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Bold Harbaugh confidently bucks odds by taking on Moss, Cox

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Jim Harbaugh quickly turned around the Niners in his first season. (Getty Images)  
Jim Harbaugh quickly turned around the Niners in his first season. (Getty Images)  

Shortly before free agency began, the San Francisco 49ers made a couple of bold moves, adding two players who didn't suit up in 2011 -- one you know and one you don't.

That's not the point. The point is that they were willing to take chances on two character risks others would not, and that tells me something about the team's head coach and the organization.

They believe they're bullet proof.

Call it arrogance, confidence, hubris, I don't care. I call it a challenge, and there's no one more willing to embrace it than Jim Harbaugh.

That's because the 49ers' coach has an unerring belief in himself and what he's doing, and it's hard to argue with the results -- because what he did last year was put the organization back on the map, returning the 49ers to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and coming within one game of Super Bowl XLVI.

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So he didn't blink at the thought of adding wide receiver Randy Moss to a locker room that already includes Michael Crabtree, and he didn't hesitate to reach out for cornerback Perrish Cox after Cox spent a year off clearing his name in court.

Both are talented, and both have histories that back off teams that could be ... should be ... interested, which means both have warnings attached.

But that's where Harbaugh comes in. He's as confident as he is competent, never shrinking from a test as a player or coach. So he takes over a Stanford program when people said it was destined for mediocrity ... and he takes it to the Top 10. And he takes over the 49ers when Miami seemed a better -- and more lucrative -- option and takes them to the NFC Championship Game.

Harbaugh knows what he wants, and what he wants now is someone, anyone, to help a group of wide receivers who combined for one catch and 3 yards in the conference title contest. So he takes on Moss when critics say it won't work, and asks why not.

He did it before. He can do it again.

Only I'd be careful what you wish for. I know what Harbaugh did for Alex Smith in one season, and it was terrific. The guy's career was resurrected and where the 49ers were looking for a quarterback a year ago they are not now.

But this is not Alex Smith trying to re-establish himself. These are two reclamation projects hoping Harbaugh can do for them what he did for Smith -- or that they can do the same for him. And with another chance, maybe it happens. But Harbaugh is taking a giant step here.

There is no way I'd bring Moss into the same locker room with a prima donna like Crabtree. I've seen the impact Moss can have on young receivers and how they behave, and let's just say it's not pulled from the Jerry Rice handbook. Moss divided locker rooms before, and he could divide a locker room again.

People tell me that Harbaugh won't allow it to happen, that it's a low-risk move because Moss signed a one-year deal -- which means the 49ers can cut him at any time, much as they did last season with Braylon Edwards. OK, I get it. But I worry that the chemistry that pulled the club together a year ago could be sacrificed in the process, especially if the team sputters.

Harbaugh must know what Terrell Owens did to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2005, one year after they went to the Super Bowl, because his brother, John, was an assistant with that team. Granted, Moss has something to prove that Owens did not -- he's trying to make a name for himself again, which means he should be on his best behavior.

The same goes for Cox, who was released after one year with Denver. After signing with the 49ers, he promised to stay out of trouble, saying he takes "full responsibility" for what happened and insisting that it "will never happen again, ever again."

At least that's encouraging.

So is this: Coaches who had Moss in Tennessee, his last team in 2010, tell me he wasn't a problem there, that he did what he was told. That's great except what did he do? Nothing. In fact, he hasn't done anything since he was with New England, and even then he wore down Bill Belichick.

The Patriots were supposed to have the infrastructure, the head coach, the quarterback and the veteran support group to handle a diva like Moss. And they did. For three seasons. Then they couldn't wait to get rid of him, and I don't need to tell you what happened when he returned to Minnesota.

Moss has been effective in only one of his past four stops, and that was New England, where he had the best quarterback in the game. Alex Smith is improved, but he's no Tom Brady. So what happens when he can't get the ball to Moss?

Besides, the 49ers are an offense built more around Frank Gore and Vernon Davis than they are their wide receivers. Tell me how that goes over with a former All-Pro who caught 23 touchdown passes in one season from Brady.

Bottom line: This is a gamble for Harbaugh, but it's one he didn't hesitate to assume because ... well, because he hasn't a met a challenge he didn't like, and because he believes he can and will succeed.

And he should. As I said, the record speaks for itself.

But when the Dallas Cowboys took on Terrell Owens and Adam "Pacman" Jones, they thought they were going to change talented players that others could not. And they failed. More important, they didn't win a playoff game with either.

Remember that.

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