Posted January 21, 2014

49ers’ Jim Harbaugh finally finds grace and humility in the agony of defeat

NFL Playoffs, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks
Once again, Jim Harbaugh and San Francisco came up short against a tough opponent in a big playoff game. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Once again, Jim Harbaugh and San Francisco came up short against a tough opponent in a big playoff game. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — Jim Harbaugh is wired for success. In football, he’s gotten results wherever he’s gone. For the Michigan Wolverines from 1983 through 1986, he was one of the Big Ten’s best quarterbacks, leading the conference in yards per attempt in each of his last three seasons. He was selected in the first round of the 1987 draft by the Chicago Bears, and he threw for over 26,000 yards and 129 touchdowns for four different NFL teams. He gave the San Diego Toreros and Stanford Cardinal new winning identities as a college head coach, mixing a constant, tough-minded approach with his own thoughts on how to use the passing game with great success, no matter who his quarterbacks may have been.

And when the San Francisco 49ers hired him to be their head coach in 2011, Harbaugh took a talented team to the next level with a few extra parts and a heaping helping of order, discipline and winning attitude. What initially sound like clichés are never as easy to instill as one may believe, but Harbaugh was able to do it with the 49ers at an historic level — in 2013, he became the first NFL head coach to lead his team to three straight conference championships in his first three seasons.

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But when speaking after his 49ers lost the 2013 NFC Championship game 23-17 to the Seattle Seahawks, none of Harbaugh’s past successes seemed to matter to him. He was stripped bare emotionally, forced to reflect on the fact that in each of those three seasons, he and his team had fallen agonizingly short.

In 2011, the 49ers lost the conference title to the New York Giants in overtime, as receiver Kyle Williams fumbled two returns to keep the eventual Super Bowl champions in the game long enough to steal it with a field goal. In 2012, Harbaugh had to experience the sensation of losing the Super Bowl to his brother’s team — and the 49ers were one completion to Michael Crabtree away from winning the game. On fourth-and-goal from the Baltimore five-yard line, quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw to Crabtree, who appeared to be held by Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith, with 1:50 left in the game. There was no call, and Baltimore got the ball on downs. After the game, Harbaugh spent a very long time indeed complaining about the officiating, which fit his public persona of the difficult genius who is so wired to win, he can’t seem to process defeat.

Thus, his reaction to his latest postseason loss at the visitors’ podium at CenturyLink Field was a bit of a revelation. Harbaugh was not contentious. He did not complain. He was gracious in defeat as he perhaps had never been in victory, and it was an extension of his attitude over the last few weeks, as his 49ers team turned things around with eight straight wins before this oh-so-close defeat. This time around, Kaepernick threw to Crabtree again, but the outcome was never in doubt. Any fade throw to Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman is an engraved invitation to a turnover, and when Sherman batted the ball in the end zone to linebacker Malcolm Smith with 30 seconds left, it was all over but the shouting.

Except that, for once, Harbaugh left the shouting at the door.

Though he was his usual prickly self on the field at the very hint of a bad call (which in his mind is any call that goes against the 49ers), Harbaugh seemed to have made peace with the result. Even when linebacker NaVorro Bowman appeared to recover a Seahawks fumble with 8:54 left in the game on a play in which Bowman may have suffered a torn ACL, Harbaugh refused to take the bait.

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“That’s just the rule,” he said, when asked why he couldn’t review possession. “Just a loophole in the rule. Once they rule it a fumble, it’s in the field of play and the ball is ruled recovered by the Seahawks, and it can’t be reviewed by me. So, I asked them what happens if I do challenge it, and he [referee Gene Steratore] said that you’ll lose a timeout and we won’t review it.”

But did that change the momentum, he was asked?

“Well, on the very next play we recovered a fumble that put us on the 11-yard line instead of the one-yard line, so I can’t say that, no. I can’t say that had any factor in the game because of what happened on the next play.”

By that time, the 49ers had lost the lead they’d held for three quarters as Kaepernick’s game started to fall apart after a ridiculously successful beginning. The dual-threat player ran for 130 yards in this game, the second-most by any quarterback in a playoff game — and Kaepernick owns the record as well, with 181 yards in the divisional round last season. Seahawks player after Seahawks player praised Kaepernick’s athleticism and the designed runs the 49ers used early on to take advantage of it. And when Kaepernick busted loose for a 58-yard scamper with 12:30 left in the first half, it seemed that things were finally rolling the right way. The touchdown run by Anthony Dixon four plays later gave San Francisco a 10-0 lead, but the Seahawks became a different team in the second half, and sadly for Harbaugh, so did the 49ers.

San Francisco’s last three possessions of the game ended with turnovers, and the Seahawks scored 10 points in the fourth quarter while shutting the 49ers out. Kaepernick lost a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Michael Bennett, he threw his first interception to safety Kam Chancellor on the next drive, and he finished off the game — and the 49ers’ season — with that ill-advised duck to the NFL’s best cornerback.

Harbaugh was not the fire-breathing coach one might expect in the face of such failures. He was kind and patient with his players, explaining the importance of being in this arena in the first place, and he went through Kaepernick’s mistakes using logic instead of anger.

“Well, he got flushed on the one fumble, and [defensive end Cliff Avril] did a nice job running the rim and struck him with the ball. The first interception on the boundary, Kam Chancellor was … Kap never saw him. [Chancellor] buzzed out underneath the double move by [intended receiver] Anquan [Boldin]. And the final interception, the ball thrown to Crabtree, could have gone either way. If that goes by an inch or two, Crabtree catches it for a touchdown, and we win.

“But Richard Sherman made a terrific play — he made a great athletic play batting the ball, getting a hand on it, and deflecting the pass. That’s what I saw.”

In the end, and quite against type, Harbaugh learned to enjoy the moment, to understand that these occurrences aren’t all that common, and to pass that thought along to his players when his players surely needed them.

“The way I assess it is that not many people get to be in this competition at this level. I thought our guys had tremendous fight. I think our guys are great football players, and congratulations to the Seattle Seahawks. They were also in this arena, and they won the football game and they’re moving on. That’s how I assess it.”

It’s a far cry from the fit he threw after Super Bowl XLVII, but perhaps in losing once again, Harbaugh has learned to distance himself from the martinet tendencies that have unraveled even some of the few coaches who have been more successful than he has early on.

“They have great fight,” Harbaugh concluded about his players. “What more could a coach ask for?”

Perhaps a deeper insight into the idea that success is never final, and failure is never fatal. More than ever, Harbaugh seemed to take one of John Wooden’s most famous aphorisms to heart, and he spread that emotion around.

110 comments
Bluydlefty
Bluydlefty

Coach needs to change his image after losing and his dismissive, arrogant (how dare you ask me that question) attitude. He knows that if he doesn't get a contract extension with the 49er's he must take a better attitude to any new courting teams. Yes, the 49er's will let him go if he demands too much $$$$.


rodp236
rodp236

I don't doubt his ability and intense motivation ( he must be really focused on football to dress in those over sized khakis), but his sideline rants get tedious.Every play and every call-- give it a rest.

radioactivez0r
radioactivez0r

This manages to read as one, long, backhanded compliment.

6marK6
6marK6

The guy is a poor game manager. I think the Niners are far and away the most talented team in the NFL, but this is two disappointing outs in two years. Jimmy needs to get a new offensive coordinator, stat!!!

x72
x72

If the officiating would have been on the level the 49ers would be advancing to the SB.

badcyclist1
badcyclist1

Harbaugh was great at USD, and ironically, I think he might have been happier there than at Stanford or San Francisco.  


He loves small-college football (he was the son of a small-college coach) and he felt very comfortable at USD-- a school with a small-town atmosphere that works harder than most to balance academics and athletics.  Harbaugh understood that, and worked wonders with the football program while understanding that the kids there were there for a quality education, not to play pro ball.

oldtimer55
oldtimer55

Good on Harbaugh.  I've always been annoyed by his raving lunacy on the sidelines, but the video above shows a lot of class:  giving a lot of credit to his Seahawks, praising both teams, not throwing Capernick under the bus for his picks, not complaining about the officiating.

petersbody
petersbody

The sign that Harbaugh has grown up and shed the hubris that stands in his own way is that day he mournfully explains just how in the hell he failed to draft his own Stanford player Richard Sherman, and that that failure was his biggest mistake. That he said "Sherman made a great play" after the game Sunday suggests that Harbaugh is 5% of the way there. But hardly an indication that he "finally finds grace and humility in the agony of defeat".

humdrumdrumhumming
humdrumdrumhumming

maybe the 12-year-old dooshbag is finally starting to grow up…..



a little…



Mech
Mech

Hey Harbough is a great coach ,,,, he just isn't a great person. But then a lot of coaches fall short there. He has the talent, he just needs to break through and he probably will. I don't like the guy, but he gets the job done and I am a Seahawk fan but I loved beating those guys because they are the best ,,,well second best,,,, and Denver is next.

jimpatten71
jimpatten71

Sad to see the refs not getting the fumble call right on the one yard line.  Good that S.F. got the ball back right after in better position (Karma), but they goofed it up by giving the ball right back to Seattle.

jimpatten71
jimpatten71

If you notice, Harbaugh goes crazy on EVERY CALL that does not go his way… EVERY CALL, even though it's quite obvious to everyone watching.  He looks like a nut on the field.

T. Jefferson
T. Jefferson

Harbaugh knows what he needs to work on with his quarterback.  Joe Montana said it and so have many other experts:  Kaepernick needs to improve as a pocket passer in terms of vision, accuracy and decision making.   This was Kap's first full season as the starter so he still has a high ceiling but he needs to take those criticisms to heart and improve on those particular skills.  If he can do that, the Niners will be back, be a much better offensive team and finally get over the roadblock that has kept them from Number Six.

carloL
carloL

I am not a Niners fan... this post game interview by Harbaugh was different: no excuses, classy, humble, direct and honest. Lots of respect for that. Great championship caliber Coaches coach and lead... Players have to actually go out and make the plays by definition that are and must be measured differently... these San Francisco 49ers have plenty of great years ahead many very good / talented teams would gladly take and keep a coach that leads their team to 3 consecutive championship games... the difference between the best teams in the NFL now is only extremely slim margins. 

NFL_Madness
NFL_Madness

Harbaugh was a good QB when he played but the knock on him was, he couldn't deliver a championship.  I love what he has done in SF, restored pride to the 49ers, but can he get over the hump?  3 title game appearances is great but 0-3 in those games are not.

Mech
Mech

I will enjoy the Superbowl as a Seahawk fan ,,,,, but honestly beating the niners was so sweet it made my year. Crushing their dreams and kicking their Superbowl hopes out the window was just something to warm you all year long. The Niners are a better team then the Broncos and we will likely intercept them to death ,,, all I can say to Denver is have your backup quarterback ready because while I respect the H out of Manning and his career he cannot withstand a sustained barrage of 300 lb linemen jumping on his back. So be ready to do the humanitarian thing and get him out of that game while he can still walk.

Eugene-Dunga
Eugene-Dunga

Pam Oliver's post game interview with Harbaugh was really a drag. She tried desperately to bait him into confirming her words that he was "devastated." Man, it was really cheap "journalism." She offered him no dignity and did everything in her power to pick at his wound. Nice!

oldtimer55
oldtimer55

Happy to hear Harbaugh accepted defeat so gracefully.  He's always looked like a lunatic on the sidelines.  I'm impressed he didn't complain about the officiating.  Although the refs made some bad calls (particularly the missed roughing the punter), I respect how tough the job is.  Remember the replacement refs?

DRRL
DRRL

Lifetime Hawks fan here... 

I've disliked Harbaugh's sideline demeanor since he came to SF. I've never been a 49er hater, and appreciated so many of their quality players past and present.  But did NOT like Harbaugh ... until the last month or so. I've watched his locker room speeches, and, together with his amazingly gracious and measured postgame interview, I have new-found respect for him. Turns out he's a complex character (aren't we all?). I hope this rivalry is long lived!

GoBothWays
GoBothWays

He's an &(#%hole.  Remind me of his great success at the Bears again?  Is he in the HOF and I missed the announcement?

JimCody
JimCody

Who writes this nonsense?

sojourntech
sojourntech

As a neutral observer I have to say one of the worst officiated games I've seen...not just the fumble-the phantom illegal hit on SEA receiver, the guy pushed out of bounds with the ball in play, the "oh, we're not sure if that was grounding or not" delayed call. VERY embarrassing for the NFL. You'd expect better. Hope they use some sharper refs next year!

davidhd
davidhd

49er fans still crying about the "bad calls." I love it! It does nothing but create more pain as your complaints fall on deaf ears and everyone focuses on the two teams that are still playing in two weeks. You want to talk about humility and class? Quit whining and admit your team got beat last night. That's what really happened. Seattle fumbled on the first play of the game, held on critical plays both on offense and defense, and somehow let Kaepernick run in the first quarter (something they usually don't allow), or the hawks would have won more comfortably. Seattle was the better team this season, and they've proved it. 

rodp236
rodp236

@x72Ya, its always the refs---get rid of them all....................clueless comment.

jjtruth
jjtruth

@badcyclist1  Harbaugh moved on, moved out and moved up with Stanford and now the pros.  You need to get over it.

humdrumdrumhumming
humdrumdrumhumming

@T. Jefferson 


those also happen to be the hardest things for quarterbacks to acquire, and the reason the entire league spends first round picks on guys who ALREADY have those skills coming out of college



kaepernick is only one of the league's best quarterbacks when he's running all over, but harbaugh put the clamps on him during the regular season so he wouldn't get hurt… regular seasons are going to look ugly --- like this year


the 49ers are loaded at every position, except pocket passer.. 


i don't remember Vick, McNair, Romo, Cunningham, Leaf, Jamarcus, Cutler, Bradford, Smith "getting more accurate", those skills are a lifetime of learning,  and playing four years of college where Kaep ran for 1,000 yards a season doesn't help you learn to make reads and thrive in the pocket…



Kaepernick may have only finished his "first full season" -- but he turns 27 later this year



that quarterback coaching better happen quick...

checkpointcharlie
checkpointcharlie

@NFL_Madness He's 1-2 in the NFCC, and 0-1 in the Super Bowl. Not a good result in three tries, but not 0-3 in the NFCC either.

McKenna49
McKenna49

You can shut up now, enough with this blind arrogance. You think Payton Manning will be scared? HA! Are you stupid? Well maybe you are because if you have ever even watched a game of his you know what he does to defenses, he picks them apart, destroys them. So what makes the seahawks d different than that, nothing is the answer. You're right though, one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game should not even come on the field, he should be so scared. It's weird how the broncos line have good technique and can easily block better than the 9ers. Because of your blind arrogance I can't wait to hear "Omaha Omaha" before picking apart every fragment of your defense. You're blind, you have a fantastic corner in Sherman no doubt. But he has 3 maybe four fantastic receivers who all bring something different to the table. And no, not a broncos fan at all, an eagles actually. But looks at the facts before you say something stupid. Broncos have an amazing running and passing game, it should be a great game. I would watch it before making such an assumption, and let's not forget who has the most heart, I'm almost certain Payton has more and knows the game more than anybody and I mean anybody on the seahawks.

T. Jefferson
T. Jefferson

@Eugene-Dunga 

I hate to say it but she looks cheap with her fake street-walker hair color.  She needs to go back to her more natural hair color.

danialDanger
danialDanger

@Eugene-Dunga cheap journalism for sure! They come into those interviews with there story already developed and there own angle. 

EarlMartyPrice
EarlMartyPrice

@Eugene-Dunga It was the weave, Pam canot go to the place that does Trumps!! Her weave had a succubus like controlling quality, but our coach fought it off!!!

Jules de la Zazette
Jules de la Zazette

@Eugene-Dunga Agree. These sideline bimbos, and some of their weaker male counterparts, are merely looking for sound bites. Crap that will be replayed ad nauseam on ESPN, YouTube and beyond. It's a HUGE stretch to even call this sports journalism.

sojourntech
sojourntech

@oldtimer55 With all due respect oldtimer I disagree. Is it realistic for a guy to miss a call on the field? Sure. But remember most of the officiating staff aren't on the field, they are inside monitoring video. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to stop, view the video and make the right recommendation to the umpire below. It was horrible execution from an enterprise that generates $billions annually. No excuse for the sloppiness...and yes there were a couple of sloppy calls against the hawks as well. I bet the NFL is thinking "thank God for the Sherman flap" since it distracts from their poor performance.

essdee
essdee

@JimCody 

writers, editors, interns.  using pen, computers, etc.  

checkpointcharlie
checkpointcharlie

@davidhd  Who's crying about bad calls? Even Harbaugh said that the bad fumble call didn't affect the outcome of the game. I don't see 49er fans claiming that the team lost due to bad calls.


And your statement about the "hawks would have won more comfortably" is absurd. You're basically saying, "if the 'hawks played better, they would have done even better". Heck, you could say the same thing about the 49ers..."If the Niners played better, they would have beat the Seahawks."


You're an embarrassment to the Seahawks fan base. I bet you were the guy throwing popcorn on Navarro Bowman as he was carted off the field.

T. Jefferson
T. Jefferson

@humdrumdrumhumming@T. Jefferson 

Steve Young was a run first QB and was still pretty raw when he was acquired by Bill Walsh.  It seems to me that he learned the pocket passer skills that were not natural for him.

Mech
Mech

@McKenna49 Be here after the game to take your own bitter pill of humiliation. The Seahawks will destroy that line. You might want to look at the preseason game and what we did to your vaunted line then. The score was 40-10,,, yeah it was preseason but we destroyed you.

checkpointcharlie
checkpointcharlie

@sojourntech @oldtimer55 The mistake was the initial call, not the refusal to allow a replay challenge. The refs were just enforcing the rules, no matter how ridiculous the rule is.

bigga_figga
bigga_figga

@JeremyBartelme


Awww, look at that... another butt-hurt Forty-Whiners loser who is so angry that he's using his keyboard to shout.


Haw haw!

JeremyBartelme
JeremyBartelme

@humdrumdrumhumming @T. Jefferson LOOK YOU ARE OBVIOUSLY A HOMER SEADDERALL CHEATHAWK TROLL, AND YES CUNNINGHAM AND SMITH HAVE BECOME BETTER PASSERS AS THEY HAVE GAINED EXPERIENCE, AND NO BILL WALSH IS NOT AROUND, BUT HARBAUGH IS NO SLOUCH OF A QB COACH, GL TRYING TO GET BACK NEXT YEAR AFTER YOUR ROSTER IS PICKED CLEAN....HOMER

humdrumdrumhumming
humdrumdrumhumming

@T. Jefferson 


ps the biggest reason for Young's improvement was the talent on the 49ers… Young left the worst team in the league to play for the best team in the league when he went from Tampa Bay to SF..



Kaepernick has spent his entire NFL career on the most talented roster in the NFL,  imagine how he'd look on Tampa Bay right now…


there is no enormous talent upgrade awaiting Kaepernick, all his improvements must be his own..

humdrumdrumhumming
humdrumdrumhumming

@T. Jefferson @humdrumdrumhumming 


ummm, I'm not sure you're aware of this, but Bill Walsh is no longer around to tutor Kaepernick…


and, oh by the way


Steve Young was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.. 


after a college career that saw him complete 65 pct of his passes, and finish second in the Heisman voting…


Steve Young threw for 3,100 yards as a junior, and as a senior Young threw for 3,900 yards and 33 touchdowns


Young ran for 400 yards as a jr and sr, and 18 td's --- but he was a passing quarterback who could run, not vice versa…




Colin Kaepernick only completed over 60 pct of his passes in one of his four years at Nevada -- Kaep was a career 58 pct passer in college..


Kaepernick was never among the  Heisman voters, he threw for 3,000 yards in only one of his four years (3,022 as a senior)… Kaepernick was most dangerous on the ground… he ran for 4,000 yards in college…



Kaepernick was a run-first passer who put up numbers at a small school (which he never led to much success), that's why he was drafted in the second round, behind several other qb's…



Kaepenick is still a run first QB at his best, Steve young was a lethal passer who could also beat you with his legs…



that's a huge difference…




so unless you've got Bill Walsh, and a version of Kaepernick that woiuld've been drafted No. 1 overall….



no, i don't think Young and Kaepernick are a very good comparison at all…



and even if they were, that's anecdotal… you need to name multiple qb's/comparisons (like i did) to support your -- flimsy -- theory about how he's going to conquer those easily fixable things that make the difference between peyton manning and matthew stafford…


don't you think all the qb's with an arm and physical tools would be amazing by their third year if it was so easy to fix tiny little things like "accuracy", "pocket presence", "football intelligence", "read progression", "touch"… 


but i've already gone on too long…   those things you casually mention are the difference between CFL qb's and NFL Pro-Bowlers…


but I forgot, Kaepernick is different -- the special one...

JeremyBartelme
JeremyBartelme

@Mech @McKenna49 JUST another home game for the cheathawks, no homefield now and no chance to pop some ped's before the game lol

donpldp
donpldp

@essdee @Ray1950 Seachicken hurry up and get a ring so you can stop squawking on our five ring NINERS post. Only champions allowed here!

essdee
essdee

@Ray1950

uh.  fans all around the world do this.  where have you been...

Ray1950
Ray1950

@Mech @McKenna49 Mech, this is the second or third time today that I've seen you refer to "we" when discussing Seattle's success.


By the way, if you're going to base the Super Bowl result on a preseason game, you know less about football than I already thought you did.


"We"  ... LOL!