Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
As a brainy, conservative and methodical coach—almost to an obsessive-compulsive degree—Jim Harbaugh was 100 percent the antithesis of Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, making him a godsend to the 49ers fanbase, which endured trying times in the 2000 decade.
Not only did he come in as an offensive guru with a sensational pedigree, but he also had the persona of a bona fide player’s coach; he is not the Neanderthal type, in that he’d publicly call out a player or throw his coaching staff under the bus.
All told, Harbaugh does appear to have the makings of one of the next great coaches to grace this league, if he stays the course. Even Pro Football Hall of Fame coach John Madden said the job that Harbaugh has done to date has been one of the greatest of all time, specifically the turnaround in 2011, via Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times.
Now, while the coach's disdain for drama and in-house confrontations have been a major relief since the days of Nolan and Singletary, it has had its downside (no coach is perfect, after all). Simply put, Harbaugh does not want to rock the boat.
So much so, that the 49es coach will hold back when decisions need to be made or intervention is needed. Oddly enough, the one time he truly went out on a limb and made a choice that was entirely his, it paid immense dividends (see: Alex Smith-to-Colin-Kaepernick saga).
When Greg Roman is puttering around with the call sheet and scripting questionable drives—whether it was in the playoffs, the last series of the Super Bowl or these two losses in 2013—Harbaugh never vetoes him, even though he himself is an offensive-minded coach and it might’ve saved the game.
And to a degree, it is wise because he is likely considering the aftermath; namely the toll it can take on their working relationship. After all, Harbaugh does not want Roman to believe that there is any shred of doubt, and by pulling rank, that is exactly what it would show.
But where is the line? When it costs games, you’re cognizant of it when it is happening and you have a “the team, the team, the team” mindset, is it wise to stand idly by, knowing it puts the 49ers further away from their ultimate goal, which is a Super Bowl victory? That’s a tough call.
Another case involved the team’s 2012 first-round pick, A.J. Jenkins.
When Trent Baalke’s hand-selected guy fell flat on his face, the 49ers head coach was left with a complete mess at the wide receiver position. Harbaugh and his coaches had to commit to the top pick for most of the offseason, which is when the organization really should have found a fix.
Instead, they wasted time and reps on Jenkins before finally cutting bait, sending him to the Kansas City Chiefs for wideout Jon Baldwin in a straight-up swap. This was a no-win situation that hurt the 49ers, even more so after not having Mario Manningham and losing Michael Crabtree.
It isn’t an accident or a sporadic blunder on a single decision—it is Harbaugh’s approach.
By not making an executive decision or enforcing his opinion, the 49ers have actually faced setbacks. These are just two examples, but there are several other minor ones peppered in there. Now, it is not condemning his value as a coach; he simply respects the chain of command that was instilled in 2011.
And again, it is the opportunity cost of having a conservative head coach that does not want to make waves.
Same goes for players. Harbaugh is not aggressive in pushing management to acquire outside talent because he does not want to disrupt the herd. Take a look at how he elected to deal with David Akers in 2012, and how conservative the team has been when it comes to the calamity at wide receiver this season.
When Harbaugh does bring in players, he wants to make sure that it is under the right circumstances and that the player will be positively embraced. He does not want to induce any negative energy in his locker room. Hard to blame him for being overly careful, but it is not a perfect methodology.