San Francisco 49ers

On 49ers: Harbaugh’s methods in stark contrast to Jay Gruden’s brutal honesty

The NFL storylines in Washington this week have revolved around a head coach who was brutally honest and a quarterback who elaborated too much.

Say, what’s that like?

Washington is dealing with almost as much drama and hysterics as the 49ers, but you couldn’t find two teams that handle and process their problems any differently.

After a bad loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, quarterback Robert Griffin III was accused of selling out his teammates. Griffin’s postgame comments were badly misconstrued, but coach Jay Gruden agreed that the quarterback was too expansive with his thoughts.

Gruden didn’t stop there. He (and Jim Harbaugh might want to skip this next bit) criticized his quarterback. Sharply. At length and in great detail.

“His footwork was below average,” Gruden said. “He took three-step drops when he should have taken five. He took a one-step drop when he should have taken three on a couple occasions, and that can’t happen. He stepped up when he didn’t have to step up and stepped into pressure. He read the wrong side of the field a couple times.”

Meanwhile, Harbaugh was asked Wednesday about Colin Kaepernick’s fourth-quarter performance this year.

“I think it’s been pretty darn good,” the relentlessly positive coach said while failing to acknowledge that Kaepernick and the starting offense have yet to score a fourth-quarter touchdown this season and have been bailed out by the defense in recent games.

Too candid? Ask Harbaugh what color the sky is, he’ll tell you that’s information he’d prefer to keep in-house.

Too expansive? Kaepernick’s answer when asked how helpful it’s been to be in the same offensive system for four years: “Very.” His response when asked about the problems the 49ers are having in the red zone this year: “Execution.”

This, of course, is maddening to the media and at least some fans, and Harbaugh and Kaepernick often come away from their press events looking petulant and rude.

But you can’t argue that their North Korea style of information dispersal and skewing of reality haven’t been effective over the years, especially when it comes to crisis management.

The 49ers live in a protective bubble – a thick, opaque, protective bubble – that Harbaugh began building when he was hired in 2011. Very little information escapes the bubble because everyone outside – other teams, the media, many times even the 49ers’ own front office – is viewed as a threat to the chosen few, the band of brothers, within.

It’s always sunny inside the bubble. When Harbaugh insists, with a straight face, that the 49ers didn’t pursue Peyton Manning in free agency (they did) or that Justin Smith didn’t tear his triceps (he did) or that wide receiver Jon Baldwin was ultra competitive in practice (he wasn’t), consider it bubble-speak.

Everything Harbaugh says is meant to protect or shield or pump up his guys. Is it always the truth? No, because the truth can be disruptive.

Asked this week about how the 49ers deal with drama constantly swirling around the team, safety Eric Reid suggested there were nefarious, outside influences at work.

“We’ve been saying it for a long time – not pointing fingers at you guys particularly – but the media says things to divide our team,” Reid said. “And we just come together. We know it’s the media’s job to make a story. But it’s also our job to be a team. No matter what is said outside of this locker room, it doesn’t matter to us.”

The media, of course, didn’t banish linebacker Ahmad Brooks to the bench last Sunday or cause Michael Crabtree to gripe about his role on offense, just two of the issues that have hit the 49ers in recent weeks.

Still, Reid’s comment was a wonderful example of the bubble at work.

It’s effective not only at deflecting or absorbing turmoil but also at digesting it and turning it into something that galvanizes the team. It’s why Harbaugh’s 49ers have handled chaos so well in his tenure: If he can convince his players that everyone is out to get them, it only strengthens their bond.

Jay Gruden’s frankness about Griffin is refreshing and was applauded in the D.C. area. His talented, 24-year-old quarterback is at a crossroads, and Gruden is using brutal honesty to try to jolt Griffin in the right direction.

But it remains to be seen whether the straightforward, frank approach is effective. There’s no question Harbaugh’s method works. In his world, the wins justify the means. If reality is distorted, so what? History won’t remember him massaging the truth or sidestepping a question or brainwashing his players; it will remember wins and losses.

Harbaugh’s teams are 47-18-1 in the past 31/2 seasons and they’ve gone to three consecutive conference championships. That’s all the proof he needs that his methods are tried and, ahem, true.

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