Colin Kaepernick vindicated coach Jim Harbaugh’s controversial quarterback swap with his record-setting performance against the Green Bay Packers.
After eight weeks of acrimony in the press, on social media sites and among fans, the 49ers find themselves back in the NFC Championship Game, where their season ended a year ago.
Kaepernick changed the dynamic of last week’s NFC divisional playoff game with his legs, and Harbaugh should be applauded for his audacity and foresight. But football is still a team game; his guys wouldn’t be playing for a Super Bowl berth if they didn’t buy into the coach’s decision wholeheartedly.
Harbaugh’s genius for the X’s and O’s is undeniable, but his interpersonal skills in a team environment are even more exceptional. At Stanford, he turned a 1-11 team into a perennial powerhouse by injecting a family-first culture into the locker room while attracting top recruits with his fiery, but genuine, personality. He brought the same approach to the pro game last year and it worked. The indelible evidence is Vernon Davis’ tears after last year’s playoff win over the New Orleans Saints.
But the dynamic in Harbaugh’s locker room is somewhat mysterious because he keeps everything in-house. He’s prickly with the media, talking down to reporters with statements like, “We have two starting quarterbacks,” which highlights his ego rather than the qualities his players love so much.
The Kaepernick decision could have torn the locker room apart, especially when the 49ers experienced adversity after losses to St. Louis and the Seattle Seahawks. Alex Smith did nothing but win under Harbaugh, and he lost his job after receiving a concussion. It’s fair to assume that at least a few players were puzzled by the decision.
Sandwiched among his gibberish about hot hands and unique situations, though, Harbaugh uttered a nugget of truth that provides some insight into the philosophy he sells to his players. In response to suggestions that Smith should be upset about the change, he said: “[This] sends the completely wrong message to me, for any young athlete that’s out there or high school athlete or quarterback, where their coach is trying to tell them it’s about the team and it’s about us all working together.”
Hardly poetic, but he makes a valid point. In its purest form, team sports require the individual to relinquish his or her selfish desires for the overall benefit of the group. The coach assigns a role to each player and they perform it to best of their abilities. Harbaugh believes this with the sincerity of a Buddhist monk, so when he asks his players to sacrifice their bodies or their statistics, or follow along with a personnel decision, they give themselves up to the team.
Smith lost his job, but now he’s mentoring Kaepernick because his knowledge and experience can help the 49ers win the Super Bowl. Davis’ numbers are down, but he sells himself on every block rather than crying like his former idol, Terrell Owens.
The Kaepernick move required boldness and an understanding of how his unique skill set could dramatically alter the dynamic on the gridiron. But it paid off, as usual, because Harbaugh knows how to push the buttons to make his players believe.
Paul Gackle is a regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner and also writes at www.gacklereport.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.