Ailene Voisin, sports columnist
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  • Mike Roemer Associated Press Jim Harbaugh's feistiness isn't limited to confronting referees. The coach's attitude is having a big impact on the 49ers' offense and defense.

  • Ailene Voisin

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Ailene Voisin: Harbaugh's feisty influence on 49ers grows

Published: Tuesday, Sep. 11, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012 - 12:09 am

It's only Week 2 in the NFL, but it's not as if Jim Harbaugh needs any warmup tosses. He is grimacing and screeching and growling – projecting an angry Everyman persona on the sidelines – but he isn't interested in any handshake deal with Detroit.

Now it's the Lions' turn to hear him roar.

"Our approach with the mini-controversies is really to give them the attention that they deserve, which isn't much," the 49ers' coach insisted to reporters Monday when asked about this weekend's rematch with the Lions and the coach (Jim Schwartz) who objected to his enthusiastic postgame handshake last season. "Now, people that will use that to promote this game or any other game, I think are really missing the point. It is completely irrelevant."

It's a nice try, but it's not going to work. That theory about teams reflecting their coaches and coaches molding teams in their image? Especially those feisty, in-your-face types? Just watch the replays. There isn't a better example in professional sports.

While Harbaugh's extreme makeover of the 49ers isn't complete, it's moving along. There was the offseason addition of high-maintenance personalities Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, the pursuit of Peyton Manning and all that the quarterback chase entailed, the ability to keep the defensive unit intact and the ongoing encouragement of bread-breaking and bonding sessions.

And there was Sunday's powerful victory in Green Bay.

That was a season opener. That was Lambeau Field. That was Aaron Rodgers. And those were the 49ers, frustrating last year's MVP and furthering their much-deserved reputation as swarming, punishing, suffocating playmakers.

"What you hope to do is not give up the big, big play in the run game or the pass," Harbaugh said, "and then eventually, you get them shut off in a series of downs and you get the ball back. But I thought pursuit was the key. Nobody staying on the ground, nobody staying blocked."

Harbaugh's ironclad influence and his willingness to take risks were even more apparent on offense. Frank Gore was Frank Gore, punching through gaps and powering past defenders. But as promised, the wide receivers were utilized far more extensively, benefiting from an emboldened, empowered Alex Smith.

Smith, whose job security was challenged early last season by then-rookie Colin Kaepernick and at least indirectly again by the offseason interest in Manning, responded Sunday with a top-of-the-résumé performance. He was in attack mode from beginning to end, using his legs, using his head, using his smile; that indeed was a grin he flashed when Harbaugh sent Kaepernick onto the field for a bootleg.

While none of this comes as a complete surprise given Smith's terrific inaugural postseason, his progression as a quality NFL starter is more than coincidental. Someone added an edginess to his smooth, pleasant persona. Someone expected and extracted something extra. And that someone is Harbaugh.

"We kind of come from the sticks-and-stones school," Harbaugh offered when asked about lingering skepticism regarding his quarterback and last season's conservative offense.

Which brings us back to Sunday's rematch with the Lions. While Harbaugh seems intent on minimizing the dustup with Schwartz, he is anything but subtle. He just prefers to pick his fights. While cautioning against complacency, he couldn't help himself; he cited the sustained excellence of an iconic former heavyweight boxing champion.

"We'll see what we can do about that," Harbaugh added, "but professional guys that love to play, love to practice, love to study. … My dad told me a great story this morning about Muhammad Ali that I can't wait to share with the fellas, and it's something along those lines."

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Read more articles by Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin, sports columnist

Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science from UNLV and a law degree from the University of San Diego before committing full time to journalism.

Her career includes stops at the San Diego Union, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and time spent as the backup beat writer for Dodgers and Angels, Clippers and NBA beat writer, sports columnist, along with numerous assignments covering international events and the Olympics. Ailene joined The Sacramento Bee in 1997.

Phone: 916-321-1208
Twitter: @ailene_voisin

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