How could Jim Harbaugh get one percent better?
He’s already a very good coach, but as he says, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. You never stay the same.
Keep in mind, I’m working under the hypothesis that Harbaugh is the King of the 49ers. He’s got complete veto power. No play gets called if he doesn’t give the OK, and no player gets signed or drafted if he doesn’t give the thumbs up. He’s responsible for it all.
So, here are five areas where he could improve to ensure he’s arrow-up for 2012.
In-game coaching with a lead. Harbaugh needs to tweak his game-management philosophy. He’s not nearly aggressive enough when the 49ers are winning. It’s as if he tells the offense to go out and punt. Alex Smith stops throwing downfield, often by design, and the Niners let their opponents hang around. This led to two losses last season. First, against the Cowboys in Week 2 – Harbaugh went for a 55-yard field goal – and made it – but the Cowboys got flagged for a 15-yard penalty which would have put the Niners offense in the red zone, but Harbaugh declined the penalty and took the field goal. Second, against the Giants in the NFC Championship game, they had 14 points and the lead halfway through the third quarter and finished the overtime game with just 17. In both games, Harbaugh had the lead in the second half and his offense did virtually nothing to add to it. Harbaugh needs to coach his team to go for the jugular when they have the chance, and not rely on the defense to hold small leads.
Acquiring wide receivers. Last offseason, Harbaugh let Trent Baalke and wide receivers coach John Morton talk him into drafting USC Trojan Ronald Johnson in the sixth round. The 5-10, 200 lb. receiver ran a 4.45 at his Pro Day, but he was slow in training camp and the Niners cut him. Thanks to the failed Ronald-Johnson experiment, the Niners missed out on former Stanford Cardinal Doug Baldwin, an undrafted rookie who caught 51 passes for 788 yards (15.5 yards/catch) for the Seahawks in 2011. Harbaugh has no excuse for whiffing on Baldwin – he coached Baldwin all four years of his Stanford career. The Niners can’t afford to draft the wrong receiver this year. They can’t afford to sign the wrong one either, like they did last season with Braylon Edwards.
Third down play-designing and play-calling. Alex Smith seems to always check down on third and long – he throws a pass way short of the first-down marker. Either his primary read is always covered, or the check-down is the primary read. Harbaugh needs new material. Greg Roman and Geep Chryst get most of the credit for play designs and calls. Maybe Harbaugh should be more hands-on, because Roman and Chryst didn’t cut it on third down last season.
Red zone play-designing and play-calling. They didn’t cut it in the red zone, either. They never really figured out how to call play-action pass plays to Vernon Davis in the red zone. Jimmy Raye knew well enough to do that. Again, it’s as if Harbaugh told the offense to play for field goals. There’s an overriding theme of passivity, especially with leads, and Harbaugh needs to break that now.
Interacting with the media. Bill Walsh understood how important this is. Harbaugh doesn’t. As long as he’s winning, he’s got nothing to worry about. But as soon as he starts losing – and all coaches lose eventually, even Walsh did – he’ll get eaten alive. When Walsh lost, he got the benefit of the doubt from the media, because he’d been humane with them. Harbaugh will get no benefit of no doubt. He treats the media like sub-humans. He needs to realize he’s the face of the 49ers, the spokesman of the franchise, not just a football coach. He needs to widen his scope for his own good and the good of the 49ers.