Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The No-Huddle: Harbaugh For Coach of the Year?

It's time for non-believers to step to the back of the bus on this one, and while we're at it we might as well wrap up the NFL's coach of the year voting early, because Jim Harbaugh is for real. Not only has Harbaugh guided the 49ers to their longest winning streak in over a decade, he's also got long-suffering 49ers fans thinking he might be their messiah.

For those on the outside it might not seem like such a big deal. With a reputation forged by the legacy of those great Bill Walsh-led teams of the 80's the 49ers have always managed to hang on to a bit of their mystique with the general public. But to locals, those who have groaned through six years of Alex Smith being known for little more than the guy that the Niners picked over Aaron Rodgers in the 2005 NFL draft, it has been pure unadulterated hell.

When the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh last year, a lot of skeptics took a wait and see approach. Then, when the stubborn former NFL'er decided to stick with Alex Smith instead of combing the free agency market for a more capable quarterback, the groaning continued.

Now, 9 weeks into a the season, Harbaugh looks like a bona fide genius -- and his QB looks like a first round pick for the first time in his career. It may not seem like a miracle to the casual football watcher, but to those who have been calling for Smith to get the axe for 6 years, it sure feels like one.

"I've seen a lot of u-turns," said Yahoo Sports NFL insider Mike Silver yesterday, on KNBR radio. "But what I haven't seen is a guy who was drafted that high, or close to that high, clearly had a lot of chances in one place and washed out, in his case more than once. [He] Stayed there, got another chance, and totally made a u-turn, and that is the coolest thing about the Alex Smith story. I don't know that there's a parallel."

Such is the Harbaugh effect. He is the sprinkler of magic dust, the mad scientist who can create team chemistry with a belligerent post-game handshake. Not only has the first-year coach transformed a gang of athletic but underachieving soldiers into the NFL's second winningest team with a strike-shortened off-season making the task even more difficult, he's completely changed the culture of the locker room, the fortune of the quarterback, the mood of the city, and the opinions of legions of Smith haters in one fell swoop.

How has he done it? He's designed a system around his players capabilities, and in doing so he's proven himself to be a truly versatile coach. And yes, there's the small matter of his decision to bring his defensive coordinator at Stanford, Vic Fangio, along for the ride. Fangio's the name you won't hear nearly as much as Harbaugh's, but it's his defense -- strong against the run, physical, fast, and with playmaking ability -- that is the core of the team.

But credit Harbaugh for having the presence of mind to take Fangio with him, and to build a team around its strengths, rather than building a team around some pre-conceived notion of how football should be played.

"If he's doing this with a beaten-down Alex Smith who was not in a great spot coming in based on what happened last year and before, maybe he could be doing this with a lot of people," added Silver.

He's done it with a team that had stumbled for the better part of a decade, with the same personnel that failed mightily under Mike "my way or the highway" Singletary and Mike Nolan.

Many will say that Harbaugh has "Dilferized" Alex Smith, in reference to the dumbed-down Trent Dilfer, the Ravens quarterback who basically stayed out of the way so that his team could win Super Bowl xxxv with it's dreaded defense, but when the Giants swore that all they had to do to beat the 49ers in San Francisco last week was shut down running back Frank Gore, Harbaugh handed the reins to Smith, allowing him to throw on 11 of the first 13 plays of the game.

It was a clever approach from Harbaugh, one that his team was more than capable of executing. We were surprised, like the Giants, when they did, but maybe we shouldn't have been.

Why? Because this Jim Harbaugh guy, he can coach.