For every first time head coach, there comes a moment when he shows his true colors. The first season, or even two, don’t always really show who the guy is or what he’s consistently capable of.
When a coach takes a new job, there is often either a honeymoon phase or a period of time where he faces some struggles. Rarely does a coach step into a situation, see immediate success (and I’m talking about ‘real’ widely acknowledged, traditional success, not relative success like if the Browns or Raiders won 7 games), and consistently continue delivering that level of success. The only recent examples I can think of are Mike Tomlin of the Steelers and John Harbaugh of the Ravens.
Some head coaches never figure out a way to get past the initial struggles and never see success in that first job. They typically last 3 years or so. Steve Spagnuolo (Rams) and Rod Marinelli (Lions) are recent examples of this.
A handful of coaches struggled in year one, had a good year two, but then fell back into year one status and can’t get out of it. Todd Haley (Chiefs), Brad Childress (Vikings) and Raheem Morris (Bucs) fall into this category.
Then there are a number of coaches that saw success initially and then fell into a place of mediocrity or in some cases, bottomed out. Tony Sparano (Dolphins; 11 wins in his first season), Eric Mangini (Jets; 10 wins) and Jim Caldwell (Colts; 14 wins) all got off to great starts as head coaches and appeared to be solid choices. Of course, after the honeymoon period wore off, we saw what each of them really were. Then there are coaches like Todd Ha
I think the ultimate case study of this type of honeymoon period coach is Rex Ryan of the Jets. He began his head coaching career with a 9-7 season followed by an even better 11-5 season. In both of these first two years he took the Jets to the AFC Championship game. But then he followed those seasons up with an 8-8 season, missing the playoffs. The Jets are currently 4-6 under Ryan and he’s on the hot seat. Keep in mind, the team hasn’t changed all that much from his first two seasons to where they are now.
This all leads me to the current case of San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. As we all know, his first year as head coach was a giant success. The Niners only lost three regular season games and he took them to the NFC Championship, losing a close game to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Harbaugh brought a big change in mentality to the Niners. However, something always struck me as a little different about him. He wore his emotions a little too much on his sleeve, was almost a little too fiery for a head coach. As of late, we haven’t seen many head coaches in this mold have prolonged success. It’s certainly not the style we see from Bill Belichik, Mike Tomlin, Mike McCarthy, Tom Coughlin or even Harbaugh’s own brother John – all head coaches that have seen consistent success (and no, you can’t convince me that Coughlin or John Harbaugh come near Jim’s level of emotion and fire; the guy’s all over the field, running and yelling). They’re much more in control of their emotions, some to the degree that they’re downright stoic. You can argue that a fiery head coach can be successful too, but when’s the last time we saw one win a Super Bowl? It was Bill Cowher in 2006 and prior to that it was Jon Gruden in 2003. To find one before them we have to go all the way back to Mike Ditka. Analytical coaches seem to be more the style and successful model over the past 20 years. Jim Harbaugh’s style always had a certain Rex Ryan feel to it. It seemed to work though. He had a good first season and the second has been off to a great start.
But last week, something changed. Rahul discussed it a bit previously. Harbaugh created his own quarterback controversy by starting Colin Kaepernick at quarterback against the Saints after regular starter Alex Smith was medically cleared to take the field following his recovery from a concussion. Kaepernick had a good game against the Saints and it seemed to indicate that the Niners found their quarterback of the future.
But not so fast…
Harbaugh came out this week saying Alex Smith is still his starter and that he would decide on a starter for Sunday’s game at St. Louis by midweek.
“Alex Smith is our starting quarterback. He has not done anything to lose that job,” Harbaugh said. “In fact, he’s playing at a very high level. Also, Colin Kaepernick, you can’t categorize him as a backup quarterback, because he’s started games and played very well in those games.”
Jimmy…if Alex Smith is still your starter, then why are you saying you’ll name a starter by midweek? Didn’t you just do that by saying Alex is your starting quarterback? Of course you also tacitly implied that Kaepernick is also your starter in the very same statement.
This whole weird situation now has me questioning Harbaugh’s intelligence. Last week he already alienated Alex Smith by starting Kaepernick. Smith lost his job not due to poor performance, but to injury. And this came after an off season where Harbaugh did everything short of picking up a microphone and singing “Stand By Your Man” to show his commitment to Smith as his QB now and into the future after reports surfaced that San Francisco showed interest in Peyton Manning. Seems like Kaepernick now has to also be wondering about Harbaugh’s ongoing commitment to him with Harbaugh proactively offering up that he hasn’t decided on a QB for this Sunday yet. Kaepernick had two
above average very good performances against the likes of the Bears and Saints and could now lose his job as the starter? Due to what?… He has to be asking “what gives?” much like Smith was wondering prior to the Saints game.
In discussing the situation, Harbaugh offered up comments admitting that the situation is difficult for both Smith and Kaepernick:
“The guys will be hammered,” Harbaugh said. “You go to Colin, you go to Alex, ‘Should you be the starter?’ He’s got no good answer for you. He says, ‘Yes, I should be the starter’ — we’re talking either one — and you look like you’re just building up yourself. If you say no, then they hammer you because you don’t think you should be the starter. Then the people, so-called subject matter experts, who talk about, ‘You should be making a fuss about it or a stink about it, you shouldn’t be that accommodating,’ it sends a completely wrong message, to me, for young athletes out there, or high school quarterbacks, where their coach is trying to tell them it’s about the team and all of us working together. So that one gets me upset. That’s not what our two guys are about.”
That was a rambling, borderline incoherent semblance of a thought. But after reading it three times and finally digesting what I think he was trying to say, my response is: that’s a very nice, idealistic thought, Jim. These aren’t young athletes though. These are two professional athletes who make money to play this game. You say your guys aren’t about stating that they’re the best. They should be. That’s what I want from my quarterback. Top quarterbacks in this league wouldn’t stand by so nonchalantly as their job is dangled in front of them. They’d fight for it, in play and in words. While I respect both men for not talking publicly about this, it’s ridiculous to have the expectation that they’ll continue to fall in line behind Harbaugh (who has now betrayed them both to a certain degree) and tow the company line.
That statement from Harbaugh also made me start thinking about the San Francisco locker room beyond just Smith and Kaepernick. These guys make money based on the passes they catch, touchdowns they score, games they win. Eventually it will come to a point where sides are taken. Harbaugh doesn’t want that to happen. He doesn’t want a locker room divided. Now that Harbaugh turned his back on Smith and has also done so to Kaepernick by not standing by him as the starter after posting two solid wins, when will other guys in the locker room start to wonder if he’ll take the same position with them? If I get an injury, will my job be there when I come back or will Coach turn his back on me? Will free agents want to come into that environment?
Harbaugh has always been a rah-rah type of guy. After all, this is the guy that used that ridiculous “who’s got it better than us?!” cheer last year (for Smith and Kaepernick, I can say their answer to that right now is: the quarterbacks of the other 31 teams in the league that know where their place on their team is). But where is the mental side of coaching and instilling confidence in your team that should recognize he’s treading on thin water by creating his own quarterback controversy? Especially for a guy that played quarterback in the NFL and went through this same type of thing (with Mike Tomczak when both were battle for the starting spot with the Bears in the early 90s)? He knows the mindset, the ups and downs, from his own experience.
I think many have assumed that Harbaugh is a good X’s and O’s guy. Look at that coaching staff though. He has two stellar coordinators supporting him in Vic Fangio and Greg Roman. Two guys that should, and likely will, receive consideration for head coaching jobs this off-season. Is it possible that Harbaugh is a lot of bravado and charisma and those guys carry a significant part of the credit for the on-field turnaround?
Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but Jim Harbaugh is on dangerous, slippery territory. Is this a momentary lapse in judgement (albeit a big one) by a good coach or is the Real Jim Harbaugh now emerging in a fashion similar to how the Real Rex Ryan eventually emerged? Only time will tell.