Jim Harbaugh's emotional and intellectual grip on his 49ers became increasingly evident by the week, and with each improbable, impressive victory.
Whoever lured this blue-collar coach from the white shirts and academic towers at Stanford and that would be 49ers owner/operator Jed York should take a bow, or at least give himself a larger share of the dividends.
This season only happens because Harbaugh was hired. He was the right person at the right time. He arrived with enough gold dust, personnel/coaching acumen, and personality to convince a locker room of curious but skeptical football players they were better than they thought they were. Better than they knew. Good enough to come within minutes of reaching the Super Bowl for the first time since 1994.
"The first few weeks, I was cautiously optimistic," said long snapper Brian Jennings, the longest-tenured of the 49ers. "I had a sneaking suspicion. I was like, 'These guys might know what they're doing.' We had a lot of close games. Then just being around this staff, the game management in the fourth quarter, the attention to detail and it worked. I've never seen this."
Here's something else Jennings or anyone else has rarely seen: An organizational comeback that was swift and sure. The 49ers were 6-10 a year ago. They finished the year at 14-4. Think about those numbers for a minute. What ever happened to the theory of gradual improvement that is so much more prevalent in professional sports?
Lousy teams excluding those fortunate enough to draft transcendent players rarely are transformed within a matter of months. Yet here were Harbaugh's 49ers, one season removed from irrelevance, providing five comeback victories during the regular season, executing a thrilling closing-seconds win in the playoffs against the New Orleans Saints, and almost holding on long enough Sunday for David Akers to kick them to Indianapolis.
We can talk X's and O's throughout an offseason, delve into the intricacies of a superb defense and excellent special teams (barring Sunday's muffed punt returns), along with the obvious need to acquire one, and probably two dynamic wide receivers. But Harbaugh enjoyed a honeymoon rookie season full blush here please with the first two elements and without the last, and did so partly because of the sheer force of his personality.
He instilled a collective mentality, somehow convinced his players to collaborate on a cause: Making the playoffs and then creating a fuss. The best example of Harbaugh's influence was probably his most recent the postgame reaction to young Kyle Williams' fumbles against the New York Giants.
In the misery of the locker room, one 49er after another walked to Williams' locker and consoled the second-year wideout/punt returner. They tousled his hair, whispered in his ear, gave him a hug. Ted Ginn, who would have been the player returning the punts and kickoffs had he been healthy, volunteered to speak for his friend.
"He's having a hard time right know," Ginn said.
Alex Smith. Vernon Davis. Joe Staley. Harbaugh. The 49ers en masse enveloped Williams afterward, and did so again a day later at team headquarters in Santa Clara. The only residual of fingerpointing had little to do with Williams, but rather from wide receiver Michael Crabtree and his minimal role in the offense.
Resolving the Crabtree situation, either by trade or some sort of intervention that includes his quarterback and his coaches, probably rates pretty high on Harbaugh's offseason to-do list, right there with evaluating 49ers free agents (among them the much-improved Smith, Dashon Goldson, Carlos Rogers) and preparing for the NFL draft.
Then there are the other touchy-feely issues, those motivational heart-of-the-matter conversations Harbaugh seems so intent on sharing with his entire locker room. A history buff as are a lot of coaches, interestingly enough he reminds me of a young Pat Riley, in particular.
The one-time Lakers coach was famous for referencing military leaders and for hours perusing books for "us vs. them" sayings.
Quoting on Monday from Sir Andrew Barton, the Scottish privateer who was beheaded in the 1500s, Harbaugh offered yet another glimpse into his thought process. "Basically," he told reporters, "as Sir Andrew Barton said, 'Fight on, me men. Hurt but not slain, lay down and bleed a while, then we'll rise and fight again.' "
As the unfortunate Kyle Williams illustrated with his two fumbles, football is a game, not a war. The 49ers had their hearts broken, but no one's head is on the chopping block. Harbaugh goes with what works, though, and whatever he preaches is reaching these 49ers. An encore season will present its own unique issues, but there is no question the 49ers have found themselves one of the best and brightest minds leading them into the future.