Mark Kac was a Polish-born mathematician, best remembered for a paper he wrote in 1966 entitled "Can One Hear the Shape of a Drum?"
I have not read it. That little bit of info I know only from his bio which had no record of him loving American football, the NFL or any team in particular. He is dead, or I would ask.
I bring Kac up only because he had a theory that best explains why Baltimore and San Francisco and specifically John and Jim Harbaugh, the coaches teams are playing in this Super Bowl. Kac had this genius theory, about how there are two kinds of geniuses: the “ordinary” and the “magicians,” that I believe applies to coaches. In his words:
“The ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what he has done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. The working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark. … They cannot be emulated and it must be frustrating to cope with the mysterious ways in which the magician’s mind works.”
This perfectly summarizes Jim Harbaugh and his decision to stay with quarterback Colin Kaepernick in Week 13 when conventional wisdom and group-football think says stay with your more experienced, safer option. Hindsight makes it genius, and I have no doubt we will be “pistol whipped” in coming seasons as everybody goes searching for a Kaep on draft day.
But in the moment when a decision had to be made, and in the scary first weeks where, in the words of 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman they were “doing something they had never done,” this was in no way a slam dunk.
“Our d-line coach came up to me before one game and said ‘GRo, why you nervous?’” Roman told me. “And I said ‘You’d be nervous too if you were doing stuff you have never seen before on a football field and you have no idea if it is going to work.’ ”
And this is why Harbaugh and Roman and, yes, then-Nevada coach Chris Ault who recruited Kaepernick when nobody else was and basically invented “The Pistol” fall into this magician category. It was this ability to see something that nobody else had, to imagine a way of playing and lining up that had not been done, to then act on that intuition.
Is Jim Harbaugh smarter than everybody else? Not really.
It is instead this thing Kac talked about, the weaving of intuitive and unexpected into the parameters of football. He can not explain what they saw that convinced him and Roman to pull the trigger because the answer is he just had a feeling, and even in a copy-cat league like the NFL, gut feelings are almost impossible to replicate. There was a moment Tuesday at Super Bowl Media Day when Harbaugh touched on this inability to explain his thinking because, “I just felt like this was best” is not an explanation.
Only when talking about Roman, using words like revolutionary, does Harbaugh touch as the “magic” involved in this call. And Roman probably best explains what allows some coaches to think this way and see what others do not.
“I would say you definitely want to question everything. Why are you doing something, just because somebody told you or ‘Hey, here is the playbook, and here is what we are doing?’” Roman said. “I think you want to look is this really the best, is this really the best we can be. I think you have to question all of those things and that is kind of what I meant by that, just because other teams are doing one thing that doesn’t mean we just have to fall in like a bunch of lemmings and do the same thing.”
It is exactly this kind of thinking that brought The Pistol offense and the skinny, tattooed kid running it to perfection to this moment at the Super Bowl. See, there was this coach from Nevada who saw an even skinnier version of Kaepernick, a fork he called him, at a football camp and said that kid can be a good quarterback and I have this idea for an offense that he’d be perfect at. The Pistol was not strictly for Kaepernick; he just ran it into the NFL. The guy is Chris Ault, and he too has that ability to see what others cannot and turn that flash of intuition into something others not only are not doing but never even considered.
“I can remember getting ready in spring 2005, a month before spring football, saying this is what I want to look at,” Ault told FoxSports Radio. “They were very, very respectful, didn’t say much but after they left the huddle they had to say ‘We had better get resumes ready because we are not going to be working after this year.’ ”
These, of course, are the best ideas, the ones that nobody else is doing, have a high chance of failure and a high rate of reward. I used to think the genius was in taking the risk. It actually is in considering it. Too many coaches, and really this applies to all walks of life, keep doing what everybody else is doing because they cannot envision another way even if what they are doing is not working.
This was the beauty of what John Harbaugh did in switching offensive coordinators so late in the season. He was willing to acknowledge what he had with Cam Cameron was not working but he was also willing to accept that there might be another way. It sounds simple but how many times in a game have we seen a team unable to adjust? This is the magician genius in going to Jim Caldwell. It was about believing that another way, another voice could work.
It is hard to explain how certain guys think like this, unless you are a Polish-born mathematician. Then it is simple. It is magical.