Here is my Thursday column on Jim Harbaugh.
SANTA CLARA – It used to be so easy to get Jim Harbaugh to say too much.
He used to love creating side narratives before big games. He was the side-narrative king, the Charles Dickens of football coaches. Maybe he didn’t like the 49ers’ chances of winning that particular game and he tried to even the odds by making the game about something else.
Last year the week before the 49ers played the Giants, Harbaugh actually wrote down his side narrative and his P.R. staff e-mailed it to reporters an hour before Harbaugh’s Friday press conference. The final sentence of the statement was, “The Giants coaching staff’s sole purpose is to use their high visibility to both criticize and influence officiating.”
The officiating never was an issue in that game. The Giants beat the 49ers 26-3.
Before the 49ers played the Packers Week 1 this season, Harbaugh created two side narratives.
Narrative No. 1: The NFL should change its rules regarding the read option. The Packers said they were going to deck Kaepernick during this play. Harbaugh said they shouldn’t be allowed to: “My opinion is before the quarterback has declared being a runner, then he should be afforded the protection all quarterbacks are afforded.” And then he went on and on and got into specifics.
Harbaugh did the exact same thing he accused the Giants coaches of doing the previous season: He tried to criticize and influence officiating. Ironic.
Narrative No. 2: The Packers are a dirty team that will try to injure Colin Kaepernick: “You’re hearing all the tough talk right now,” Harbaugh said. “You’re hearing some intimidating type of talk, the same thing we were hearing a couple of years ago. It sounds a lot like targeting a specific player.”
The NFL didn’t change its read-option rule, but Packers’ linebacker Clay Matthews illegally hit Kaepernick out of bounds and seemed to validate Narrative No. 2.
The day after the game, Harbaugh still was stuck on Narrative No. 2. A reporter asked what he thought of Matthews’ illegal hit, a clothesline on Kaepernick out of bounds, followed by an open-hand slap to Joe Staley’s facemask. Harbaugh exploded with a 388-word response vividly describing the play and the hit, criticizing the way the referees penalized the play, and calling out Matthews’ manhood: “That young man works very hard at being a tough guy,” said Harbaugh. “He’ll have some repairing to do to his image after the slap.”
Harbaugh’s players seemed to follow his example. That week, Anthony Dixon challenged the manhood of the 49ers’ upcoming opponent, the Seahawks, calling them the “She-Hawks” in a tweet.
The Seahawks beat the 49ers 29-3.
After that humiliation, Harbaugh changed. He seemed to realize his side narratives hurt his team more than they helped it. He seemed to realize a head coach’s job is to focus his team on its upcoming opponent, not on what might happen or what happened the previous week.
This week, everyone expects the 49ers to beat the Packers. Even Packers fans expect the 49ers to beat the Packers – they still have not sold out Lambeau Field. If the game is about football, the 49ers should win. They’re the better team. But if the game is about the weather or playing on the road or some other side narrative, the 49ers could lose.
All week, reporters have flocked to Santa Clara trying to induce side narratives out of Harbaugh, trying to make the buildup to the game interesting.
Here’s how Harbaugh answered my question about the weather in Green Bay this weekend: “What the weather’s like won’t control how we play. We’ll go out and play hard, keep our bodies warm by playing hard. I played in a zero-degree-weather game and it didn’t feel any different than a 30 or 40-degree weather game.”
Harbaugh totally dismissed the idea that cold weather could affect an athlete. Mind over matter. Next question, please.
Q: “Some people think it’s a disadvantage for a West Coast team to play in Green Bay. Do you welcome that challenge?”
HARBAUGH: “Is it? I mean, do you have some study on that?”
Q: “You’re practicing in 60-degree weather. A lot of people think you’ll be at a disadvantage when it’s zero degrees at Lambeau.”
HARBAUGH: “I don’t know the study you’re referring to.”
Harbaugh used the Judge Judy method – she’s a favorite of his – to shut down that line of questioning. “Some people think” is hearsay, and therefore inadmissible. Next question, please.
A reporter tried a different approach to the same question. “Your team’s been a pretty good road team. Is there anything that defines a good road team other than just being a good team anywhere? Is there any characteristic or mental quality to that?”
“At this point where we stand, we’re not trying to explain or answer those questions in detail,” said Harbaugh. “Keeping it simple. Take our best players, we’ll go to Green Bay, and see if we can beat their best players. I’m just boiling it down Barney-style for myself. And, we’ll take that approach and see if it works.”
His point? The game is the game. There is nothing but the game. The game speaks for itself.
By the way, I always liked Barney. No side narratives.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.