Jim Harbaugh was a rookie during 1987 NFL strike
Niners coach Jim Harbaugh has been through a NFL work stoppage before, and so has one of his top lieutenants. With four other assistants who also played in the league, the San Francisco staff has been there and done that, and that could help them connect with their players once the lockout ends and help the 49ers make up for some valuable lost time.
One of the consensus assumptions of the NFL lockout has been that franchises featuring a healthy dose of stability, perhaps an incumbent coaching staff or the same starting quarterback as a year ago, will significantly benefit when the work stoppage finally ends and teams return to the field.
Given the amount of preparation that figures to be shoe-horned into a condensed period both on and off the field, and the increased premium placed on continuity, it's probably a pretty valid theory.
But there are two sides to the familiarity equation: The first, as articulated above, is obvious. The second is probably less so, but possibly still critical.
Those teams with coaches on their staff who have been NFL players before moving to the sidelines, and maybe even experienced the work stoppages of the 1980s, might have some firsthand knowledge of what their charges are experiencing. And that ability to connect could prove to be beneficial as well.
This is something that could help new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff, which has been at a disadvantage to more established teams this offseason as they lose precious preparation time of implementing a new system they otherwise would have had without the NFL lockout.
Harbaugh was a rookie first-round draft pick during the NFL strike of 1987 as he began his successful 15-year career at quarterback with the Chicago Bears. Niners running backs coach Tom Rathman also experienced that strike firsthand during the first of his seven consecutive seasons as San Francisco’s starting fullback.
Four other new assistants on the San Francisco staff also have previous NFL playing experience – offensive assistant Bobby Engram (who caught 650 passes as a wide receiver in 14 seasons), assistant secondary coach Greg Jackson (32 interceptions in 12 seasons as a safety), wide receivers coach John Morton and tight ends coach Reggie Davis, who played with Harbaugh when both were with the San Diego Chargers in 1999-2000.
A handful of other head coaches also have experienced a NFL strike personally. Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio was a third-year linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs during the 1987 strike. Carolina first-year coach Ron Rivera was a teammate of Harbaugh’s with the Bears the same year. Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt was an Atlanta tight end during the '87 strike.
The rookie campaign of Tennessee first-year head coach and Hall of Fame guard Mike Munchak was interrupted in Houston by the 1982 strike that cost teams seven games. Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier, who was a cornerback with the Bears, also suffered through the '82 strike.
Coaches, of course, are deemed by definition as part of the NFL's white-collar gang. And, as such, they are aligned with management. But they are also sensitive, by nature, to the plight of players. Those who have been players in the league probably are even more attuned to what the rank-and-file is experiencing right now. And as such, they likely possess some insight into what lies ahead for players in terms of getting ready for the season minus the benefits of minicamps and OTAs.
"No matter the circumstance, you don't like being away," Del Rio said at the annual league meetings in March, speaking generally about removal from the game. "It may not (define) you, but it's a big chuck of your life."
There are nine current head coaches who played in the NFL for various tenures. Harbaugh was one of the more successful of those, throwing for 26,288 yards and 129 touchdowns while being named NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 1995, when he also was AFC Player of the Year while finishing second to Brett Favre in NFL MVP voting.
The NFL also includes nearly 10 dozen assistant coaches who played in the league, and more than 40 percent of them have experienced a work stoppage. The roles of those assistants in preparing teams to play, and the familiarity of some of them in dealing with a hiatus from the game as players, figure to also play a role in getting clubs back up to speed for 2011.
Continuity likely can't be trumped by a coaching staff's commiseration. But the latter might help some.
"You'd like to think if you've walked in those shoes, you know what it's like to have to flip the switch and start football again," said one assistant coach who as a player in the league experienced the strikes of both 1982 and '87. "Having been through it ... you know a little better what to expect and you can (coach) accordingly."
Niners coaches hope they can rely on that experience when the time finally comes for real football to begin.