The Harbaugh Brothers' Blueprint for NFL Success
Jim and John Harbaugh transformed the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens into perennial playoff teams, and both men did so without needing to "learn on the job."
John Harbaugh took over for Brian Billick, who won a Super Bowl in 2000, but who also let the team fall into wild inconsistency afterwards. Since Harbaugh took over, the Ravens have had winning seasons, made the playoffs and won a playoff game every single year.
Jim Harbaugh took over for Mike Singletary, who followed Mike Nolan, who followed Dennis Erickson. None of the three coaches before Harbaugh managed to post a single winning season, the 49ers failed to make the playoffs every year, and during that time, the 49ers' winning percentage was .359.
In the two years Harbaugh has been with the 49ers, San Francisco has a regular season record of 24-7-1, made it to the NFC championship game both years and now finds itself headed to Super Bowl XLVII.
Both coaches have made an incredible impact on their teams. Both coaches have changed the culture of their franchises.
So what's their blueprint for success?
John Harbaugh and the Ravens
Harbaugh isn't an offensive-minded or defensive-minded head coach like most of the men who gain head coaching jobs in the NFL. He rose through the ranks as a special teams coach, and his attention to detail and fervency for order and accountability reflect that background.
Harbaugh spent a decade as a special teams coach with three different college teams, then moved up to become the special teams coordinator for Andy Reid's Philadelphia Eagles before landing as head coach in Baltimore.
NFL.com's Albert Breer posted an insightful column before the 2012 season chronicling how Harbaugh changed what had become an "entitled" and "inconsistent" team in Baltimore under Brian Billick.
The Ravens always had a swagger, especially after winning Super Bowl XXXV.
But the team lacked discipline when Harbaugh took the job, and his first order of business was to establish some ground rules to change the culture that ruled during Billick's time. That wasn't an easy task.
He had to pass, in his words, "the credibility test and the trust test" with a team of accomplished professional athletes... Asked what would make him feel good when he looked at his players...he said it would be the way they look back at him. No slouching, no distant eyes, no one dozing off, no one thinking they're too good—or too famous—for the guy next to him.
Harbaugh's ideas don't mesh well with some of today's me-first athletes.
And let's not forget that many of the players on Baltimore's roster wanted Rex Ryan to be the next head coach of the Ravens before Harbaugh was hired.
According to the Baltimore Sun's Peter Schmuck, back in 2011:
...there have been some notable defections during his tenure and an undercurrent of supposed discontent that seemed to bubble up when superstar Ed Reed told ESPN during the lockout that his teammates originally wanted Ryan to replace Brian Billick.
Ryan was and is a players' coach who likes to let the inmates run the asylum.
Harbaugh is a throwback, and Schmuck writes, "He's a tough master. It's not like that was ever a secret."
His tough-guy approach almost blew up in his face earlier this season.
Ray Lewis had just been lost for what most believed would be the rest of the 2012 season during the team's Week 6 taxing 31-29 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
Baltimore was blown out in spectacular fashion by the Houston Texans in Week 7—a game in which the Ravens were stymied on offense to the tune of 176 yards and 13 points while the Texans racked up 420 yards and 43 points.
Harbaugh's response was to call for a practice in full pads—an idea Reed strongly objected to, and one that almost led to a full-blown mutiny, according to Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver. But Harbaugh turned what could have been a disastrous situation into one that ultimately benefited the club.
"It was practically a mutiny," one Ravens player recalled. "It came very close to getting out of control. But the way Coach Harbaugh handled it was amazing. He let people have their say, and he listened, and he explained himself, and pretty soon it was like a big group-therapy session. In the end, a lot of positive things were said. We didn't practice in pads, but we came out of there stronger as a group."
And now that the team has come this far, Harbaugh's players credit him for their success.
According to the team's website, center Matt Birk recently said, “When you want to play for a guy, I think you play a little harder. You do some of the extra things that it takes to be successful.”
Reed also added:
He humbled himself. He knows what day I’m talking about—the bye week—to really listen to his players. … It was just something we had to go through as men and understand each other and understand the process together.
From my perspective, it takes a rare and special gift to ride the fine line between taskmaster and players' coach.
This Harbaugh has nailed.
Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers
Harbaugh has been a breath of fresh air for fans of the 49ers who suffered under a yoke of mediocrity—or worse—for eight seasons.
A former player, "Captain Comeback" coaches just like he used to play: He wears his emotions on his sleeve and knows how to get the most out of the players around him.
Harbaugh was an All-American quarterback at the University of Michigan before being selected by the Chicago Bears in the first round of the 1987 NFL Draft. He spent 14 years in the NFL—his best year coming in 1995 when he won the AP's Comeback Player of the Year award and made it to his only Pro Bowl.
During his final eight years as a pro, Harbaugh was a special assistant to his father, Jack, at Western Kentucky, where he helped recruit players to his father's program.
When he retired from the NFL, Harbaugh spent a couple of years coaching Rich Gannon as the quarterbacks coach of the Oakland Raiders. Gannon won the AP's MVP award in 2002 under Harbaugh's tutelage.
From there, Harbaugh spent three seasons as the head coach at the University of San Diego, transforming the Toreros into a team that won 11 games in his final two seasons and turning Josh Johnson into an All-American quarterback.
He then took over at Stanford from 2007-2010, turning a program that won just a single game in 2006 into a dominant national-title-contending team that won 12 games in 2010. During this time, he developed Andrew Luck into a Heisman candidate and helped him become the excellent pro player he now is for the Indianapolis Colts.
In 2011, Harbaugh took over for a team that languished under the heavy hand of Mike Singletary, who envisioned a team that would out-physical its opponent with a punishing running game and devastating defense.
Harbaugh made Singletary's vision come to life, but his approach couldn't have been more different.
He made it clear that Bill Walsh's West-Coast offense make a return to the City by the Bay and actually dug up old coaching tape featuring Walsh installing game plans (h/t CSNBayArea.com's Matt Maiocco).
Another coach he gleaned from was Lindy Infante. ESPN.com's Mike Sando chronicled Harbaugh's connection to Infante back in 2011:
Lindy doesn't get near the credit that Bill Walsh does. But in many ways they are equals in terms of football minds. I never played for Bill Walsh, but there's no question in my mind.
From a quarterback standpoint, I learned from him that there were more ways to read a route than just through a progression. I learned how to throw people open from him, that covered did not mean covered. That is a huge part of football now. The whole option game, the option routes, the smash concepts—all those things I learned from him. He was very technical, very detailed. Just a different way to understand the passing game is what I learned from him.
It's clear that Infante's influence has helped him become the quarterback guru he is, evidenced in Alex Smith's extraordinary turnaround in his first year under Harbaugh.
Before Harbaugh's arrival, Smith's career numbers were poor: He completed just 864 of 1,514 passes (57 percent) for 11,399 yards with 51 touchdowns and 53 interceptions.
After Harbaugh's arrival, Smith blossomed into a competent—nay, a darn-near elite quarterback. He completed 426 of 663 passes (64 percent) for 4,881 yards with 30 touchdowns compared to just 10 interceptions.
And Smith wasn't the only player to flourish under Harbaugh's guidance. The entire team has functioned at a higher level since he's arrived. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Harbaugh adheres to a coaching philosophy known as "positive coaching."
The Sacramento Bee's Matthew Barrows penned an article before the 2012 season in which he detailed Harbaugh's style:
To sports psychologists, Harbaugh's style is known as positive coaching, and they see it as part of a movement away from the traditional, profane, in-your-face style symbolized by coaches such as Bill Parcells, Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher. To players, Harbaugh's rosy, public appraisals build loyalty in their coach and faith in themselves.
Many people chuckled at Harbaugh's gushing praise over his players, but the naysayers would be wise to take a step back to see what his statements have birthed.
The 49ers now play like a team impervious to pressure.
And Harbaugh's decision to bench Smith permanently in favor of the youngster, Colin Kaepernick, could have sunk the battleship.
But the players trusted their head coach, even when some were visibly torn over the change.
Nobody's torn now, as Kaepernick has proven Harbaugh's genius a thousand times over.
This Harbaugh knows the power of positive thinking, and he has his players believing they're ready to bring home Lombardi Trophy No. 6 to San Francisco.
The Harbaugh brothers have taken two distinctly different paths to Super Bowl XLVII, but they're both branches off the same tree.
Jack Harbaugh has instilled an indomitable will to succeed and prosper in his two sons, and though their strategies may differ, the results have been the same.
Will the veteran team led by the elder brother triumph, or will the younger team led by the younger brother prove to be superior?
Which Harbaugh will win Super Bowl XLVII?
This question will be decided on February 3.
For now, let's just appreciate the triumphs of these two brothers who made it to the pinnacle of their profession in such a short amount of time.
Long live the Harbaughs.
Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78
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