Behind the rookie NFL coach, the 49ers finished the 2011 season with an NFL second-best 13-3 record and are sending eight players to the Pro Bowl. This time last year, the 49ers finished 6-10 with two Pro Bowlers.
They will enjoy a first-round bye this weekend and start a playoff run for the first time since 2002.
Harbaugh’s willingness to be unconventional is a major reason for the success of the 49ers. In addition to managing and believing in a team that has been pitiful for years, Harbaugh uses the element of surprise to trump opponents.
Here are five of Harbaugh’s decisions that other coaches wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole.
At season’s end, the 49ers are averaging an NFL-best 27.2 yards per kick return. Last season, they averaged 19.5 yards per kick return and ranked 30th in the NFL.
After the Seahawks came within two points in the fourth quarter, Ginn returned the kickoff with a 102-yard touchdown run to put the 49ers up 26-17. He would then go on to score on a punt return, this time for 55 yards.
Onside kicks are commonly called at the end of a game—after the trailing team scores, still needs more points to come back and doesn’t have enough time to give up the ball one last time. In this case, the opposing team expects it and sets up accordingly.
What doesn’t occur to me is why teams don’t take onside kicks earlier in the game. Instead of waiting until the final minutes of the game, when the opposing team is expecting it anyway, why not take one in the second quarter when it's least expected?
That’s exactly what Jim Harbaugh did against the New York Giants on November 13.
After kicking a field goal with five minutes left in the second quarter, David Akers executed a perfect onside kick, which ended up in the hands of Delanie Walker. The Giants were caught off guard, and the drive kept the ball out of Eli Manning’s hands.
The 49ers went on to kick another field goal at the end of the quarter.
Last season, the 49ers' success rate on fourth down was 50 percent, tied for 12th in the NFL.
Jim Harbaugh's decision to go for it on 4th-and-6 while trailing late in the game to the Detroit Lions spurred an incredible comeback victory on October 16.
Alex Smith threw to Delanie Walker in the end zone as the 49ers went on to hand the Lions their first loss of the season.
Jim Harbaugh has been Alex Smith’s biggest supporter all season long. After Smith’s shaky career thus far, no one would have criticized Harbaugh if he decided to pursue another quarterback to get the job done.
But Harbaugh put his faith in Smith and gave Smith full responsibility of the offense. Smith ended the season with five interceptions, a complete turnaround from his 10 interceptions last season.
While the season hasn’t been perfect, the 49ers’ 13-3 record speaks for itself, and Smith started every game.
Harbaugh has continued his faith in Alex Smith by endorsing his ability and planning on keeping him for next season.