Harbaugh the rare coach who can show how it's done
When he cocks his right arm in statuesque posture and lets loose with a well-thrown spiral, Jim Harbaugh actually looks like a guy who could be competing with the four quarterbacks at 49ers training camp rather than a guy trying to teach them. But that’s why the team’s new coach is having such an immediate impact on the group, which is soaking up every word Harbaugh speaks and every move he makes.
And why wouldn’t they?
No quarterback on San Francisco’s summer roster has ever had a coach who could show them how it’s done quite like Harbaugh, who may be 47 but still looks lean enough and mean enough to go out there and make it happen in pads today just like he did during his 15 years playing quarterback in the NFL for five different teams.
And when Harbaugh sets up in classic form to deliver a feathery pass – which comes instinctively for a man who threw for 26,288 yards and 129 touchdowns in the NFL and was named 1995 AFC Player of the Year – Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and the two undrafted rookies behind them don’t have to wonder if their coach is doing it the right way.
“He throws it pretty good, for an old guy,” Smith said, half-joking.
Smith wasn’t joking about the throwing part. And the old part… With his new tightly-cropped haircut, his stone-faced expressions and his 6-foot-3 frame still in quality shape, Harbaugh looks like he might be a better choice to challenge Smith and Kaepernick than the other fringe QBs on the team’s summer roster.
That’s not going to happen, of course, even if there are some 49ers fans out there who would like to dream. Harbaugh’s a quarterback maker now, not a quarterback position-taker.
And this guy knows how to make quarterbacks.
Just ask Josh Johnson, who was an unknown prospect when Harbaugh took over as head coach of the University of San Diego in 2004. By the next season, Johnson was breaking school records and earning All-American honors on his way to the NFL, where he still is playing today for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Just ask Andrew Luck – as a lot of people in the Bay Area have been lately because Luck is preparing for his senior season at Stanford just down the road from where Harbaugh is conducting his revival program with the 49ers. Luck was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy last year after a sensational season under Harbaugh’s tutelage, and many have said Luck would have been the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft if he had come out early this April.
Or just go ask Smith, a former No. 1 overall pick himself, who says Harbaugh is that rare coach who can explain something to his quarterbacks by picking up a football and doing it himself.
“I mean, you’re talking about anything,” Smith said. “You’re talking about his eyes, the fundamentals of playing quarterback. Sometimes it is his feet… But it’s a lot of things.”
Smith continued, “Even the fact that he played my position, and for all of us quarterbacks to get a chance to have him hands on, to have him demonstrate, to have him jump out there and still get in and be competitive, that’s fun. It’s great to see it. I know for all of us, it’s great to have a visual explanation sometimes, instead of it getting told to you. To get to see it happen, even from an old guy, it’s good.”
While others might get uncomfortable around the no-nonsense Harbaugh, Smith obviously is at ease enough to call one of the NFL’s youngest head coaches “old,” even though Harbaugh holds Smith’s last-chance-with-the-49ers fate in his hands, and will no doubt have no problem sending Smith from the first unit to the bench – or to the waiver wire – if that’s what he feels is best for the team.
But right now, Harbaugh is all about turning Smith into something Smith hasn’t been so far: A successful NFL quarterback. He’s also about getting Kaepernick there, whenever that day might come.
And, with San Francisco’s preseason opener on tap Friday at New Orleans, Harbaugh’s expectations of his QB corps have been met to the point of: So far, so good.
“I’m really pleased how fast they’ve come along, in all regards, mentally and understanding the offense,” Harbaugh said. “Now we can really get into a lot of the mechanics and finer details of the system. “
Harbaugh’s there for that, too, motioning in demonstrative fashion how to do it right when one of his quarterbacks doesn’t. The mechanics of playing the position are still ingrained within Harbaugh. The mechanics of coaching them… Well, Harbaugh has got that right so far with his college quarterbacks, and it looks like he’s at least on his way to doing the same at the next level.
Harbaugh also can relay the experience of seeing and reacting to thousands of situations while throwing 3,918 passes during his NFL career.
“They’ve both made plays and executed it at a pretty darn high level and I’m really pleased with the way they’re picking it up,” Harbaugh said. “They’ve really kind of mastered the overall game plan, and really a lot of the parts of it and a lot of the finer details of it, and (they) just keep getting better at it. They’re both really bright guys and they are both talented guys, so I’m very pleased with how they’re progressing.”
It helps to have a master demonstrating how it’s done. Maybe it’s presumptive to suggest Harbaugh’s at that level yet, but put together what Harbaugh knows about playing quarterback and what he knows about coaching quarterbacks, and you’d have to consider that he’s getting close.
Now if he can only get Smith and/or Kaepernick there. To be sure, he’s certainly trying to show them the way.