Jim Harbaugh knows no bounds

Imaginative, quirky approach of 49ers coach an unbridled triumph en route to Super Bowl

NEW ORLEANS — The world's next great football coach has been on a roll this week, speaking of incorporating an enthusiasm unknown to mankind, building a beaver dam, lacking a "tweeter," living a childhood that was the opposite of the song Cat's in the Cradle and planning his 5-month-old son's future as a football star.

Yes, Jim Harbaugh is out there.

But perhaps that is part of his genius.

As a football coach, Harbaugh is going places few have gone.


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In his first two seasons as coach of the 49ers, the former quarterback has gone to two NFC championship games and now a Super Bowl on Sunday with a team that won six games the season before his arrival.

"Given where he is today, you have to start discussing him as being in the same category as Bill Walsh," said 49ers running backs coach Tom Rathman, who played for Walsh.

Harbaugh has taken much from Walsh, with whom he met frequently before Walsh's death in 2007. But the former first-round pick of the Bears has taken much from many. It is his flexibility, and his inability to be defined, that separates him.

"Jim has seen a lot of football," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "He has done it a lot of ways. He understands there is no one way you have to do things to be successful."

Whereas most coaches are rigid and slaves to their routines, Harbaugh has no qualms about trying something different. Change is not his enemy.

He frequently will alter the team's practice schedule, or decide to practice inside instead of outside for no apparent reason other than to get the attention of his team.

On a typical play call sheet for the 49ers offense are nearly 400 plays. That's about 300 more than typical for most teams.

Harbaugh is ready for anything.

And he frequently will do what least is expected.

"Last year when everybody was in the spread, he was going two tight ends, two running backs, one wideout," said Fox analyst Tim Ryan, a former Bears teammate of Harbaugh's. "He's willing to change it up and do different things."

During the regular season the 49ers used "22" personnel, which features one wideout, on 237 snaps. That was most in the NFL, according to one team's scouting report, with the Chargers next at 151.

And the 49ers passed out of that setup 67 times.

Harbaugh's 49ers ran the ball more than all but six teams. And they did it in unpredictable ways.

"They have by far the most variety in their run game of any team in the league," Ryan said. "It's not even close."

Harbaugh may be part wizard, but he also is part gym rat.

"He loves being on a team," said Geep Chryst, who coached Harbaugh with the Bears and Chargers and now is his quarterbacks coach. "He just happens to be the coach. He loves being in the chow hall, for instance, sitting down with different guys, whether they are practice squad guys or stars."

Nobody needs any energy drinks with Harbaugh around. He provides the buzz.

Going back to his Bears days, he was always the first one to finish his sprints and the first guy in the weight room. He coaches with that same mentality.

49ers tight end Vernon Davis said he marvels at Harbaugh's motor and "his ability to sustain the amount of energy he has for days, weeks, months."

Harbaugh clearly has a grip on his team. They talk about his storytelling, and when he speaks to the team before a game, even often distracted players are frozen on him.

"He has a talent of connecting with people," 49ers special teams coach Brad Seeley said. "Whatever it is, he has it. He has street cred because he has been a player."

Harbaugh's understanding of the quarterback experience helps explain Colin Kaepernick's rapid development, as well as Alex Smith's passer rating under Harbaugh is 95.1 compared to 72.1 for the other six years of his career, according to STATS.

"He knows what it's like, so it's a QB friendly system," Smith said.

But Harbaugh won't back away from a tough decision.

Like benching Smith. Or cutting Brandon Jacobs.

"Jimmy has brass, man," Ryan said. "Always has. He doesn't give a crap about what anyone thinks."

Out there — out in front of 31 others — is precisely where Jim Harbaugh wants to be.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei

 

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