For a moment, disregard the Mannings and the Matthews and acknowledge that there is a new first family in the NFL. While only one percent of youths eventually grow up to play professional football, even fewer make it as head coaches.
In 2011, the National Football League experienced a first, when Jim Harbaugh signed on to coach the San Francisco 49ers. Upon inking on the dotted line, Jim joined his brother, John, as the first pair of brothers to become head coaches at the pro level.
On Thanksgiving last year, they set another precedent, becoming the first brothers to head coach against one another. John, the eldest by 15 months, and his Ravens beat kid brother Jim and his 49ers on the national stage.
This was birth of one of the more unique rivalries in all of sports, and it is just beginning.
In so many ways, their coaching styles and team philosophies correlate, but on the other hand, they couldn’t be more different in terms of strengths and points of emphasis.
1. Harbaugh to Harbaugh
John Harbaugh worked his way through the college ranks while his younger brother was playing professional ball. He humbly took positions as an assistant—sometimes non-paying ones—in order to build his résumé, learn and earn recognition.
His background is in special teams, where he has 19 years of experience coaching at the collegiate and pro levels. He made his name with the University of Cincinnati before moving onto the Philadelphia Eagles.
John entered the league as a special teams coordinator, coaching Philadelphia’s unit from 1998 to 2007. Before heading to Baltimore, he was a secondary/safeties coach in his final year with the Eagles.
John embodies more of a defensive-minded coach with an emphasis on fundamentals. He is very technical but more of a walk-around coach who talks with players.
Jim Harbaugh has more of a polished background in that he has already been through the ringer that is the NFL. As a former player, Harbaugh quarterbacked in the league for over a decade.
He was a bit of a journeyman, competing for four different ball clubs from 1987 to 2000. Even more interesting, during Harbaugh’s last seven years as a player, he also participated as an assistant coach and consultant for his father, Jack, at Western Kentucky.
There are not many NFL players—especially quarterbacks—who can say they coach and recruit in their spare time.
Harbaugh has a lot of experiences that have helped him build a callous. Not only is he a brilliant offensive mind, but he is also one of the hardest working men in football. His emphatic go-getter mentality is what made him able to acquire a head coaching position as soon as he was done with the pros.
Harbaugh began as a head coach at the University of San Diego before notably moving on to Stanford.
The offensive-minded coach is the highly coveted one in the NFL. It is rare to find someone who, from an offensive perspective, can out-think his opponent by two or three steps.
The ability to strategize based on real game experience is in invaluable quality. Jim Harbaugh also understands the plight of the average NFL player and he can connect with them on a level that few others can.
All of that, coupled with the work ethic that he showed carrying multiple football positions simultaneously, and you have a recipe for a very dangerous head coach.
2. Bold Decision-Makers
On Dec. 10, John relieved long-time friend and colleague Cam Cameron from his duties as the team’s offensive coordinator.
Their relationship goes back, as Cameron originally hired John to assist him at the University of Indiana, which was his final stop before he joined the NFL. Nevertheless, Harbaugh cut ties with Cameron—professionally—and promoted quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator.
The team went 4-2, including the postseason, with Caldwell calling the shots. From top to bottom, this offense has never looked better.
After the Ravens advanced to the Super Bowl, the humble Cameron told the New York Times that it was a "brilliant move" by Harbaugh and the organization.
In Week 11, Jim Harbaugh had one of the tougher decisions any coach has to make—what to do at the quarterback position? A week prior, Alex Smith had gone down with a concussion, opening the door for second-year player Colin Kaepernick.
The team forged ahead with the young gun from Nevada-Reno, who shined in his first start against the Chicago Bears. From that moment on, Kaepernick ascended into superstardom, continuing his coach’s legacy as a QB guru and football virtuoso.
Here, both men revealed the ability to make unemotional decisions for the betterment of the team.
However, the edge goes to Jim for making a midseason change at the most important position in all of sports. He had a winning quarterback but saw an opportunity to upgrade. He took quite a leap of faith trusting an untested Kaepernick, but the high-risk move paid dividends almost immediately.
This move may eventually be viewed as the one that launched this team from annual contender to new-era dynasty. Though controversial at the time, it was the move of a dignified head coach.
3. The Numbers
As an NFL head coach, John has a record of 54-26, which is good for a career winning percentage of .675. Meanwhile, brother Jim has a record of 24-7-1, winning .774 of his matchups in his first two years in the league.
John and the Ravens have amassed five straight winning seasons, making it to back-to-back AFC Championship Games (2011, 2012). They also have a handful of division titles as well.
While John’s track record is impressive, he took over a program that was already strong. The Ravens had five winning seasons in the 2000-decade prior to John Harbaugh’s arrival.
On the other hand, Jim brought the 49ers back from the abyss, declaring them a contender almost immediately. The resurgence in San Francisco was monumental, as Jim and the Niners really began to turn some heads.
The 49ers were .500 or below for seven straight years.
His impact with the 49ers was incomparable to any other head coach’s in the past decade. The franchise had not seen double-digit wins since 2002 with then-head coach Steve Mariucci.
In 2012, the brothers concurrently accomplished their first conference championships. Though, what took John five years to accomplish in Baltimore, only took Jim two in San Francisco.
This is the reason that John’s value to the Ravens does not compare to Jim’s value to the 49ers.
First and foremost, it should go without saying that both men are outstanding coaches. Each of them has a supreme metaphysical level of communication with their players. The Harbaughs have an ability to reach their athletes and motivate from within, which is arguably the greatest asset they share.
Moreover, both are intensely competitive and play to win.
But it is unchallenged that Jim has been the standout in the NFL. He has made better decisions and his persona as a flamboyant motivator has been well documented. He employs effective tactics to get his players in the correct frame of mind, and rarely misses.
There is irrefutable evidence that Jim Harbaugh is the centerpiece that ignited the surge by the 49ers.
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