When a team has a great year, the possibility of a letdown the next season is considerable. It has happened to many teams—the great year followed by a surprising losing record the next.
When that happens, coaches lose their jobs. Players that were stars a year before are waived and replaced by rookies. Quarterbacks get criticized. Announcers and sports writers who predicted another great year wring their hands in confusion and try vainly to explain their mistaken predictions.
A team that finishes with a record of, say, 13-3, and has a classic come-from-behind playoff win followed by a narrow overtime loss, will have difficulty carrying the same spirit and discipline into a new season. The temptation is for the team members to feel over-confident and slack off a bit, resting on the laurels of the previous year.
Repeats are rare, but they do happen.
Repeats happen with teams with discipline and a calm assurance that is not ego-driven. They are often referred to as the start of an NFL "dynasty."
It is not easy to repeat. It takes a team culture that believes in its core that it is not yet the best it can be. It takes a group of individuals who all believe they have not yet played to the top of their ability. And it takes coaches who take nothing for granted and train the squad as if the past season never happened.
From the owner down to the practice squad, they all need to feel vulnerable in their profession. Not afraid, mind you, but aware they can be better.
They cannot feel they have peaked in their profession, or their performance will slide.
This psychological conditioning is a side of the sport (or any sport) that the average fan does not see from the stands. We all watch the plays, and some even watch the players, but few of us ever watch the emotional condition of the team as a unit.
It is not a sexy as a 60-yard pass for a touchdown, but it is important. In the 49ers' case, it is of paramount importance.
Whether they can repeat such a stellar record depends as much on the psychological condition of the coaches and players as it does on individual skill.
I like the discipline the 49ers demonstrated in 2011. I credit that to the head coach, Jim Harbaugh. He came into the NFL as a neophyte NFL coach, but with a plan that involved not only a thick playbook full of X’s and O’s, but also a plan for the psychology of the players.
One could see that immediately if one looked for it. Take Alex Smith, a much criticized quarterback, give him your full backing, convince him of your confidence in him and he becomes the incredibly mistake-free quarterback that nearly took the team to the Super Bowl.
Although Smith was the most obvious example of Harbaugh using good psychology, the entire team felt the same encouragement and teaching style. This style is quite different from the old shout-and-curse put-down coaching style often employed in the NFL. It is more guru than drill sergeant.
Many coaches use threats to instill discipline. But that instills fear, not self-confidence. Harbaugh used teaching skills and compliments to weld the team into a disciplined unit. As your grandma used to say, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
And yet Harbaugh also instilled a sense of self-discipline and toughness that made the entire team less mistake-prone and more effective as a unit. And he did it with a team that had major holes at right guard and in the receiver corps.
The 49ers had great talent over the past decade, but continued losing precisely because they lacked the cohesion and team discipline necessary to capitalize on that talent.
If any coach in the NFL can keep the 49ers on their toes in 2012, Jim Harbaugh is that guy. Competitive? Check. Organized and thorough? Check.
And he knows the art of team psychology.
We can speculate about the talent and performances of the three Smiths, Gore, Moss, Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Willis, Rogers, et al, but my two dollars are on Jim Harbaugh as the MVP.
My bet is that Harbaugh will keep the team disciplined and enthused enough to repeat in 2012, and even have a chance again at the Super Bowl.
I’m betting that 2012 will be the start of a new 49ers dynasty.