Why has Jim Harbaugh been able to turn the 49ers around?
Part of it is lineage. Harbaugh’s father was a coach, and both Jim and his brother, John, are now successful NFL head coaches. The 49ers’ game in Baltimore with the Ravens, coached by John Harbaugh, should be a lulu, which is why the NFL has scheduled it for Thanksgiving Day.
But lineage alone is not enough. Mike Nolan is the son of Dick Nolan, a successful 49ers coach 40 years ago, and all he seems to have gotten from that is his father’s wardrobe.
Here are some reasons for Harbaugh’s success:
- Outstanding assistants. He brought Greg Roman on offense and Vic Fangio on defense with him from Stanford.
In sports as in business, strong men hire strong assistants who help them get the job done, while weak men hire weak assistants because they’re afraid that strong ones would covet their jobs. The first thing Mike Singletary did when he was named head coach was to fire offensive coordinator Mike Martz. After that, no good offensive coordinator would work for him, so he settled for Jimmy Raye, who did what Singletary wanted.
Bill Walsh promoted defensive backs coach George Seifert to defensive coordinator and never interfered with his plans, as Seifert developed defensive strategies as successful as Walsh’s offensive planning.
Similarly, Harbaugh doesn’t interfere with Fangio, who is doing a superb job.
- Flexible game plans. Both the offensive plans developed by Harbaugh and Roman and the defensive ones developed by Fangio have been based on the opponent.
Fangio has frequently called for blitzes, but against Detroit, he called for containment defenses, aware that the Lions seldom have long drives but rely on big plays for their scores.
Similarly, Harbaugh and Roman had very conservative offensive plans early, when players were just learning their assignments. Media critics harped on that but, guess what, the conservative game plans kept the 49ers going until they could break out against the Tampa Bay Bucs.
- Identify your main man, the quarterback. Media critics and fans howled when Harbaugh brought back Alex Smith but, as a former quarterback himself, Harbaugh recognized that Smith was potentially a very good quarterback who had been stymied by a terrible combination of bad coaches, inadequate protection and weak receivers.
Harbaugh knew that, given the right set of circumstances, Smith could succeed, so he worked to give his quarterback what he needed. Having to swallow their own words, Smith’s media critics have called what Harbaugh has done a “miracle,” but in fact, it was just a good coach doing what had to be done.
- Support from the front office and ownership. Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke have worked well together, with Baalke deferring to Harbaugh on quarterback evaluations and Harbaugh deferring to Baalke on other player judgments.
Meanwhile, Jed York also deserves credit, not just for hiring Harbaugh but realizing the front office needed more NFL people, not just computer geeks.
It’s all come together on the field for the 49ers, and the good news is that it will get better. Finally, all the pieces are in place for success.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.