Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The 49ers Harbaugh Transition....As viewed through the prisim of hindsight.

I was going to wait until the end of the 2012 49ers season to write this, but I've come to the realization that the record at the end of this year doesn't much matter to the conclusion of this piece so here it is......

With regard to the sports teams I follow, I’m a pretty pessimistic fella’. Growing up in the 70’s & 80’s as a fan of the San Francisco Giants will do that to you. Following the 49ers has as well provided long periods of bitter disappointment. They were largely hapless from 1973 to 1980 in the infancy of my fandom and again from 1998 to 2010 we endured another extended period of fecklessness with the exception of the 2001 & 2002 early playoff losses.

It was from this place of pessimism and bitterness that I wrote this piece ( CLICK HERE ) a couple of years ago. In that piece I made three core points about the transition into the “Harbaugh Era”.

  1. Jed York promised a broad search for the best GM he could find.
  2. That College coaches transitioning to the NFL have a poor track record and that Harbaugh had relatively little head coaching experience.
  3. That York & Baalke handled the negotiation with Harbaugh in a somewhat sloppy manner.

I’ve never been too proud to go back and look at the things I’ve said in the past so I’ll take a look at those points with the benefit of two years of hindsight.

Trent Baalke has done a remarkable job in his first two years as GM. Credit where due, his experience as a scout & talent evaluator has served him VERY well. His crowning achievements arguably being the acquisition of Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick, with a few surprises thrown in by way of the LB to FB conversion of Bruce Miller and the FA signing of David Akers who had a great season in ’11 (shaky at times in ’12 but mostly good) Jonathan Goodwin has performed admirably as have Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner in the secondary. Additionally, he’s done well in terms of retaining talent by bringing back the entire 2011 defense intact, avoiding any salary cap shenanigans thus far and carrying about $5.9M of cap space going into 2013. The question, “Is he a good GM” usually takes more than a few years to answer so while York’s search was hardly broad, it seems thus far anyway, that he didn’t have to walk far to find the right guy.

On the second point regarding college coaches transitioning to the NFL….For every Jimmy Johnson or Tom Coughlin* there is a Butch Davis, Bobby Petrino, Mike Riley, Steve Spurrier (who QB’d the first 49ers game I attended BTW…woefully I might add) or Dennis Erickson…..shudder. The list of college coaches who’ve made the jump to the NFL and been successful is far shorter than it’s alternate list. Combine that with the fact that Harbaugh had a mere 6yrs of head coaching experience at any level and 2yrs as a QB's assistant coach...in Oakland when he took the job with the 49ers and I think that pessimism was more than justifiable……BUUUUUUUT……Damn what a job he’s done thus far! I read somewhere the other day that in the history of the NFL only 5 or so coaches have had better records across their first two years and the list included Paul Brown and George Halas (twice)…heady company to be sure. Leadership is a funny thing though and there are those who argue that intense, fiery personalities like Harbaugh & Pete Carroll possess tend to flame out or get tuned out after a time at the professional level. I don’t think I buy into that. Time will tell us if Harbaugh will be judged as merely good, or if he can attain greatness. While he’s got some catching up to do yet with some of his predecessors who’ve filled the role in San Francisco he is off to a spectacular and undeniably hot start.

The third point I made was regarding the negotiation between the 49ers and Harbaugh. It probably cost them a little money but what the hell, it’s not my money and they DID get their guy. So while I stand by the original assertions…..in retrospect it doesn’t matter much at this point.

I closed that piece a few years back with the following statement:
I honestly do hope this works. This could go brilliantly and turn out to be a wildly successful combination of young NFL leaders. Or it could go right back into the same toilet the 49ers have been in for the last 8yrs. Given past performance....I'm leaning toward the latter.

As I said at the beginning of this, I’m a pessimist. It’s a defense mechanism learned as a Giants fan of the 70’s & 80’s. If I expect a team I follow to do poorly and they meet that expectation I’m not disappointed however, if they instead do anything better than expected I’m pleasantly surprised.

I meant it though when I said I'd hoped the Baalke/Harbaugh transition would work, but I did so knowing that the historical record of such combinations was not particularly good.

Regardless of what happens this weekend in the 49ers second consecutive NFC Championship game I think we are safe in saying that they’ve wildly exceeded my expectations and Baalke/Harbaugh/York do seem to have hit on an excellent combination.

To say that I’m pleasantly surprised is a huge understatement. I'm ecstatic!

*I intentionally did not mention Bill Walsh. Though he did transition to the NFL after just 2yrs at Stanford, I think his 11 years as an NFL assistant before that makes it an Apples/Oranges comparison.

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