Friday, February 1, 2013

A Tale of Two Brothers: The Harbowl

Examining Jim and John Harbaugh
Dan O'Brien

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Let's face it: the NFL has lost a bit of its luster. Perhaps it is the ridiculous contracts or just the slowing down of the game to make it safer, but there is something about it that lacks the energy it had more than a decade ago. When the only thing we can point to for drama in the game is a late field goal for a win, I think it is time to reevaluate what it is about the game that makes it so enticing. Frothing-at-the-mouth fans tune into the NFL to watch a game that challenges the perseverance and the strength of the human condition, both physically and mentally. I am not going to turn this into a tirade about why distilling the game to a final kick in the final seconds has damaged the league (I will leave that to Skip Bayless), but instead talk about what drew fans to football in the first place: smash-mouth football. 

The Harbowl, as it is affectionately being called, is a return to a much older time in football, better times in the opinion of many fans and analysts .Strong defenses unwilling to give up an inch and a run game that keeps linebackers and defensive backs honest. The Baltimore Ravens have been this kind of team with Ray Lewis as an emotional and physically impressive centerpiece since he walked on the field. Over the past two seasons, the 49ers have emerged from the ashes to become a defensive stalwart and a truly impressive offensive presence. This Brother's Bowl has rejuvenated a love of football for many fans, creating a dramatic stage that has been painfully absent over the past couple of seasons. My inclination is that the threat of a Brother Bowl might lurk long after the final moments tick off the clock in New Orleans this Sunday. 

John Harbaugh
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Following nearly a decade in Philadelphia as a Special Teams coordinator and then working with the secondary and safeties in his final year (2007), John's coaching career really started at Western Michigan University in 1984 as the running backs and outside linebacker's coach in 1984. From 1988 until 2006, John was the man behind the Special Teams, an interesting career path of a coach in the Super Bowl. There has been a lot of talk recently of NFL head coaches who spent time as Special Teams coordinators and the value that front offices might place on that in the head coaching selection process. Looking at John's record, there might be something to that. 

As coach of the Baltimore Ravens, his all-time record of 80-54 (a .675 winning percentage) is quite impressive. The worst record he has carried as head coach was 9-7 in 2009, which was the last time they did not win their division. Going into the Super Bowl, he is 8-4 in playoff games, though he has yet to hoist the coveted Lombardi trophy. 

Jim Harbaugh
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The turnaround in San Francisco was intense and dramatic and is due to the personality of its coaching staff heralded most prominently by Jim Harbaugh. He has been referred to as a player's coach and I imagine this comes from his time spent on the field doing precisely what he expects of his player's every time they step on the field. There is a mantra that I live by and it has served me pretty well: do not demand something of someone else that you are unwilling to do. Jim Harbaugh has stood in the pocket and taken a hit from Ray Lewis and can demand that toughness of his own players. 

Drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1987 (26th overall), Jim would spend the next 13 years as a quarterback in the NFL. He would not remain with Chicago, spending time in Indianapolis, Baltimore, and San Diego before retiring in 2000. He only posted two winning seasons as a pro quarterback and that was with the Chicago Bears in 1990 and 1991. His journey as a coach began at Western Kentucky in 1994 and then was highlighted by his time at Stanford. It is the radical change in philosophy that we saw transitioning from Mike Singletary to Harbaugh that speaks to his tenacity on and off the field. In only two years as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Jim was one game away from a Super Bowl and now coaching in one. He has helped create a football culture in San Francisco that is reminiscent of the Bill Walsh days. San Franciscans have a team to cheer for once again, and they have Jim Harbaugh to thank for it. 

Opinion Time

Who do I think is the better coach? 

This is a tough call. What I would look to in determining this is an upward trajectory in terms of team play. John  made a risky move in bringing on Jim Caldwell to call the offense and it helped propel the Ravens into the Super Bowl. Jim created a stir in San Francisco by benching Alex Smith and starting Colin Kaepernick in his place: this turned out pretty well. If I had to choose one, then I would go with Jim because of the sudden transformation of the 49ers without changing any other piece other than him taking the helm. Jim Harbaugh essentially used the pieces that had been left behind from a sub .500 team the year before and made them a team to be feared in a division that was roundly dismissed until the 49ers started crushing teams and the Seahawks became the upstarts of the league. 

The larger point that looms is that one Harbaugh brother is going to win a Super Bowl and one of them is going to have to watch his brother lift the Lombardi trophy above his head. The novelty of a Harbaugh winning a Super Bowl regardless of who wins is a special moment in NFL history. A conference for Jim and John's parents best illustrates what it means to experience crushing defeat and overwhelming joy in the same breath. 

More about the author: A psychologist, author, philosopher, freelance editor, and skeptic, Dan O’Brien has published several novels and currently has many in print, including: The End of the World Playlist, Bitten, The Journey, The Ocean and the Hourglass, The Portent, The Path of the Fallen, Book of Seth, and Cerulean Dreams.

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