NFL coaching has changed enormously since Bill Walsh started the run of 49ers Super Bowl championships and the ability of the 49ers coaching staff to adapt to the changes has been a big factor in their success.
Walsh was his own offensive coordinator, running an offense that was unique in the NFL when he started. Similarly, George Seifert, who became defensive coordinator in 1983, made all the calls on defense.
Now, the head coach is the man who sets the tone for the team and Jim Harbaugh does that brilliantly. He took over a team that had more talent than others realized because they’d been so poorly coached by the Mikes, Nolan and Singletary, and convinced the players they could win.
Harbaugh makes the big decisions, the biggest being making Colin Kaepernick the starting quarterback. That was a decision I opposed, but it’s worked out very well.
Harbaugh has been a risk-taker since he started coaching, leaving the Raiders — he was the quarterbacks coach for the 2002 team that went to the Super Bowl — for a low-level job at the University of San Diego, then taking over Stanford which was at a low point in its football history after Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris, then going to the 49ers, who were also at a low point.
With that background, it’s not surprising that Harbaugh could make the gambling decision to keep Kaepernick as the starter even when Alex Smith was healthy because he obviously reasoned that the second-year quarterback would be experienced enough to handle the playoff pressure after starting for the second half of the season.
On game day, though, it is the coordinators, Greg Roman for the offense and Vic Fangio for the defense, who make the big decisions from their spots in boxes high above the field. It is Harbaugh’s job to protest calls, call time if he sees the clock running out when the 49ers have the ball and keep the players calm and focused. That might seem surprising to those who have seen Harbaugh with his face twisted in rage on the sidelines over an official’s call, but he’s not that way with the players. He talks calmly to them about what they have to do and keeps them focused.
During the week, Harbaugh probably has very little to do with the defense. He trusts Fangio, who was also his defensive coordinator at Stanford, with good reason. Against Atlanta, Fangio made some subtle adjustments at halftime to put more pressure on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. The result: The Falcons were scoreless in the second half after a 24-point first half.
Roman’s good work came mostly during the week. Because Kaepernick had run so effectively to the outside (181 yards) against the Packers, he knew the Falcons would be looking for that. He was right. Nolan, now Atlanta’s defensive coordinator, made certain those outside lanes were closed. So, Roman called for runs up the middle, and there were huge holes for 49ers backs, especially Frank Gore.
No system works without the right players, but because the 49ers have those players and coaches who can make the best use of them, they’re back in the Super Bowl.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.