A grade 2 locker-room strain? Mad coach disease? The hate-your-boss blues? Yes, the 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh is familiar with those afflictions.
He may be dealing with a few symptomatic patients now. And he certainly had to stave off a major bout two years ago when he chose Colin Kaepernick, not Alex Smith, at quarterback, even though, in Smith’s words, the only thing he did to earn his demotion was sustain a concussion.
The 49ers probably were working toward that anyway, but Smith’s injury forced Harbaugh to make the decision earlier than planned.
Harbaugh and the 49ers got lucky in several ways.
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As you might expect when it comes to someone like Smith, his closest friends and supporters – including offensive lineman Joe Staley – were some of the team’s most mature and least volatile players. And while there was private grumbling, it never became public.
Kaepernick also had immediate success with another Smith loyalist, tight end Vernon Davis, who caught six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in Kaepernick’s first start. It didn’t dim Davis’ allegiance to Smith, but his quick connection with Kaepernick softened the transition.
Smith, who has a Ph.D. in rising above ugly situations, also set a conciliatory tone in the locker room, one that Kaepernick recently said he appreciated.
“I think he definitely made things go a lot smoother,” Kaepernick said Wednesday. “The way he handled things – he didn’t turn it into a controversy in the locker room, and that just shows the character he has, not just as a player, but as a man.”
Perhaps most of all, the 49ers won.
Harbaugh made his quarterback decision when the 49ers were getting ready to play the Saints in New Orleans, a place where they hadn’t had a win since Jan. 6, 2002. They won 31-21 that Sunday and then won five of their next seven games before losing in the Super Bowl (in New Orleans).
It’s time-honored sports trope, whether it’s Bear Bryant putting his players through grueling Junction Boys workouts or Tom Coughlin grinding his Giants players so hard he nearly loses his job the season before he takes the team to the Super Bowl: Players will put up with a lot as long as they are celebrating in the locker room after a game.
And working with Harbaugh is no picnic. Lion tamers deal with less ferocious and erratic personalities than those who work alongside Harbaugh.
Among the 49ers players’ list of complaints this year:
• During charter flights, many were accustomed to gathering in the back of the plane, where they played music, cards and dice. Harbaugh pulled the plug on the music and ended the games before their Week 1 flight to Dallas. Players weren’t happy.
• The three-day session at the Ravens’ practice facility in Maryland in August came on the heels of a preseason game and a 2,500-mile flight. The practices were intense, and players thought they were more about Harbaugh wanting to scrimmage against brother John than anything else.
• The defense continues to outperform the offense, despite the offense being loaded with talent. It’s left players wondering why Harbaugh, an offensive-minded coach, hasn’t been able to maximize that talent.
• Harbaugh is a meetings maven. He has a lot of them and he changes the schedules, which has rankled some players.
None of theses issues are explosive or atypical of an NFL team or worthy of a player revolt. All of the players asked this week about national reports about a “toxic” environment or about wanting to oust Harbaugh have been supportive of their head coach, some exceedingly so.
“His attitude is the attitude we take,” linebacker Michael Wilhoite said. “That toughness, that grind, that grit – it’s been bred in us since I first got here.”
And if there are some players dealing with the hate-your-boss blues, here’s some medical advice:
There’s no better cure than a W. Take a few every month or so with a full glass of water. You’ll feel fantastic by January.