have utilized both of them. As a Cardinals fan, I hate the hire and was hoping you guys would select Josh Mcdaniels

    • Let me ask you this — do you think the 49ers can succeed under Harbaugh with A. Smith at QB, provided he has the same OC for the next 3 yrs?

      • Flying Haque says:

        I think quarterback development, especially when they’re first in the league, is so dependent on external factors. I think it might be too late for Alex Smith, but if he had been drafted by Harbaugh and started his career with him, who knows what could have happened?

  2. Money says:

    Enjoyed the article, Sheilz.

    Two things: first, I am not sure (nor am I suggesting you are saying this) that implementing the West-Coast Offense is some golden ticket to turning the 49ers around. I agree Harbaugh will bring much needed stability, leadership, and intensity, but I caution 49er fans to table their optimism for a couple more years. While this team will be competitive in a very weak division, I do not see them making real noise until Harbaugh gets a chance to build his team through the draft and free-agency. While the 49ers have some strong pieces in place, I still think they have to address the quarterback and cornerback positions. Further, they need their young offensive line to mature really quickly and increase their depth at the running back position. Either way, I agree with “Flying Haque” as well as the distinguished author, who’s prose have moved me like the breezy winds of Nantucket, the 49ers seem to be headed in the right direction.

    Second, technically Carroll worked his way up the college coaching latter, but did not become a head coach in college until after doing it in the NFL (jets/ patriots in the 90s). So he really made the fall from the pros to college (trojans 2000-2009) and then the jump from college back to the pros.

    Other notable failures making the college to pros jump: Steve Spurrier, Bobby Petrino, Lane Kiffin … BUT look on the bright side, two college coaches made the jump and won Super Bowls –not to mention, they ravaged the 49ers franchise in the process– Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer, I digress.

    • In response to your point about the WC offense, I guess my point was just that having A system is better than having no system (as was the case under Nolan/Singletary). Sure, WC does not necessarily equal Super Bowls, but it’s a step in the right direction, as far as the offense goes.

      I agree with you on some of the holes we need to fill. Although I think most people expect the 49ers to take a QB in the 1st round, I’d be content to wait until the 2nd round and take P-Peterson from LSU (CB) if he’s still available when we’re up to pick.

  3. Anoop says:

    Success always requires a good defense, and while I agree with the offensive benefits of Harbaugh, the Niners did a pitiful job of living up to the pre season hype of having “one of the best defenses in the NFL.” I don’t know how they will fix that, especially with Harbaugh’s strong focus on offense. Presumably, they’ll spend more time and energy (and draft picks) doing so. They may make the playoffs due to the weak NFC west, but I don’t know if they’ll be “successful.” Anyway, just my two cents…

    • Flying Haque says:

      Something I’ve noticed watching the Cardinals play over the last couple of years, is that some defenses respond a lot better when the offense plays well. I have no stats to back this up, but I’ve watched most of the Cards games for the last four years, and I’ve noticed that they always seem to play better when the offense was playing well. There are some defenses (Jets, Ravens, etc.) which lead the cue for the offense, but neither the Cardinals over the last few years, nor the Niners are those kinds of teams. This is just something I’ve noticed, not something I have any stats to back up with.

  4. EastCoast Bias says:

    I’m very interested to see what Harbaugh’s strategy is going to be heading into the draft. I, personally, hope that we have seen the last of Alex Smith. Although some might contend that he has too many offensive systems to learn and no consistency, to me, he does not inspire the team like say (Rodgers, Ryan, Flacco).

    Anyway, in a world where Smith is gone, what are your thoughts on the Niners getting Locher from UW on the cheap and Harbaugh grooming him? Granted he had a very poor senior year, he was poised to go #1 in this year’s draft had he come out. I think Harbaugh might be able to groom Locher. Locher offers size and running ability. Moreover, if Harbaugh is looking to bring a West-Coast system to SF, the short and quick passes are a very good way to break a QB into the NFL. Thoughts?

    • East Coast Bias —

      For one, I think you’re right on Alex Smith. Now that he’s a free-agent, it would surprise me if the 49ers management would keep him around (even in a back-up capacity).

      As for Locker, I’ll say a couple of things. First, I wouldn’t be so sure that we would be able to get Locker “on the cheap.” If he goes in the 1st round, he’s not going for cheap, and I think it’s unlikely that he’s on the Board when we’re up to pick in the 2nd round. Remember, there’s a lot of teams with needs at the QB position (Carolina, Buffalo, Arizona, Tennessee, to name a few), and Locker’s still relatively high on the QB list in this draft. The only names I put ahead of him (for sure) are Gabbert, Mallett, and Newton (if he goes).

      I think the idea of taking a QB is a good idea in the draft, but it’s not necessary. If we’re able to go get a Kyle Orton “on the cheap,” then we might be better off trying to address the CB position with our 1st round pick and wait on a QB till next year. But either way, whether we draft a QB or not, I don’t think we should make the same mistake we did with Smith and throw him in there right away. I think we need to grab a veteran “on the cheap” in free agency, and let the young QB watch and learn (a la Rodgers and Favre).

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