Friday, January 20, 2012

NFC Championship Pre-Game Commentary: Harbaugh Plays to Win the Game

Without guts, there comes no glory.

 The San Francisco 49ers enjoyed a lot of both Saturday in their heartrending 36-32 playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints. Tight end Vernon Davis hauled in 14-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith with nine seconds remaining. Pandemonium overtook Bay Area living rooms and bars. Aging Candlestick Park shook during one of the most glorious moments it’s seen in over half a century, and that’s saying something, considering the building has housed the dramatics of Montana, Clark, Young, Rice, and Owens.

Yet, “The Grab,” “The Catch III,” or “The Throw and Catch” - whatever one deems to be the moment’s most appropriate moniker - would have never happened had coach Jim Harbaugh stuck with the traditional, conservative, established norm of football play-calling.

Trailing 32-29, San Francisco marched down the length of the field as time dwindled. As the 49ers entered the New Orleans red zone with 14 seconds left, conventional football wisdom would have suggested San Francisco turn to David Akers, their record-setting kicker who had just had the most productive season in NFL history. Avoid the risks, take the certain tie, move onto overtime, and trust your defense, some would say.

Harbaugh, though, is anything but a man of conventional wisdom. In fact, he has always been on the cutting edge of in-game decisions that buck the traditional way of doing things. In just his fourth game in charge of Stanford in 2007, Harbaugh committed the ultimate “no-no” by those traditional standards: he took points off the scoreboard by accepting a penalty on his team’s successful field goal attempt just to keep his offense on the field and further wear down the opposing defense. The bold decision was the first of many in the young coach’s career, and it was a vital reason that Stanford shocked then-No. 2 USC in the Coliseum.

So, it came as no surprise that Harbaugh chose not to settle for the tying field goal last Saturday, and opted instead for an aggressive seam pass from Smith to Davis in the end zone. This is a coach who - for better or for worse - has made his money by living vicariously through his quarterbacks on the field in tense situations (he’s a former QB himself). It cost Harbaugh badly when he neglected dominating running back Toby Gerhart at the end of the 2009 Big Game, and instead let a freshman Andrew Luck throw a game-ending interception to Cal safety Mike Mohammed.

Afterwards, Harbaugh himself admitted that was a bad decision. As was evident against the Saints, though, he’ll never apologize or think twice about giving his quarterback a chance to be the hero when his alternative is the kicker. Given Smith’s tortured seven-year history at the helm of the 49ers offense, though, entrusting him to throw was a decision that most coaches probably wouldn’t have been comfortable with. What if Smith was sacked? A ferocious Saints pass rush had already caused him to fumble twice.

What if he threw an interception? If his dart to Davis was only slightly off-target, that was certainly a danger, too.

Whatever the reason - maybe it’s because he isn’t far removed from his brash playing days - Harbaugh does not let such fears suffocate his decisions. He made his share of mistakes at Stanford, but unlike so many of his contemporaries, he doesn’t coach afraid. He doesn’t settle for field goals that will force overtime when he can score a touchdown to settle matters in regulation. His teams thrive off that aggressive approach.

Saturday’s final result: San Francisco 36, New Orleans 32 - thanks to that hard-hitting, “play to win” mentality. Unfortunately, that’s a mindset that doesn’t seem to be prevalent yet in the sport.

Even Harbaugh’s successor at Stanford, David Shaw, settled for a medium-distance field goal in the Fiesta Bowl less than two weeks earlier instead of allowing his offense to continue driving down the field, fearing that his red-hot quarterback Andrew Luck (not a freshman anymore, and on a 16-17 roll of completions) could possibly cough up the game if he was allowed to stay on the field. As it turns out, that supposedly “safe” decision - one that followed conventional football wisdom - blew up in Shaw’s face. Stanford missed two field goals with the game on the line and lost in heartbreaking fashion.

That’s a mistake that Harbaugh was not going to duplicate in his San Francisco opportunity. Even with a relatively worse quarterback and offensive arsenal than Stanford, he believed in his 49er offensive guns, and allowed his quarterback to do what Andrew Luck was forbidden from doing in Phoenix: pull the trigger in crunch time. Decisions are best evaluated by their results: the 49ers won; Stanford lost. Fortune favors the bold, and it certainly has smiled on Harbaugh, a leader who has even ruffled feathers with his exuberance and audacity. He is challenging the conservative play-calling status quo. It may be seen as a threat to some, but to the San Francisco 49ers and their fans, it looks like a return to NFC Championship Game glory.

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