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?

Hell, yes.

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.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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  1. Albert Park

    Thanks for the “no homework”, coach. Happy New Year to you too!

    December 30th, 2013 10:54 pm

  2. russell

    I am fairly certain it was one of your previous articles that said it perfectly, a Bill Walsh axiom, (Carolina game maybe??) – tough is great, but sooner or later you meet someone as tough or tougher than you. What do you do then? I think the Niners are there now, and I think it doesn’t end well. Won’t completely shock me if they did win it all, they are definitely capable, but then again I think it would shock me. Does that make sense?

    December 30th, 2013 11:19 pm

  3. Streetglide

    AJ Jenkins had a breakout game this week against Denver. He may very well be a great WR…

    December 31st, 2013 6:00 am

  4. Dennis

    Happy New Year Lowell.

    December 31st, 2013 6:05 am

  5. Rob

    Well, the Niners toughness will be tested this weekend and not just by the Packers. See


    Record low temps in Green Bay, where the four seasons
    are proudly and faithfully observed.

    December 31st, 2013 8:02 am

  6. Brett

    Good insite Lowell. You have been on a roll lately. It took a while but I finally think you are starting to get this guy. Or should I say your guy? Or should I say my guy?

    One thing we all know now is that you are his guy. Everybody has a guy and you are his.

    That was funny.

    December 31st, 2013 8:39 am

  7. Brett

    Did anybody besides me notice that Ray Raddo was wearing Green Bay colors during the press conference yesterday?

    December 31st, 2013 8:41 am

  8. Marco

    Great article, Lowell. I think you’re spot on.

    December 31st, 2013 8:47 am

  9. Andrew

    Nice article. good analysis, no pot shots. I didn’t think your examples of speed were good choices, Jerry Rice was timed at a 4.71 forty and John Taylor wasn’t a speed guy either. But your point was correct in that Walsh wanted speed outside like Fast Freddie Solomon and the attempt at converting Reynaldo Nehemiah into a NFL wide out. However the core of the article about the 49ers toughness reflecting the coaches toughness was right on.

    December 31st, 2013 9:07 am

  10. htwaits


    A great way to end the year.

    Walsh had his games where he tried to be tough and lost. As you know his last season had a 9-6 loss in Chicago, and a freezing cold 28-7 win for the NFC championship in Chicago.

    The real Walsh speed was his wit and maybe his offensive line. Happy New Year.

    December 31st, 2013 10:14 am

  11. mendozaline

    “Is a tough-guy-only approach enough to win a Super Bowl?”

    I think that question was answered last year by a team coached by another Harbaugh with the same Boldin.

    December 31st, 2013 11:05 am

  12. Elknarps

    Well I’m not a tough guy. In the third day of the flu. Everything hurts. Chest a mess. And I’m not handling this well. Lowell, what is that tea or milk wth honey soothing drink you mentioned Mrs Zohn made for you a couple years ago?

    December 31st, 2013 11:21 am

  13. CohnZohn

    Elknarps, She’s out shopping. I’ll ask when she gets home. Hope you feel better soon.

    December 31st, 2013 11:32 am

  14. Mark M

    Whether they win or not, they must go after greater speed. The fact that they whiffed on their previous attempts says more about their lack of evaluation skills for WRs than any kind of football philosophy. It’s not as if Ginn is tearing it up in Carolina either. They have limited talent at that position as well so he gets more opportunities there. Jenkins has a whopping 8 catches to his career now. I don’t miss these guys at all. I’m holding out hope for Patton. But even if he comes around, we need a stretch guy or two.

    December 31st, 2013 12:02 pm

  15. mendozaline

    Did you know… that Bill Walsh’s career playoff record was
    6 – 1 at home
    1 – 3 on the road
    and 3 – 0 in the Super Bowl ( a neutral site…although Stanford was hardly neutral.)

    December 31st, 2013 5:34 pm

  16. mbabco

    Streetglide – AJ Jenkins is on Kansas City, who played the San Diego Chargers this week, not Denver. He had 3 catches for 67 yards. Nice game. If he does end up being a decent wide receiver it would support Lowell’s point that the 49ers don’t seem to develop speed guys very well.

    December 31st, 2013 5:52 pm

  17. Dr. Feelgood

    Know Thyself.
    Some teams, like people, never figure that out.
    The Niners know.
    Happy New Year!

    December 31st, 2013 7:41 pm

  18. chris

    besides not liking speed guys Harbaugh doesn’t like nice guys…….that’s why he chose Kapernick over Alex Smith. He wants tough guys and obnoxious ego maniacal guys like his QB that kisses his bicep after a score, or a linebacker that hits people in the head with a bottle or a DE that ddyes his hair blonde and drives his car into a tree and then gets a free pass to play a month later…………are there limits to Harbaughs madness…….yup choking every year when it counts like his team did in the NFC title game and the Super Bowl

    December 31st, 2013 9:46 pm

  19. Johnc

    The question then is whether the offence can offset the amount of points that the opposing quarterbacks will put on them in the playoffs. And we all know the playoffs is chock full of those stand in the pocket types that kill you. Have the Niners ever really stopped Rodgers..? I think not. Nor Brett Fahr before him. Good luck on the frozen tundra which will be especially frozen.. frozener…frozenest ..this Sunday.

    December 31st, 2013 9:59 pm

  20. k.g.

    You, & Mrs. Cohn have a very Happy New Years Lowell, and keep on keeping them honest in 2014!

    January 1st, 2014 1:57 am

  21. Dennis

    I have been thinking about the point you are trying to make in this column: If the 49ers don’t win the Super Bowl they will need to incorporate more speed. How do you even arrive at that? While I would like to see more speed at the receiver position, what if they lose by a muffed punt? Or what if they the offense puts up 35 points and they still lose? What does that tell you about their needs?

    January 1st, 2014 7:32 am

  22. chewie

    Lowell wrote:
    “I know the Niners used to want speed on the outside — John Taylor and Jerry Rice were fast. ”

    I call BS on this statement. Jerry Rice was NOT fast – he had one of the slowest 40 times in the draft. Instead, he was precise, ran beautiful routes, and had great hands. Fast he was not. Have you forgotten the 80′s and 90′s so soon?

    January 1st, 2014 11:53 pm

  23. CohnZohn

    chewie, I once asked Roger Craig who was faster him or Rice. He laughed as if the question was ridiculous and said Jerry. Rice was fast no matter what his time was.

    January 2nd, 2014 9:09 am

  24. ImpeGood

    A T.O was a tough, mean player as well as FAST. That’s what Harbaugh would love.
    Imagine a Boldin with 4.4 speed.

    January 2nd, 2014 1:47 pm

  25. Hacksaw

    A lot of good coaches don’t win the superbowl or coach in one, so Harbaugh has done pretty well in his first 3 years. I think a lot of coaches would love to trade records with him. Only in SF do you question your whole philosophy if you don’t win the superbowl 3 years into a coach’s NFL career after going to the playoffs 3 years in a row, a SB, and a NFC championship. Harbaugh is still improving as a coach and I think he is as likely to put it all together as anyone.

    AJ Jenkins was a Baalke pick. He was not a good fit in the 49er offense, which needs WRs to block at times. He is not a good fit in the NFC west with the very physical corners in Seattle. Wish AJ luck but it took two seasons and a huge wake-up call trade to finally have a single decent game.

    January 3rd, 2014 10:46 am

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