Lions-Niners II reunites Harbaugh, Schwartz -- and two pretty good clubs

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz made last year's meeting memorable. What will happen in '12? (US Presswire)  
Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz made last year's meeting memorable. What will happen in '12? (US Presswire)  

It's not often a sequel lives up to the original -- not unless it's something like The Godfather Part II or The Thrilla in Manila -- which is why I have reservations about recommending this year's San Francisco-Detroit encore.

Nevertheless, it's must-see football, and I'll tell you why: Because when San Francisco and Detroit are involved these days, it's not over when it's over.

As we discovered last season, the most interesting part of a 49ers-Lions game might not be part of the game at all. It might be the postgame handshake between head coaches, which last season was more like a Throw-Down in Motown.

Rewind the videotape, and you see the a jubilant 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh jog across the field to shake losing coach Jim Schwartz's hand, slap him on the back, then run off with an angry Schwartz in hot pursuit.

The two are separated, with 49ers' players and the team's public relations director pulling Schwartz away, and a rivalry is born.

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"It's unfortunate," Schwartz said a day later. "The game's played by the players on the field, and you certainly don't want things like that to occur. But there are competitive people in this league. That said, we need to do a better job of just leaving it to the players on the field."

Geez, I hope not. That would rob the game of its drama and intrigue.

I know, it's the actual contest that matters, and this contest involves two of the NFC's best clubs -- teams that bucked the odds last season to make the playoffs after years of exile. But tell me what you remember about the last time they met. Uh-huh, Harbaugh and Schwartz got into it.

Neither was particularly contrite afterward, which only begs the question: What happens when they see each other again? Well, tune in Sunday night, Sept. 16.

And they'll square off in San Francisco, and while I don't expect anything like "The Fray by the Bay" or "Last Licks at the 'Stick," I do expect to see two coaches do whatever they can, whenever they can, to beat the other ... or worse.

Because let's be honest, people: Jim Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh are the same person; two intensely competitive coaches who are passionate, confident and successful and who will not be shown up by anyone.

Harbaugh is the guy who, when coaching Stanford in 2009, went for a two-point conversion late in a 55-21 defeat of USC at the L.A. Coliseum -- provoking then-Trojans head coach Pete Carroll to ask, "What's your deal?" when the two met at midfield afterward. "What's your deal?" Harbaugh shot back before walking off the field.

Good question. I just know that I wanted to be there when they dealt next, which was two years later in a season opener.

"I just find it irrelevant and not very intriguing," Harbaugh said on the eve of that game. "It had little to do with the game then, and it has very little to do with the game now."

Maybe from where he sits, but not from where we sit. Because a game is a game is a game until something like that happens, and then it's more than a game; it's an event, with NFL Films miking up players and coaches, last year's handshake relived through the miracle of TV replay and analysts ready to dissect the next confrontation and what it means for detente.

Not very intriguing? Hardly. In fact, NBC thought it was so meaningful it claimed it as its second Sunday-night telecast of the season.

This isn't just about one coach trying to win a football game; it's about making a statement while he's at it, and, yeah, I find that intriguing. Tell me there was no intrigue when the Patriots' Bill Belichick met then-Jets' coach Eric Mangini for the first time following Spygate in 2007. There was, and there was also a New England victory -- with Belichick delivering an icy, no-look clutch to Mangini afterward, with millions of TV viewers as witnesses.

"It's like a bad marriage," then-Jets' safety Victor Green said. "There's animosity and tension."

Precisely.

There are plenty of marvelous games out there this year -- with encores of last season's conference championship games, as well as Mario Williams' return to Houston, three of the most attractive -- but I can't imagine another where the head coaches will be studied as closely as the teams that are involved.

Harbaugh and Schwartz can downplay this all they want. In fact, they already have, with Harbaugh declining to answer a question about the game when asked at the annual NFL scouting combine. The truth is that this is one of those instances where the back story matters and where it matters so much it becomes the focus of attention.

Maybe that's convoluted and maybe it's wrong, but it's reality. And the reality is that most of us can't wait to watch.

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