Here is a link to my Tuesday column about Jim Harbaugh’s tough guys. The full column appears below:
I’m going to quote Jim Harbaugh at length. I hope you find these quotes interesting and revealing. They come from the weekly Monday news conference, Harbaugh looking back at the season, Harbaugh looking forward to next Sunday in Green Bay. Playoff time.
Someone asked about rookie wide receiver Quinton Patton who had a good game in Arizona:
Harbaugh: “He made two really good catches, both highly contested. On Anquan’s (Boldin) long run that set up a touchdown in the first quarter, Quinton had a wonderful block, came from the opposite side of the field and really sprang Anquan for the big yardage. I like the way he competed, like the way he came through, like the way he made the tough catch. I always liked that about him. I really think he’s a competitor, competing for balls, competing to get in position to make a block, competing when he’s running with the football.”
Key phrases and words from this monologue, a monologue that came from Harbaugh’s heart: highly contested, wonderful block, competed, tough catch, competing, competing, competing.
Here’s more Harbaugh, Harbaugh on the nature of his team:
“I like our team very much in the regard that they’re a very competitive group. They’re fiery competitors that every single week they bring that competitiveness and that desire to win and the desire to prepare to win, put themselves in the best position possible. On Sundays, they fight and they’re prepared to do it for the entire game. And what more can you ask as a coach? It’s a professional group, a competitive group and a group that fights. They’ve been doing what they need to do when they need to do it.”
Key phrases and words from this monologue, a monologue that came from Harbaugh’s heart: competitive, fiery, desire to win, entire game, fights.
Let’s do some textual analysis. Let’s pretend we’re budding literary critics analyzing a text in an English class — an honors seminar — the professor tough, serious, interesting. Let’s be that class and let’s ask what Harbaugh values in a player and a team. Good place to start.
He wants — values, admires, needs — players who compete until the bitter end. He has those players, and that’s why, in the past two weeks, he beat Atlanta and Arizona at the bitter end. No one competes harder or longer or more seriously than these 49ers. He wants receivers who block, receivers not afraid to venture over the middle, who love to go over the middle. He does not particularly want sleek, fast, elegant receivers. The Greyhound Crew. He wants receivers who go body to body with cornerbacks.
He wants a team that fights. Fighting takes place in infinite ways and “fighting” implies a state of mind, a Niners’ state of mind, something like: “I will almost die on the field trying to win. Are you (name the team) prepared to go there with me?”
Harbaugh was that kind of player. He is that kind of coach. And his best players are made in his image. Here is a list of Harbaugh Players. If I leave anyone out, I apologize.
On Offense: Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin, Joe Staley, Colin Kaepernick, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Bruce Miller. Maybe Quinton Patton.
On Defense: Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks, Donte Whitner.
The 49ers are loaded with Harbaugh Tough Guys.
OK, we handled the defining part of our class. Let’s go deeper. Let’s evaluate what we defined.
Is Harbaugh’s tough-guy philosophy a good philosophy?
Please excuse my language. I was using tough-guy language. It seems appropriate here.
Harbaugh’s tough-guy philosophy is a winning philosophy, an overwhelmingly winning philosophy. He got to the Super Bowl his second year with the 49ers. This season, his team of tough guys went 12-4. Outstanding. I might add, he bequeathed the same tough-guy philosophy to Stanford where it continues to flourish.
Are there limits to Harbaugh’s approach? (I told you this prof is tough.)
Tough guys are tough but they sometimes aren’t so fast. The 49ers do not have a fast offense. They have a tough, knock-you-out offense. But it’s not known for speed. Their offense works well on the slow Candlestick grass, but seems a step slow on the phony turf in Seattle and New Orleans.
Well, why don’t the 49ers get more fast guys — the greyhounds?
They have tried. Think Randy Moss, A.J. Jenkins, LaMichael James, Mario Manningham, Ted Ginn. Those kinds of guys. None of them worked out. Ginn, an absolute zilch as a wide receiver in San Francisco, is contributing in Carolina.
My theory: Harbaugh does not like or does not understand speed players. He understands players like him — tough guys, fighters, grinders. He thinks, at some level, fast guys have it too easy, are soft, won’t fight to the end. (That’s my psychological insight into Harbaugh, and I could be full of hot air.)
You’ll notice the Niners have gone full tough guy this season, have abandoned the fast, elegant dimension of offense.
Now things get interesting in our analysis.
Is a tough-guy-only approach enough to win a Super Bowl?
I don’t know.
I know it wins 12 games. I know it lost a Super Bowl.
I know the Niners used to want speed on the outside — John Taylor and Jerry Rice were fast. Roger Craig had been a hurdler at Nebraska.
I know what happens in the next few weeks is a test of Harbaugh’s approach. That’s one thing this postseason is about. Harbaugh’s philosophy is enough to make his team excellent. Is it enough to make it great?
If the 49ers win the Super Bowl, Harbaugh’s ideas triumph. If the 49ers get knocked off, he needs to tweak his team, tweak his ideas. He would need to incorporate more speed, would need to appreciate the greyhounds of the world who run and maybe don’t hit. He would need to open up his mind just a little bit, revise his definition of “Harbaugh Player.”
OK, class over. No homework assignment. Happy New Year.
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