SEach game-day morning begins thus for Jim Harbaugh: Wake up, sip coffee, don black shirt and khakis, and listen to the football world predicting your exit from the San Francisco 49ers.
The stories break before kickoff for maximum impact – this is how today’s fast-and-loose media rolls. The noise varies from the NFL Network’s Deion Sanders, to NFL Media Insider’s Ian Rapoport to, on Sunday morning, Pro Football Talk.
The latest entry declared that Harbaugh is gonzo after this season, even if the 49ers bring home NFL title No. 6. The metrics make sense: His five-year contract expires after next season. Neither side wants a lame-duck situation for next season. Clearly, the front office is hesitating on this one for a reason. Anyone else who’s brought his team to within two plays of three straight Super Bowl games would have been locked in long ago.
Listen, where there is smoke there must be fire. Too much smoke billows above Levi’s Stadium to dismiss the trend as mere noise. It’s Smokey The Bear-level stuff, it accelerated on Opening Day at Dallas, and it’s coming from somewhere. More on that later.
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The evidence suggests, however, that the smoke job’s genesis is not the 49ers’ locker room. The guys wearing the helmets and shoulder pads either are conducting a sophisticated Watergate-level cover-up, or they’re telling the truth. Either way, they’re maxing out for Harbaugh.
“I love coach Harbaugh. I’d go to war with him any day of the week,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “He’s a competitor. He wants to win, and he’s going to do anything to put this team in a position to win.”
The 49ers wouldn’t have survived their last two wins, especially the taut 22-17 decision over Kansas City, if they think Harbaugh is the worst thing since week-old fruit. They wouldn’t have shaken the effects of Alex Smith, their former quarterback, slicing and dicing their defense for touchdowns to open each half.
Sunday’s win required a clean performance devoid of any major blunders. The 49ers delivered zero turnovers and only two penalties for 10 yards. Anything less, and it would have been the Chiefs walking away at 3-2, not the 49ers. If the team is veering dangerously close to open revolt, as some of the surrounding talk insists, it would have chased Harbaugh back to Michigan by now.
None of the above is happening. The 49ers, still manpower-challenged for the next month or so, look like Harbaugh’s standard-issue 49ers. They’re running the ball with Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde and eventually closing down the opponent on defense. Their victories over Philadelphia and Kansas City were 49ers 101. It’s almost like they’ve returned to pure Harbaugh as a response to the storm circling them.
In fact, Harbaugh’s most important allies are whom he often calls his “mighty men,” his players. His feelings for them haven’t changed.
“The team doesn’t have to respond. The team has to do their job and play football,” he said. “It’s my job to love them ... it’s their job to love each other. ... And the better you do, then the more people try to trip you up. ... My destiny lies between these walls with these men.”
There’s a lot of wiggle room in these words. Harbaugh concedes that enjoying his company 24-7 is not a requirement. Harbaugh has alienated people since his days as a quarterback for the Wolverines. His personalty grates on people long-term, which is a good reason why he’s moved on every four years or so. Management, especially general manager Trent Baalke, has chafed over Harbaugh’s edgy and confrontational style.
Something as innocuous as a Super Bowl Week appearance nearly two years ago was telling. One of Friday’s traditional activities in New Orleans called for the two head coaches to pose with the Lombardi Trophy. Attire always is coat and tie, and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, Jim’s brother, followed protocol. Jim followed Jim – black shirt and khakis. Management reportedly wasn’t happy.
Even team CEO Jed York’s Twitter response Sunday morning revealed something: “Jim is my coach. We are trying to win a SB, not a personality or popularity contest.”
Translation: We’ve tolerated him as long as he’s won.
I think the front office has grown weary of Harbaugh’s hands-on-ness and wouldn’t mind if he leaves. It also fully understands the consequences and fan backlash. Know this: He would be hired by an NFL rival in about five seconds, and York and Baalke fear they’ll soon get beat by him. Which, by the way, would happen surely as the 49ers wear red.
Here’s Phil Dawson, who merely booted the 49ers past the Chiefs with five field goals: “There is zero problem in the locker room. Zero,” he said. “We are all focused. The team is completely unified. We believe in our coach and love playing for him. All this noise, honestly, I don’t understand it. It is certainly not the read I get.”
So goes L’Affaire Harbaugh. Tune in for next week’s episode.