The obvious NFL storyline is a remake: the potential for a Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh clash in the Super Bowl.
We beat this story to death a year ago until the Giants sent Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers home with a field goal in overtime and a dropped pass and a shanked field goal cost John Harbaugh and the Ravens a trip to the Super Bowl.
Here we are again — the Ravens and the 49ers both a victory away from pitting coaching brothers in sports’ biggest contest. But there’s a twist. Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh isn’t the right narrative this time.
Jim Harbaugh vs. Bill Belichick is the more significant story. That’s the Super Bowl we should all want to see. Jim vs. Bill would be bigger than last weekend’s Peyton vs. Ray clash. In fact, I find Jim vs. Bill more interesting than Tom vs. Peyton.
To me, where football is at right now, with the games controlled from the sidelines by coaches speaking directly into the helmets of quarterbacks and middle linebackers, Jim vs. Bill might as well be Ali vs. Frazier, Magic vs. Bird and Kardashian ass vs. spandex rolled into one colossal showdown.
Let me explain what we witnessed during the divisional playoffs. Two coaching forces of nature — Jim Harbaugh and Bill Belichick — further distanced themselves from their peers. It is not a coincidence or a byproduct of favorable matchups that the 49ers and Patriots had it easy getting past the Packers and the Texans, respectively, while John Harbaugh’s Ravens and Mike Smith’s Falcons escaped exciting but embarrassingly sloppy contests that featured coaching and strategic nightmares on all four sidelines.
Eight coaches showed up over the weekend. Four — John Harbaugh, Mike Smith, Pete Carroll and John Fox — made fools of themselves. And two — Mike McCarthy and Gary Kubiak — were overwhelmed by Jim Harbaugh and Bill Belichick.
Seriously, the Ravens survived what I believe to be the worst playoff coaching performance in history. Credible people are actually suggesting Baltimore offensive coordinator and former Colts coach Jim Caldwell should be a head-coaching candidate because of the 38 points the Ravens scored in 76 minutes. I watched a totally different game. I watched the game in which Caldwell abandoned wide receiver Torrey Smith in the second half and ran Ray Rice on first and second down on nearly every possession, putting Joe Flacco under enormous third-down pressure. Baltimore sustained absolutely nothing on offense. It was all big plays or points off turnovers.
Who bailed out Harbaugh and Caldwell? John Fox News, whose late-game decision-making was so conservative and risk-adverse that Roger Ailes allegedly plans to meet with him about running for president in 2016. JFN had Peyton Manning take a knee with two timeouts and 30 seconds on the clock at the end of regulation.
Not to be outdone, Pete Carroll auditioned for a late-night spot on MSNBC. Has a coach ever liberally given away more playoff points than Carroll? His timeout before the game-deciding field goal was a nonfactor. The field goals he didn’t take and the boneheaded clock management in the first half decided Seattle’s fate. Carroll’s foolishness allowed Smith to avoid discussing his own strategic stupidity. Had Seattle hung on for the victory, Smith would’ve had to explain what the greatest tight end in history, Tony Gonzalez, was doing blocking on third and 7 on Atlanta’s second-to-last possession. Gonzalez was invented for third-and-7. He caught everything close to him on Sunday, including the pass that set up the game-winning field goal. Seattle’s pass rush wasn’t a factor on Sunday. Why was Tony blocking on third-and-7? And shall I mention Atlanta’s squib kick after the game-winning field goal or why Smith called a timeout with 13 seconds on the clock before the field goal? Why leave 13 seconds on the clock and time for two Seattle pass plays?
It was a coaching disaster over the weekend. Only two coaches — Belichick and Jim Harbaugh — were left unscathed.
Belichick has long stood out, but his reputation has yet to fully recover from the Spygate controversy that taints his three Super Bowl titles. He needs to add a fourth to re-stamp his name alongside Vince Lombardi as professional football’s coaching gold standard. Harbaugh is the new and possibly improved Belichick. Better looking, more colorful, brash, filled with collegiate energy and emotion and a former NFL player, Harbaugh is a natural, a coaching tsunami like we’ve never seen.
Except he does remind me of Belichick in one respect.
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Belichick made his bones by making a bold move at quarterback thanks to an injury. You know the story. Belichick stuck with Tom Brady, a sixth-round pick, over his $100 million QB Drew Bledsoe and won a Super Bowl.
Harbaugh is attempting to do the exact same thing, only his move to Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith is more audacious than Belichick’s move to Brady. Bledsoe’s injury caused him to sit for two months. Belichick had plenty of time to evaluate Brady, who didn’t throw an interception in four consecutive games. I’m not saying it was an easy choice, but Harbaugh’s was much more difficult.
In Alex Smith’s last full game, he completed 18-of-19 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns. His lone incompletion was a drop. He suffered a concussion in San Fran’s following game against the Rams. He completed seven of eight passes for one score before getting hurt. Smith lost his job while he was leading the league in passer rating and had completed 25 of his last 27 throws for four scores.
He missed one game with a concussion.
Jim Harbaugh is ruthless (in a good way) and bold in a way we could never imagine previously.
If the 49ers win this weekend in Atlanta with Kaepernick playing anything like the way he did against the Packers, Harbaugh’s impact on the NFL will reverberate for the next decade. The unwritten rule about not losing a job to injury will be rewritten in permanent ink to reflect that a player can lose his job for sneezing at the wrong time or any other reason a coach chooses. More seriously, no one will look at a QB controversy as a negative again. If you have the right coach, with a proper command of his locker room, there is no such thing as a QB controversy. There is just QB change.
Nearly every team will be shopping in the draft for a Colin Kaepernick to put pressure on the starting QB. I’m not talking about teams looking for QBs who can run the read option. I’m talking about teams being on a constant search to improve at the QB position the same way teams constantly try to improve their offensive lines. The Texans, Cowboys, Bears, Lions, Bengals and Chargers — all teams with good QBs — should look for their Kaepernick in this year’s draft. Why not?
Belichick started all this when he got lucky and fell into Brady late in the 2000 draft. A decade later, Harbaugh took it to a new level when he hunted down Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 draft and forced him into the lineup as soon as an opportunity presented itself.
Belichick and Harbaugh are game-changers. Belichick vs. Harbaugh is the Super Bowl matchup I want to see. Jim Harbaugh vs. John Harbaugh is last year’s story.