For the second straight season, the 49ers’ final, frustrating offensive drive is being scrutinized, and for the second straight year, coach Jim Harbaugh defended – strongly – his quarterback at his end-of-season news conference.
“I thought Colin played his ass off,” Harbaugh said Tuesday of Colin Kaepernick. “As I said, I thought all the players in the game did.”
Kaepernick was responsible for three fourth-quarter turnovers, including an interception on a throw in the end zone to Michael Crabtree. Afterward Kaepernick told reporters, “I cost us the game.”
Harbaugh disagreed, saying Kaepernick made the right read in throwing to Crabtree, who was covered by Seattle’s top cornerback, Richard Sherman. Sherman tipped the pass, which was intercepted by linebacker Malcolm Smith, who was trailing on the play.
Kaepernick has said he decided to throw to Crabtree before the ball was snapped.
“Pre-snap decisions are made based on the route call, the matchup, coverage,” Harbaugh said. “That does happen on certain pass plays.”
Was that play one of those situations?
“Yes,” he said.
Did Kaepernick make the correct pre-snap read?
“Yes,” Harbaugh said.
“I thought he played fabulous. I really did,” he said. “There were things that happened both sides of the ball, special teams. You could point to a lot of areas. I really feel like the players just really acquitted themselves as well as they could on both sides of the ball. Both teams.”
Harbaugh rallying around one of his players, especially his quarterback, was no surprise. He was equally effusive about Alex Smith when he was the team’s starter, and he said similar things about Kaepernick following last year’s Super Bowl loss to Baltimore. The 49ers had a chance to take a late-game lead then, too, but Kaepernick’s end-zone passes to Crabtree – three of them – were incomplete.
“Colin was fantastic in this game,” Harbaugh said a day after the Super Bowl defeat. “He was fantastic the entire season. From the beginning right to the end, I thought he played extremely well.”
Harbaugh was in a magnanimous mood Tuesday, two days after his team’s season ended.
He had high praise for his players and coaches – “Superb year of football,” he said – and credited the rivalry with the Seahawks for making his team better.
At one point he even stopped the 24-minute news conference to laud reporters – with whom he has had a sometimes tense and terse relationship – for their coverage.
With no more games to play, Harbaugh said he would use his competitive energy to fight to keep his players, with a dozen set to become free agents in March.
“It’s not as enjoyable as it was a week ago,” he said. “You’re not still playing. But you do find other ways to compete. And that’s definitely one of the ways. Fight to keep our players. Fight for our players to not be taken away from us. So that will be a competitive fight.”
While the 49ers’ stadium endeavors have taken precedent in previous offseasons, the numerous contracts that must be settled, including Kaepernick’s, are the team’s biggest obstacle this year.
A reshuffling at the top of the organization announced Tuesday seemed to symbolize that change. Co-owner Gideon Yu, who spearheaded the team’s stadium efforts, is stepping down as team president. Paraag Marathe, who has been the 49ers’ chief contract negotiator, is stepping into Yu’s former role.
One of the contracts that will be discussed is Harbaugh’s. He has two years remaining on a deal that pays him $5 million a season. That puts him in the middle of the pack for NFL coaches and makes him the third highest paid coach in the NFC West behind St. Louis’ Jeff Fisher and the coach who beat him Sunday, Pete Carroll.
Harbaugh, however, declined to talk about contracts or potential job changes for his assistants. And when he was asked if he could share what he told his players at the 49ers’ end-of-season meeting, Harbaugh said, “No, not so much. Not so much.”
Then, with a nod at his previous praise of the reporters in the room, he laughed.
“Am I regressing?”