Back in January of 2011, the San Francisco 49ers were seeking a new vision. They wanted a forward-thinking offense, an invigorating locker room culture and, of course, sustained success.
That's why they hired Jim Harbaugh. And he's provided that new vision and more.
His tenure has had its fair share of mistakes and controversy. I'm sure he would love to have back some of his play calls at the end of San Francisco's three playoff losses, and the Aldon Smith saga (though not Harbaugh's fault) hasn't always been handled perfectly.
But when evaluating every aspect of Harbaugh's tenure, it's impossible to deny it's been a major success.
And here are a few of the ways he's been directly involved in bringing that success.
Running Game/Offensive Line
The national media tends to focus so much on San Francisco's read-option attack with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It's been a success (particularly against the Packers in the 2012 playoffs), but what's made the 49ers an elite rushing team has had more to do with downhill running and less to do with trickery.
Harbaugh brought his run-first mentality from Stanford to the pros, and it's transferred beautifully:
|San Francisco 49ers Rushing Stats|
|Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||3-year Avg.|
|ESPN.com (*all of 2008 season included in 99.9)|
As defenses continue to invest more in speedy players to combat teams throwing the ball more, the 49ers are investing more in smashmouth football. It's no coincidence the NFC's two best teams last year, the Seahawks and 49ers, were the only ones to run the ball more than 50 percent of the time.
Harbaugh lit a fire in Joe Staley, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati and Co. in 2011, and they've all become franchise building blocks since. That's all Frank Gore has needed to post 3,553 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns in the Harbaugh era.
There is a certain amount of luck involved with turnovers, but Harbaugh's game plans go hand in hand with avoiding mistakes. Simply put, Harbaugh teams rarely beat themselves. It might be his biggest strength.
Over the last three seasons, the Niners have only 40 turnovers. That's far and away the fewest in the NFL:
|Fewest Giveaways Since 2011|
Harbaugh's offense isn't the sexiest, but with his team topping the NFC in wins over the last three years (with 36), fans shouldn't be complaining. Winning the turnover battle wins games in the NFL, and Harbaugh teams do just that.
To be fair, the 49ers' quarterback play over the last three seasons hasn't been exemplary. But it's been above average, and Harbaugh deserves credit for that.
Under Harbaugh's tutelage, Alex Smith went from one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league to a serviceable option. Just take a look at the graphic below for proof:
|Alex Smith's Stats as a 49er|
|QB Record||TDs||INTs||QB Rating|
|Pro Football Reference|
Colin Kaepernick was incredible after taking over for Smith midway through the 2012 season. In three playoff games, he had 798 passing yards, 264 rushing yards and seven total touchdowns.
Kaepernick's 2013 season was a bit of a letdown, but he played much better for the first 11 quarters of San Francisco's playoff run. However, he had three turnovers in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game.
The jury is out on Kaepernick. If he doesn't improve in 2014, then it may be time to stop calling Harbaugh a quarterback-developing genius. No matter what happens, though, he deserves praise for the role he's played in Smith's turnaround and Kaep's development.
To get Kaepernick to raise his level of play, Harbaugh will need to work with him to rectify weaknesses that have held his offenses back.
Wasting Timeouts/Play Clock Issues
Quarterbacks usually get most of the blame for wasting timeouts and/or delay-of-game penalties, but Harbaugh is definitely part of this problem for the 49ers.
Smith and Kaepernick have each had trouble getting plays off in time when orchestrating San Francisco's offense.
Part of the issue has been the amount of motion Harbaugh calls for before plays start. Part of it is a culture of slow-tempo offense.
The notable time it cost the 49ers was during Super Bowl XLVII. It looked like the 49ers had the perfect call on 2nd-and-goal. Kaepernick hiked the ball and ran to his left, where he was sure to either score a go-ahead touchdown or get within inches of the goal line.
But Harbaugh had already called a timeout before the ball was snapped because the play clock was running down. The 49ers didn't score and never got the ball back.
Getting 3rd Wide Receiver Involved
In the Harbaugh era, the Niners have had trouble getting second and third wide receivers involved.
|49ers Wide Receiver Yardage Totals Under Harbaugh|
|Leading WR||2nd WR||3rd WR|
|2011||Crabtree (874)||Williams (241)||Ginn/Morgan (220)|
|2012||Crabtree (1,105)||Manningham (449)||Moss (434)|
|2013||Boldin (1,179)||Crabtree (284)||Williams (113)|
It seems the Niners solved the second-WR problem by trading for Anquan Boldin before the 2013 season. Crabtree and Boldin combined for 430 receiving yards in three playoffs games.
However, they'll need a productive third wide receiver to emerge if they ever want to be an elite passing offense. And that's why they traded for Stevie Johnson.
The former Bill, who has three 1,000-yard seasons, will look to thrive in the third-WR role Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams held before him.
In fairness to Harbaugh and the 49ers offensive staff, this isn't as big of a problem as it used to be. But it still has plenty of room for improvement:
|49ers Red-Zone Offense Under Harbaugh|
|TD percentage||NFL Rank|
When the 49ers get closer to the goal line (and the field condenses for the offense), defenses worry less about Vernon Davis beating them over top and more about Frank Gore rushing up the middle.
Safeties play closer to the line of scrimmage, and, naturally, they neutralize Gore's effectiveness. In 2013, Gore had a 2.8 yards-per-carry average in the red zone.
With Crabtree, Boldin, Johnson and Davis on the field, there has to be a way for the 49ers to break into the top 10 in red-zone touchdown efficiency by airing it out more. A 92-51 pass-to-run-attempt ratio isn't going to cut it. It's up to Harbaugh to devise game plans that put Kaepernick in the best position to succeed when the field shrinks.
Has Harbaugh Earned a Top-Dollar Extension?
On Yahoo! Sports Talk Live, CEO Jed York said he and Harbaugh agreed to put off contract extension talks until after the 2014 season.
"Well, Jim's here for the next two years under contract," York said, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. "And like I've said publicly and very loudly in the past, I hope he has the utmost leverage when we sit down and talk about his contract at the end of the season. It's a good thing. It's an unbelievable problem to have."
Regardless of San Francisco's 2014 outcome, the 49ers should extend Harbaugh's contract.
Lost in the disappointment of falling short of a Super Bowl the last two years is how quickly Harbaugh has turned this franchise around. The personnel in 2010 and 2011 was almost entirely the same, yet the 49ers went from a 6-10 afterthought to a 13-3 goliath.
Since, Harbaugh's 49ers have sustained their excellence like few in NFL history have done before them, and they've done so with a quarterback change, an injury to their best wide receiver and off-the-field problems/missed games from their best pass-rusher.
Does Harbaugh deserve all the credit for the team's success? No. His staff is surely helping him every step of the way. And on the personnel side, Trent Baalke has had far more hits than misses since he took over as general manager in 2011.
But we'd be lying to ourselves if we said he doesn't deserve a good chunk of the credit. And if York doesn't realize he could lose one of the best head coaches in the NFL over a couple million dollars a year annually, he should be replaced, not Harbaugh.
As long as the Niners believe they'll win a Super Bowl during the duration of his extended contract, they should have no reservations making him the highest-paid coach in the NFL at $8 million-plus per season.