Harbaugh's improbable run hits new high
The San Francisco 49ers, in pulling off a mesmerizing and historic 36-32 victory over the New Orleans Saints, did more than advance to next week’s NFC Championship Game by winning one of the greatest NFL games ever played.
They confirmed that Jim Harbaugh, the head coach whose very essence and presence has transformed this moribund franchise into a force to be reckoned with, is in the midst of the greatest rookie coaching performance in league history.
That’s what the NFL does: It reveals greatness, true greatness, under the ferocious klieg lights of playoff football. And in a game in which four touchdowns were scored in the final four minutes — one that pitted a high-octane offense against a smash-your-face defense, a rehabilitated quarterback vs. one coming off the greatest regular season ever and enough highlight material to fill an hour’s worth of I’ve-got-chills NFL Films specials — it was Harbaugh masterly outfoxing Sean Payton that stood out as the most remarkable performance of the night.
“We move on, and we move on in spectacular fashion,” Harbaugh said afterward. “I can’t remember winning a game in such spectacular fashion as this one.”
Yes, spectacular beyond belief, by him and by his team.
In the dazzling details of the final four minutes of play were signs of just how good a head coach Harbaugh is — both in those minutes themselves and in what they said about the moments all season long rebuilt this team and culture.
With 4:11 left on the clock, Saints quarterback Drew Brees fell back and connected on a 44-yard touchdown pass to Darren Sproles to give the Saints a 24-23 lead.
This came after a game in which the Saints had yet to lead, in which the 49ers had five takeaways and only one turnover, a game in which they had banged and battered Brees and his team with enough physicality that it seemed the days of the tough guy had returned to best the days of the high-powered offense.
This was also — when the tide seemed to turn in favor of the Saints and their unbeatable high-powered offense — where Harbaugh was about to set up checkmate against Payton despite playing a game of chess in which he had Alex Smith and his opponent had Drew Brees.
When it’s queen vs. rook, it takes a master to win.
On the ensuing drive, Smith got his team to the Saints 36-yard line on a long pass to Vernon Davis, who would finish the night with 180 yards and his own heroic performance.
After a couple of run plays and an offsides penalty, the 49ers found themselves down one with 2:18 on the clock and facing a third-and-8 that was for their season. Smith, everyone believed, would have to pass.
One minute the tension was thick and ugly in Candlestick, the feeling of dread mixed with excitement taking the breath away, the next Smith was scampering down the left side of the field for a 28-yard touchdown run.
Bootleg: It was a bold call that would set up an even bolder win.
The Saints wasted no time in responding, their dynamic offense cutting right through a 49ers defense that had already forced three turnovers, which didn’t include the two others its special teams foisted on New Orleans.
But those takeaways had been then, in the quarters before. This was the end. Now, with the game again on the line, Brees needed just four plays to go 88 yards for a touchdown that sucked the life out of Candlestick Park.
Down on the field, with the cold biting hard and the soft, muddy field suddenly feeling more like a cemetery than a place of celebration, you could feel it in the very air: Jimmy Graham’s 66-yard reception had taken all the faith out of the 49ers faithful. The roar of hope had gone painfully quiet.
Believe what you will now, in retrospect, but at that moment most everyone felt it was over.
Other, it turns out, than the Niners players themselves. Harbaugh had told his team all game it would be a shootout and that there would be a lot of big plays — but that the 49ers, and not their opponent, would make the majority of those plays and win the game.
“I feel so much different than in years past, just the sideline,” said Smith, who would finish with 299 passing yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions on 24-of-42 passing. “The sideline atmosphere is so much different. When bad things happen, when plays get made against us, things like that. The guys are just so confident.”
This was part of the rookie head coach’s season-long genius: He marshaled men together, made them believe, found the best parts of most of them and created a team no one saw coming.
All season, Harbaugh had somehow convinced the Niners they were better than they believed themselves, or were believed by others, to be. Smith went from a joke to the quarterback who threw only five interceptions all season — a steady game manager in a league of record-breaking QBs who didn’t have a lot of outside respect but suddenly had loads of it from his team.
Frank Gore turned into a running back who trusted his coach to sit him, often, toward the end of the season with no ill will or effects because he believed in Harbaugh, and in himself. The Gore of old, to say the least, would not have been so sanguine with the bench or trusting with his career.
The entire defense had been transformed — made into a force, into believers, into a group with a passing defense ranked only as the 16th-best in the league that still believed it would shut down the Saints’ high-flying ways. This was true of the entire team and the entire culture: Harbaugh had worked some kind of magic, something at times only the 49ers themselves could see, feel and touch.
This is the team that stepped onto the field with 1:32 left, down three after New Orleans converted the two-point conversion, armed only to stop the game manager of a QB who did not compare to New Orleans’ own — did not compare to the QB with the records and the ring and the track record of the seasoned and certain winner.
No, Smith was the novelty QB, the somewhat-comeback story, the disrespected man who, when the game was on the line earlier this very night, seemed to have his own coach preferring that he run rather than throw.
Checkmate, on its way.
The Saints brought several of their defenders up front rather than deep. They knew what Harbaugh had demonstrated not a few minutes of game play earlier: He didn’t want Smith, despite throwing a lot all game, to air it out for the win now. It was run time, conservative time, field-goal time.
“We were in two or three different coverages — two deep, single safety,” Payton said. “Typically, you’re trying to not show one consistent look. The key was protecting a field goal, really not a touchdown. They’ve got a really good kicker who’s kicking from that 30, 35-yard line. So we tried to mix things up.”
With all due respect, Sean: It’s more like Jim Harbaugh mixed you up.
“Once we got down, you could tell by the coach’s intent, by the play call, that they were trying to score and they weren’t trying to settle to go into overtime,” Niners wide receiver Kyle Williams said.
As in: Harbaugh planned to do the very thing Payton was convinced he would not do: Go for the whole damn thing.
Smith stepped onto the field, 1:32 left, the Saints protecting against an offense seeking a field goal and . . . did nothing but pass. Short throw to Gore, short throw to Gore again, the crowd roaring, then a deep throw to Davis again for 47 yards. And now the whole place was rocking, believing, screaming, being transformed by Jim Harbaugh just as his team had been this season.
Quiet moments ago, the quiet of those who know that bitter defeat has just been served to them, the crowd too was suddenly made believers by the rookie head coach.
Finally, there were 14 seconds left in the game, it was third-and-4 from the 14, and Smith dropped back and fired a bullet to a streaking Davis.
It was The Catch Part Three, it was spectacular, it was jaw-dropping, it was the 49ers somehow coming back twice in the final minutes with Alex Smith as their quarterback — and it was Harbaugh cementing his place as a coach doing things in his rookie year that similarly boggle the mind.
Other rookie head coaches have won Super Bowls. None, yet, have taken a team this bad and made them this good. This wholly different and new.
This shouldn’t have happened, this thing of magic and football beauty Saturday evening. The 49ers had taken the ball away from the Saints four times in the first half and managed only a three-point lead. They’d lost that lead in the second half, in painful fashion, and yet somehow used Alex Smith, poise, strategy, faith and good old-fashioned toughness to get it done.
What had just happened was one of the greatest wins in NFL history — made possible by the greatest rookie head coaching performance we’ve ever seen.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.