NFL Coach of the Year 2011: Jim Harbaugh Will Earn Honor for Revitalizing 49ers

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterFebruary 3, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 22:  Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the San Francisco 49ers gestures during the NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants at Candlestick Park on January 22, 2012 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Raise your hand if you thought, before the start of the 2011 NFL season, that the San Francisco 49ers would win 13 games, take the NFC West division title in a landslide and come within a botched play (or two) of playing in the Super Bowl.

Didn't think so.

Now, find me someone more deserving of the honor as the league's Coach of the Year Award than Jim Harbaugh.

Didn't think so, either.

You could make a case for John Fox, who put his pragmatic approach into practice in leading the Denver Broncos to the AFC West title and a playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers amidst the erratic play of Tim Tebow and the occasional brilliance of a young defense. You might even be able to talk some folks into voting for Jim Schwartz, who coached the Detroit Lions to their first playoff berth in 12 years, or Gary Kubiak, who saw the Houston Texans through to their first postseason appearance in franchise history.

But, at the end of the day, the honor clearly belongs to Harbaugh, not only because of what he did, but also how he did it.

That is, with practically the same cast of characters that went 6-10 under Mike Singletary and Jim Tomsula in 2010. Sure, the additions of Aldon Smith, Dante Whitner and Carlos Rogers turned what was a pretty good defense into one of the NFL's best.

However, the most noteworthy improvement came from a guy who was already on the roster—quarterback Alex Smith.

Harbaugh played a crucial role in turning a kid who'd been an unequivocal bust as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft into an efficient and effective game manager under center. That, in itself, would be enough to earn Harbaugh COY honors in most years.

But wait! There's more!

Harbaugh turned the Niners around as a first-year head coach in the NFL who, after a 14-year playing career, spent all of two years tutoring quarterbacks with the Oakland Raiders.

Most notably Rich Gannon, who was already 36 by the time Harbaugh returned to the Bay.

So it's not as though Harbaugh came into the NFL with a whole lot of credibility, at least as a coach. Yet, in Harbaugh came—confident and fiery as ever—with only a truncated, post-lockout offseason to prepare for what turned out to be a seven-win improvement.

SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 10:  Former San Francisco 49ers executive Carmen Policy speaks during a public memorial service for former 49ers coach Bill Walsh as Steve Young (L), Joe Montana (C) and Eddie DeBartolo look on August 10, 2007 at Monster Park in San
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Above all, Harbaugh accomplished all of these things while practically shunning the West Coast offense, the very doctrine that Bill Walsh, the de facto patron saint of the 49ers, made sacred in San Francisco decades ago. Rather than inundate Alex Smith with complicated terminology and attempt to win with a scheme that didn't fit his roster, Harbaugh installed the same smash-mouth style that made his Stanford teams a success. He emphasized the importance of winning the battle in the trenches, running the ball and stopping the run.

And, as a result, he restored the Niners to their former glory, putting them in position to play for the Vince Lombardi Trophy had the ball bounced differently once or twice against the New York Giants.

For that, Harbaugh deserves a rousing round of applause, if not the Coach of the Year Award in a landslide.