SAN FRANCISCO -- If you want to best understand why Jim Harbaugh transformed the San Francisco 49ers, a dumpster fire franchise post Montana and Rice, into a Super Bowl contender, start with the heads of his players. That's where Harbaugh lives.
“He's a really convincing guy,” said 49ers tight end Vernon Davis. “We all believe in him.”
“He's a sincere coach that every player in here trusts,” said 49ers offensive lineman Joe Staley.
How has Harbaugh convinced the 49ers to follow him and his way? It's a simple and old school method, one that has worked in NFL locker rooms for decades, from the dynastic Packers to the undefeated Dolphins to Walsh's 49ers to Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys to Bill Parcells' New York Giants.
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Circle the wagons. Portray people outside of the locker room as a potential enemy, especially the media, and cause an already tight locker room to become even tighter. The result, last year and this season, is a team that believes in itself maybe like no other.
This week, according to several players, Harbaugh repeatedly pushed the notion to them that the Detroit Lionswere dirty players. That's the phrase I was told Harbaugh used—dirty. This again had a unifying effect. One player said the 49ers were infuriated with the Lions before even taking the field. It showed as San Francisco punished and bullied what was thought to be a tough, physical team.
In the game, Davis was poked in the eye by defensive end Cliff Avril. Afterwards, Davis said he was uncertain if Avril did it by accident or not. To me, that smacked of Harbaugh's message. “I got poked in my eyes,” Davis explained, “since I got poked I had to sit down. I don't know if it was intentional by Avril. I'm just not sure.”
What Harbaugh is doing isn't unique or original but he's as good at it as almost anyone. Johnson and Parcells would frequently use the media and other invented enemies to rally his players. Miami's Don Shula used an embarrassing Super Bowl loss to focus the Dolphins, using the notion that the world thought they were losers, to push the team to an undefeated season the following year.
Do all players buy into this? Of course not. But many football players are the greatest at creating boogey men and mythical enemies to motivate and coaches like Harbaugh are diabolically brilliant at helping players compose them. There is a fine line between motivation and nonsense and smart coaches like Harbaugh know where that line sits.
There are numerous examples of Harbaugh's smart and effective unifying tactics even if at times they seem silly to people outside the 49ers locker room. One of the best came during the Peyton Manningfree agent derby when the 49ers were in as hot a pursuit of Manning as any other team. That was a certifiable fact. Yet Harbaugh said the 49ers were only “evaluating” Manning not truly pursuing him. That was certifiable horse hooey.
Don't think this didn't have a positive effect on the locker room even if there were a few smirks. Or that Smith didn't notice the 49ers were exploring all options.
Harbaugh turned the whole Manning episode around and blamed the media. He even later blamed a diabolical world.
“That you can concisely, exactly say it how you see it and believe it, and then somebody can call you a liar, that would make me wonder about the shadiness of that person,” Harbaugh told ESPN at the time. “You know, the seediness, the diabolical world that somebody would live in that would think that another man would come right to his face and lie to him.
“You don't really understand another man until you've walked in their shoes, but I don't understand that world. I don't understand the world where somebody would lie themselves or be lied to, to that extent where they could commit character assassination on somebody else that is telling the truth.”
See that? The world is a diabolical, untrusting place. But me? Us? Our team? We are on the noblest of missions and no one understands us but us.
Harbaugh's other tactics are equally interesting. He had a street sign put near the practice field that reads “Forty Niner Way.” He once gave the team the type of work shirt you might see a mechanic wear as a way of emphasizing his desires for the 49ers to be a blue collar unit. Harbaugh has given up his first class seat to players and mingled with them, something many head coaches won't do. He pumps his players with confidence. He said Michael Crabtree had the best hands of any wide receiver he's ever seen. Harbaugh has even, so far at least, inspired Randy Moss. That about says it all.
“I can honestly say that Coach Harbaugh is one of the most interesting coaches I've ever played for,” Donte Whitnertold the media last year. “You never know what you're going to get from him. You never know what he's going to say out of his mouth – some things we can share, some things we can't. But he's always going to shoot it straight to you, and he's always going to make sure that the players are ready to play. Everything in this organization revolves around the players, and everybody else after that, so that's how you know you have a good football coach – when he revolves everything around the players.”
And Harbaugh was at it again after the win against Detroit. He can be a jerk at some of his postgame press conferences and this, again, is an old ploy. Players love it when they a coach sticks it to the media. When Harbaugh was asked if perhaps he got too conservative during the game, he fired back, “Did it look conservative to you? OK.”
The best button pusher in football is probably Bill Belichick.
He might have some good company with Harbaugh.
And that's a good thing.