49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman looked somewhat bemused as he started to watch a GIF of his coach, Jim Harbaugh, reacting to a failed fourth-quarter challenge on a reporter’s phone.
Until we reached the high point. Then Bowman got geeked up.
It was a huge moment, the outcome very much in doubt. But the reaction was overwrought even by Harbaughian standards, the dramatic bend forward to slap the ground, his fist balled as he let out a primal scream and finally the theatric turn to unleash a torrent of words so vile I cannot even begin to imagine.
“That’s Harbaugh,” Bowman said excitedly. “He’s the head coach and, however the head coach is, that is the kind of team attitude-wise that you are going to have. That is definitely the coach we want to have."
That was the coach they had to have Sunday, trailing by 17 points in the NFC Championship Game and looking awful doing so. This kind of moment requires a big set of lower guts, a lack of panic, an ability to harness fear and turn it into intensity and a group of players who have absorbed this attitude by being preached it daily. This describes Harbaugh perfectly, and he is the biggest reason San Francisco came from behind and beat Atlanta, 28-24, to advance to the Super Bowl.
And as an emotional San Francisco CEO and President Jed York talked about how the 49ers are all about family, I realized Harbaugh is the crazy intense uncle who you never quite appreciate until you need that ranting, raving guy on your side in a moment of crisis.
“He might not put the media first. He might not put the rest of the league first,” York said. “I understand that is who he is. And I respect it. He is who he is.”
Is he ever not intense? Laid back? Or chill?
“No, no, no,” York said. “It doesn’t matter what it is. He competes at everything, what water bottles are in the locker room. He’s competitive at everything. He has to win everything.”
This type of personality is intensely difficult to deal with and wickedly dangerous to coach against, especially in a league where increasingly too many coach not to lose, coach not to be fired, coach what is safe, coach what is easily defensible.
Broncos coach John Fox immediately comes to mind. I think of taking a knee with Peyton Manning and 30 seconds left against Baltimore. And then I think of Harbaugh deciding to go with rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Both decisions had a risky option and a safe one.
Fox went safe. Harbaugh went risky. The genius of Harbaugh was not simply that his gamble paid off. It is in his willingness to go all in, to be wrong. I said this after San Francisco beat Green Bay and it bears repeating: One of the greatest skills a coach, and really a human, can have is the willingness to really step into the arena, to dare greatly, to be willing to fail. And this, for better or for worse, is Harbaugh.
From his risky decision to go with rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick as his starter in Week 11, to unleashing a totally different game plan than what we saw work so well a week ago against Green Bay, to not abandoning the run after getting down 17-0, Harbaugh coaches very much like a guy who’d rather die on his feet than live on his knees.
“The 49ers have no fear and it comes from the top to the bottom,” 49ers running back LaMichael James said. “That’s the way it is. That’s the way we play. That is what he teaches. And that’s how we feel."
I say all this not to take away from the San Francisco players. Harbaugh could have all the lower guts in the world and it would not matter if the 49ers lacked talent. They have talent. They also have swagger.
Kaepernick, while not as spectacular as against Green Bay, played extremely smart, mistake-free football. James and Frank Gore blew through an Atlanta defense at a loss for how to stop them. And this 49ers defense, so thoroughly dismantled in the first quarter, pulled up their big-boy pants at halftime and started making plays right until the very end when Bowman broke up the Falcons’ fourth-down pass in the shadow of the end zone in the final minute.
And then there was tight end Vernon Davis, mostly forgotten lately. He had been Alex Smith’s guy and his touches had not been there in the Kaepernick era. It was not that they were not targeting him, he said. The plays were just not there but he was all in with Harbaugh and he believed.
“Harbaugh is the guy that we’ll play for, we’ll ride or die with him just because of that energy he brings,” Davis said. “It has an effect on the team because, if you look at this team, we are a high energy team. That is just what it is.”
Afterward, in his typically droll remarks, Harbaugh did say something I thought was interesting. He thanked “the players and the coaches on their resolve, on their fight,” which struck me as strange because that is the one thing that would unleash GIF Harbaugh on his players if he believed his team had stopped fighting.
The guy does not know how to quit.
And Sunday that trickled down into a Super Bowl berth.