During the buildup to this Sunday night's game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Detroit Lions, there has been some media focus on last year's infamous handshake incident between Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz. And why wouldn't there be?
As much as each coach wants to downplay what happened, the fact remains that it was a pretty entertaining little flareup that many football fans and members of the sporting press alike enjoy rehashing. Plenty would undoubtedly like to see another fiasco between the two, perhaps even an escalation of last year's extracurricular activities.
However, a popular tack for much of the media has been to assign blame to one coach or the other for instigating the whole thing, and the blame has overwhelmingly been placed at Harbaugh's feet. That isn't to say that there is much animosity toward Harbaugh about what happened, except maybe in the greater Detroit area, only that he shoulders the blame.
This is wrong.
In the first quarter of the game in Detroit, Harbaugh challenged a scoring play by the Lions, triggering an automatic 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, given that each touchdown is automatically reviewed upstairs and is therefore not open to coaches' challenges.
I remember the play distinctly and recall even more vividly the rage that nearly overcame me while the cameras showed Schwartz standing on the other sideline openly mocking Harbaugh, pointing and yelling at him and generally breaking the unspoken protocol that coaches follow, which is the exact accusation Schwartz levied against Harbaugh in his postgame press conference. But, I digress.
Now, as far as I am aware, Harbaugh has never publicly acknowledged Schwartz's mockery and has certainly never even insinuated that he gave Schwartz a retaliatory slap on the back after Schwartz embarrassed him (although Harbaugh did enough on his own to guarantee his embarrassment by challenging an unchallengeable call in the first place).
But, make no mistake about it, Harbaugh was aware of Schwartz screaming wildly at him and waving his arms around like some half-crazed Justin Bieber concertgoer suffering from an early onset of dementia.
And, Harbaugh most certainly did not forget about it after his team pulled out an improbable, come-from-behind victory in the waning moments of the fourth quarter. So when Harbaugh put a little extra emphasis into his handshake/back pat, he was essentially telling Schwartz, "Hey pal, who's laughing at who now, huh?"
I don't blame Schwartz for flipping out and going after Harbaugh. Anyone who had just had his nose rubbed in a very tough defeat by the opposing coach would have reason to lose it just a little bit.
Harbaugh's actions were hardly the epitome of class or humility. But in Schwartz' case, he created the very reason for the instigative actions from Harbaugh after the game. So in effect, Schwartz is the one to blame and not Harbaugh since he is the original instigator.
After all, while I don't blame Schwartz for losing his composure, I also don't blame Harbaugh for letting him know who got the last laugh when all was said and done.
Fierce competitors like Harbaugh are wanting to take a little extra satisfaction out of a particularly hard-fought victory, just like equally competitive coaches like Schwartz are wanting to react poorly to an obvious slight after suffering an excruciating defeat.
The fact is that Schwartz was the one who initially violated the protocol he accused Harbaugh of breaching. This is an odd accusation since a coach with 15 years of playing experience in the NFL and who broke into the NFL coaching ranks under the tutelage of Al Davis would presumably have come to terms with this unspoken protocol between coaches by now.
I've seen coaches scream at a lot of people, and worse, while they prowl the sidelines, but I can't remember any incident where a coach screamed at the opposing coach or did anything along those lines who wasn't then roundly criticized for such behavior.
Somehow, Harbaugh's actions have overshadowed what was arguably a more egregious violation of whatever vague set of morals Schwartz feels are in place for coaches, which, incidentally, he does not feel apply to him.
The episode ended up being indicative of the two teams' seasons from that point forward. Some of Schwartz' players, specifically Ndamukong Suh, displayed the characteristics of their coach by also losing their composure when things did not go their way during games, and they stumbled for several weeks afterward following a 6-0 start.
The 49ers took on the us-against-the-world sort of mentality that Harbaugh is so good at fostering. The 49ers clearly relished the opportunity as the season progressed to play the role of underdog and turn any slight into motivation, which turned every victory into a chance to say to all their doubters, "Hey pal, who's laughing at who now, huh?"
Of course, none of this really matters. Regardless of what happens between the lines, there will not be any resurrection of last year's hostilities between the two Jims. When all is said and done, we, as fans, and prognosticators like to magnify these sorts of episodes.
However, the reality is that, in the life of ultra-competitive people like those who rise to the highest ranks of the football-coaching world, what happened between Harbaugh and Schwartz are mere blips on the radar screen and typical of the territory that comes with the relentless pursuit of victory.
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