However, the turnaround wouldn’t be easy. The 49ers had just missed the playoffs for the eighth straight season, and they hadn’t had a winning season since 2002. The good news was the franchise had talented building blocks on both sides of the ball. It’s not like San Francisco had to rebuild, all it had to do was retool.
This, in turn, factored into Harbaugh’s decision to accept the head coaching position when the Niners offered it to him. Yet, he also felt the San Francisco job presented the perfect challenge. Here’s what he told David White of the San Francisco Chronicle during his introductory news conference:
It's the perfect competitive challenge. I look forward to coaching against John Harbaugh, Bill Belichick and the many great coaches in the NFL. That kind of challenge, I willingly accept it and I look very much forward to it.
Undoubtedly, Harbaugh has made the "challenge" of coaching the 49ers look incredibly easy by exceeding expectations on an annual basis. Since his inception, he has amassed a 36-11-1 regular-season record and San Francisco has won two division championships.
As far as postseason play goes, Harbaugh and the Niners have one conference championship to their name, they possess a 4-2 record overall and made their third straight postseason appearance in 2013. Multiple organizations in the NFL would kill for that same type of success.
In fact, Harbaugh has had so much success that he is the third coach in history to win at least one playoff game in each of his first three seasons. The only other coaches to do it before him were Barry Switzer and John Harbaugh.
Even though the 50-year-old coach makes winning look easy, we have to remember that winning in the postseason is amazingly difficult. With that being said, let’s examine what makes Harbaugh such a successful postseason coach.
To be fair, nothing in the NFL should be classified as simple. Yet, as far as NFL standards go, Harbaugh does a phenomenal job of keeping things as simple as possible in relation to his players. He knows his players and their limitations. He will rarely force one of his players to do something on the field that makes them feel uncomfortable.
For a case in point, look at Alex Smith and the 49ers offense from 2011. Rather than forcing his offensive system on Smith, during a lockout-shortened offseason, Harbaugh identified his signal-caller's strengths and retained a system that was similar to the one San Francisco ran in 2010.
Sure, he and offensive coordinator Greg Roman added in a few wrinkles to help the offense evolve as the season pressed on, but in large part the offense remained the same. This proved to be the right move, because Smith had a career year in 2011.
Aside from passing for 3,144 yards, he turned the ball over five measly times, garnered a quarterback rating of 90.7 and finished the year as the eighth-best quarterback in the league, according to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Smith was ridiculously fun to watch under Harbaugh’s tutelage.
Harbaugh played into what Smith did well. He rarely asked the veteran quarterback to throw on the run or force passes into tight windows. Instead, he forced Smith to get the ball out quickly, while using three-step drops and play-action passes to his advantage.
When it comes right down to it, sometimes less is more.
Ground and Pound
In recent years, the NFL has transformed into a passing league. Quarterbacks are putting up eye-opening numbers and breaking records at alarming rates. Teams with strong running games are no longer the norm.
Nevertheless, it seems like the most successful teams deploy a sound rushing attack during postseason play.
When one takes the time to analyze the Super Bowl champions from the 2011 and 2012 seasons, you realize that running the football was vital to their success. In 2011, the New York Giants averaged 4.2 yards per carry and 116.5 yards per game in the playoffs.
And in 2012, the Baltimore Ravens averaged 34.8 attempts and 134.8 yards rushing per contest. Running the football may have been an afterthought in the regular season for the Giants and Ravens, yet they turned it on when they needed to.
For those of you who know Harbaugh, his ground-and-pound approach is effective in the regular season, but it peaks in the postseason. In six postseason games, the 49ers have piled up 1,114 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns on 181 carries. That’s 185.6 yards per game, 6.1 yards per carry and 1.8 touchdowns per contest.
The thing that makes San Francisco’s running game so potent is Harbaugh’s ability to scheme and create matchup problems for the opposition. Having talented offensive linemen and a talented running back helps, but being well-prepared and knowing how to beat your opponent goes beyond talent.
Harbaugh’s ground-and-pound mentality from his days at Stanford have transitioned nicely to the NFL.
When Harbaugh signed on to be the 49ers’ head coach, he brought both of his top coordinators from Stanford with him. Roman and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio share a lot of the same ideologies as Harbaugh, which is why it made sense to bring them along for the ride.
At Stanford, Harbaugh and his staff did things a certain way. They were committed to the details of the game and believed in being good teachers. The message was always consistent.
In addition to teaching the players what to do, they also taught them why it was important.
The two most important things Harbaugh and his assistants teach the players are concepts and techniques. Both of those things go a long way when you’re trying to win a football game, especially your technique—just ask tight end Vernon Davis.
Here’s what Davis told Mike Silver of Yahoo! Sports: “A lot of toughness comes from being able to maintain technique when things are hard.”
He’s right: If a player can’t maintain proper technique late in the game, the odds of a negative play happening skyrocket. Mistakes and penalties (negative plays) are things that lose games.
Having top-notch teachers and familiar faces, on his staff, is a huge advantage for Harbaugh. Coaching and having the best assistants available does matter. Ross Tucker of ESPN echoed this same sentiment in 2011: “If you need any evidence of the importance of coaching in the NFL, look no further than the San Francisco 49ers.”
Roman and Fangio may have been unknown and unpopular when they first arrived in the Bay Area, yet it’s ridiculous how quickly things changed when the naysayers realized how important they were to San Francisco’s success.
When head coaches are hired in the NFL, each one has a detailed plan. They know what types of players they want on their roster, and they know how they want to run their respective teams on the field. However, for some coaches, plans aren’t always set in stone. They are subject to change when particular situations arise.
More often than not, that’s when things start to head south. The best coaches in the NFL have a plan, and they stick to it. You would be surprised at the number of coaches who don’t stick to their plan.
Fortunately for the 49ers, Harbaugh has always stuck to his plan, according to Tim Kawakami of The Mercury News. He won’t alter his program for any player. If you have a problem with his plan or don’t feel the need to get with the program, you will be replaced. It’s that simple.
This type of attitude goes a long way when you’re building a championship football team. The players have to believe in each other, and they have to believe in the system. Without a belief system, the team lacks structure and discipline. Also, a plan doesn’t work when a specific player feels he is above the system.
Yes, Harbaugh’s plan may be demanding, but it shows it’s effective week in and week out. There’s a reason the Niners have won 36 regular-season games and four playoff games over the course of the last three years. No one ever said winning was easy. To be the best, 49ers players know that they have to give their best.
As you can see, a lot of the things that make Harbaugh a successful postseason coach have little to do with X’s and O’s. Yet, that makes sense based on the fact that winning isn’t necessarily all about X’s and O’s.
It’s about having a plan, building a system, surrounding yourself with the right assistants and shaping your team around its best players. Obviously, circumstances change depending on the situation, but the best coaches get their players to buy into their belief system.
After 54 games (playoffs included), it’s safe to say the 49ers have bought into Harbaugh’s belief system. The result has been nothing short of astonishing, specifically in the playoffs.
Sooner rather than later, Harbaugh’s presence will aid in the 49ers’ first Super Bowl championship since 1994.