49ers Success: How Did They Overcome The Lockout?

49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh chatted with the media yesterday (transcript after the jump) and he was asked at one point about some comments Jim Schwartz may have made to him a dinner during the NFL Lockout. The story goes that Jim Schwartz thought new coaches would have a really tough time getting things together due to an expected short turnaround time once the lockout ended.

Much of my expectations heading into the 2011 season revolved around the idea that this team was dealing with a new coaching staff and they would in fact need some adjustment time following the conclusion of the lockout. Common sense would dictate that a lack of 4+ months of preparation would have a sizable impact on a team with a new coach. Every team had to deal with the lockout, but you can't tell me Tom Brady's Patriots or Drew Brees' Saints or any team with a returning coaching staff would not have an advantage over the teams with new coaching staffs.

I'm not saying this as an excuse for anything. Rather, I am marveling at what Jim Harbaugh has done with this team in basically 12 weeks together. Yes they had a bit of time before the lockout, so if you want to add a month to that time, so be it.

The game-planning has been superb, and I suppose 4+ months of the coaches doing nothing but scouting and game-planning helps. They had a chance to view the weapons at their disposal and plan accordingly. Of course, the defense had huge turnover but is turning into a dominant force.

The offensive line had a bit of turnover and had arguably the biggest delay in turning into a solid presence. They are still a work in progress, but in a few short weeks they are improving in both run and pass blocking. I expected improvement as the season wore on, but not this much this fast.

Really I have one simple question. How do you explain the dramatic improvement of this team? I know some will say it just shows how bad the previous coaching staff was, but the combination of game-planning and execution still blows me away. What is it about the coaching staff and players that has led to this immediate renaissance?

Head Coach Jim Harbaugh
Press Conference - October 17, 2011
San Francisco 49ers

Listen to Audio I Media Center 

Opening Statement

"It's great to be back with a win, great thrill of victory yesterday. Great thrill of winning for our football team. Was extremely proud of our guys. Just feel great about it. It was an outstanding game. I don't think I've ever been a part of or watched a better football game just from the standpoint of tough play on both sides. Watched the film today and saw the same thing. Great respect for the men that played in that game. Glad we came out on top. Really felt that our team came together through adversity. Tough conditions to play in, but our guys hung together and found a way to win and I'm really proud of them." 

"I'm sure you want to talk about it (the postgame handshake between he and Lions coach Jim Schwartz). Let me address that before we go any further. It was an unfortunate incident that took place after the game and I take accountability and responsibility for my part in that. The thing that you feel bad about is that it detracts, takes away from what our football players did, what their football players did, and the game itself. When you see what is being talked about today, it's about that last night. That was unfortunate. Like I said after the ball game, I take responsibility for my part in that and any message that that showed after the game that was not about the game itself. That being said, I don't really want to detract any further from what our team did in that ballgame. The way this team is affected, each of the guys on this team, because I think something special is happening." 

Jim, do you think you have to tone it down a little bit though in a moment like that, maybe not during the game, but after the game, is that something you might have to think about?

"Yeah Tim, I think you can get better at everything. And we're always striving to get better as a team at everything we do. And personally I can get better at the post-game handshake, and will attempt to do that." 

Did you have conversations or dialogue today with the league office?

"Yes." 

Did you speak to the commissioner?

"No, I spoke with [Executive Vice President of Football Operations] Ray Anderson." 

And are you-is the matter closed?

"Yeah he was on a fact-finding mission. And asked my side of it, what took place. And, so I shared that with him." 

You've had a, obviously we all know about the [Seahawks Head Coach] Pete Carroll situation, but is it part of the message though at some point to show your players that you can be aggressive, you can be out there, you don't have to act in a certain way, there aren't certain protocol that you always have to adhere to, is that part of this for you?

"No, I don't think it's part of this. In any other way that you show your emotions. And that's OK to do. Whether you're a football player, a football coach, or just a man in general. That's OK, and they run the full gamete gamut just like any person's emotions. I was excited about the football game. Excited about the way our players played, and got revved up." 

Do you think Lions Head Coach Jim Schwartz did anything wrong?

"We're not here today to throw any salvos. There's not going to be any salvos coming out of the West Coast. I have a lot of respect for Jim and the Detroit Lions. Had many heated battles with the Detroit Lions through the years, and this one probably was the most heated that I can remember. From beginning throughout, and then at the end of the ballgame. So, it was great competition. It was rough, hard football. And we're very fortunate to prevail. We'll move on with this with humble hearts, and keep going." 

I have one more question about this, I know you want to talk about football, but this is very interesting. In the long-term, do you care one way or the other what other coaches think of you?

"Mostly we care about our team, and what they think of our team. And  really would love to get the focus back on that. What the players did in this football game because I think it was remarkable. The way both sides competed. They way our guys found a way to win against some uphill odds in a tough environment. And it's not going to be our last road game. There's things that we can definitely learn from this, and help to make us a better football team. I really think that's the most relevant thing." 

Do you feel you've cleared the air with Jim Schwartz since?

"We talked after the game in the tunnel briefly, and I'm sure we'll speak privately soon." 

Your team has sort of bought into this blue-collar work shirt. Can you describe the significance of the un-tucking of the shirt after the game?

"Yes. It's a mentality that when we work we tuck our shirts in. When work is over we un-tuck them. And when we win, we celebrate. That's the theme and message behind that. It goes back a ways. I had some uncles that lived in Ohio that worked a blue-collar job. And when they came home from their work, un-tucked their shirts, sit on the couch, put the feet up on the coffee table, and eat some pizza and drink a beer. Those were good times. Those were good times to be a little kid and just watch them do that. So, we've kind of taken that approach, that theme here." 

Can you talk about how well your defense is playing? Phenomenal.

"Yes. First of all I think [Defensive Coordinator] Vic Fangio had a tremendous plan. We didn't rush any more than four defenders at any time in the ball game. Sixty-one passes, 17 rushing attempts. Thought it was an excellent plan. Detroit gets the ball out of their hand very quick, and we wanted to have coverage. But we also wanted to make it appear that we were bringing pressure. So, it was very well schemed, very well played by our players. Some of the statistics that stand out. Sixteen drives in the game. That's a lot of series in any football game. And 11 of those drives ended in a three-n-out, or one first down and out, which is really remarkable. And nine of those were three-n-outs. Fifteen of 17 our defense was on third down. Another just eye-popping statistic. And again, they scored points for us. They got our offense field position. Did extremely well when Detroit was backed up inside their own 10-yard line. Safety once. A two-minute drive that ended in a missed field goal. A three-n-out. And the other time a one first down and out. So, all around. [DT] Justin Smith again is playing great football, playing great against the run. A sack and a half in the ball game. [LB] NaVorro Bowman, 17 tackles on our count. [LB] Aldon Smith, two sacks, a forced fumble, a safety. So, [LB] Patrick Willis, not the gaudy tackle numbers that he had last week, but he was really the challenged player throughout the ball game. We played quite a bit of man-coverage in the ballgame. And our linebackers were stressed, especially Patrick, covering number 87 pretty much the entire football game. He was very challenged the entire game and rose to the occasion. So, Vic talks about packing the defense for the road games, and that's what you need to do when you go on the road. Pack the defense. Vic thought it was the best defensive game that he's been a part of, and it was just outstanding." 

Can you specifically address the pass rush, and why you were able to sack him five times and put the pressure on him that you did, and how crucial that was obviously to your success?

"I think a lot of it was who was doing it. I thought Aldon, Justin, [DT] Ray [McDonald], [DT] Isaac [Sopoaga], [LB] Parys [Haralson] when he was in there. And then we've got some secondary pressure was coming, even though we never brought more than four. [S] Donte Whitner a few times on the blitz. The guys that were doing it I thought the scheme was extremely good. And there was a lot of effort. Not even the sacks, but the hurries and some of the pressures also led to those series stops." 

Talking to your players in an informal poll, they say that your emotion and energy fuels them, they feed off of that, is that exactly how you would hope it would be? They got a little entertainment out of yesterday.

"I'm fueled by those guys to be quite honest with you. I think the team's impacting each of us. I think it's fair to say that this group is coming together. And in large part in this ballgame this week, as well as some that we've already played, they're real character builders for our young football team." 

What about CB Chris Culliver made you comfortable, and Vic Fangio, to have him one-on-one with Lions WR Calvin Johnson, and how the other DB's could have helped him in that situation in that game?

"Well, Chris is continuing to get better as a football player. His confidence growing, coaches' confidence in Chris is growing. Go back to that a few months ago if you can just get a percent better each day, after 30 days we'll be 30 percent better. I think Chris really encapsules that, and he's playing extremely well on special teams too. Every snap that he was in there on special teams, even though he was getting the defensive snaps, he was all out every single play that he was in there on the field. So, he's blessed with a lot of athletic tools and I think [Secondary Coach] Ed [Donatell]'s doing a great job coaching him. And hopefully we can continue to get better with Chris." 

There's a bit of a resurgence right now. You guys are playing great, the Raiders are doing their thing. You've been on both sides of the Bay. What does that mean to you to see the buzz for the NFL in the Bay Area right now?

"We're both off to good starts. I don't know how much it means right now. We're going to take this game and move on with humble hearts and use this game as an improvement week and then we'll be back playing again. We'll look up in December and see how many we have, and see how many we need. We'll continue to treat it as a sprint, not a marathon and take it one week at a time." 

There were reports out of Denver that you guys were interested in Rams WR Brandon Lloyd. Obviously he's going to a division team. Were you and do you still expect WR Braylon Edwards back after the bye week and how does that figure into the mix of the wide receiver spot for you guys?

"Like we've talked about, we're very hopeful that Braylon is back after the improvement week. It's going to be a big week for him. This will be a big week getting on the field, starting to jog, run, make cuts. We'll see how much progress he can make to know if we'll get him back next week at practice." 

Did you guys speak to the Broncos about Brandon Lloyd?

"Like we've always said: our personnel (department) does a great job of knowing the landscape out there and always seeking to improve our football team. We don't ever specifically comment on any player that's not a 49er." 

One more Schwartz question, I'm sorry. The camera definitely showed Schwartz saying something after you got the penalty for the challenge, that you couldn't challenge, something like ‘know the rule,' ‘you don't know the rule'. Did you see that? Was that communicated to you? Was that something you heard about?

"Are you asking about the challenge?"

Yeah but Schwartz said something or yelled it. There was something the camera definitely picked up where he was saying something like ‘know the rule' or ‘he doesn't know the rule', commenting about your challenging something you couldn't challenge.

"We knew the rule. We knew that that would be a penalty." 

Did you know that Schwartz had said something? Did you hear him say something?

"No, I didn't hear anything out on the field. Was that the end of the question? 

And okay, let's go with the challenge. Did you know immediately that you had done something you couldn't do?

"No, we knew that you can't challenge a scoring play but just the way it transpired and we saw the incomplete pass by the back judge, and then the referee came over and they huddled and talked. Then, touchdown went up. That just seemed very quick that we were lining up to kick an extra point and didn't know if they really had the review to know where that stood. I threw the challenge flag to give them more time to look at it. But yeah, we knew we couldn't do it." 

Is timeout the move that you were supposed to do there?

"Take a timeout?" 

Yeah.

"Kind of wanted to save those for..." 

Did you get it explained? Why wasn't it reviewed?

"They said that they did get confirmation down from the review booth that it was a catch." 

Some people, including Bill Cowher, on TV, have said that you need to apologize to Schwartz or to the NFL; I'm not sure to whom. Are you planning to apologize or to call Jim up and apologize?

"No, I don't think that there's any reason for an apology. But I do feel that, like I said before, we spoke about it after the game and at some point we will talk in private. Apologies always seem to be like excuses. Like I said earlier, we'll just try to do better. Work on the post-game handshake." 

Your brother had an anecdote in the Philadelphia Daily News about you, him, and Coach Schwartz all had dinner during an owners' meeting in New Orleans and that Coach Schwartz told you that if the lockout drags on that your situation was going to be pretty hopeless, or maybe not you specifically but any coach in your situation, it would be hopeless for the new team with no time to prepare them. Your brother said you kind of bit your tongue and didn't say anything. What do you remember from that meeting?

"I remember a topic on the lockout, I remember having dinner with Coach. I don't remember any ... I don't know if you have the specifics, I don't remember those words verbatim. There was talk on the challenges of first-year coaches in the lockout situation." 

What are you going to do during the bye week? Are you self-scouting? I know the players are going to get a lot of time off, what's the coaching staff going to do?

"The plan? Today we watched the game, tomorrow we'll have a workout on the field, an opportunity-type of practice for anybody that didn't play, or played less than 15 plays in the game, or didn't play at all. Also going to have some individual meetings and basically do that- self-scout back over the first six games in individual meetings. Then the coaches will work on Wednesday and there will be a few days off for the coaches if they choose to take them. And I want them to do that. I want people to get out, spend time with their families, but we'll be working on Cleveland, getting ready for that ball game." 

Will you take a couple days off yourself?

"I would like to see my wife and kids, yes. I think that would be healthy." 

WR Michael Crabtree's performance, a quiet nine catches but that's got to help his confidence this year.

"Well, thanks for that. Nine catches, 77 yards and great catches. Great, eight yard catches at times. Caught the big one over the middle at a time in the ball game where we needed to chip away. We needed to find a way to get a positive play. Few penalties early and we needed a first down, we needed two first downs. We needed to put together a drive. Michael has been doing that all year. Blocking extremely well again in this game. He was a game-ball worthy guy in this game. Continues to just make the spectacular catch that keeps drives alive, gets first downs, converts on third down." 

What pleases you about the way QB Alex Smith is playing now?

"Alex is playing winning football. Playing tough, managing the offense, doing a great job with his assignments and his role. Then really not flinching there at the end, you make that throw to [TE] Delanie [Walker], that had to be right on the spot. Delanie did a great job catching it, dipping the shoulder, keeping the knee off the turf and getting into the end-zone. So many times you see that play if it's just off center, six inches, four inches, you don't get that ball into the end-zone. The kind of play that Alex has given us, really indicative of our entire offense. I don't think anybody played perfect on the offensive side of the ball in this game, but I thought they overcame adversity, got stronger as the game went on and didn't flinch at crunch time. All those things. Really proud of Alex and the offensive unit for that." 

One other Alex question. Before the season, you were eager to bring him back. What did you see in him that attracted you to him?

"It's no secret, I have a lot of respect for Alex's play, really like being around him. I think he's a very good, smart football player that is young and getting better. It's pretty well documented. Alex is our guy and he's rising to the occasion. We'll move on with humble hearts and keep trying to get better. That's the honest truth." 

Searching for positive plays, it seems like with the special teams playing the way it is almost every time the ball changes hands, you're getting a positive play, whether it's P Andy Lee punting or WR Ted Ginn returning. Can you talk about, from a mindset perspective, how that affects the squad?

"Well, four big punts inside the 10-yard line. Let's' start there with Andy. Net punt of over 41 yards. Consistently has the ability to change field position, flip field position in a football game. He's having a tremendous year, he's having a Pro Bowl type of year. Very unselfish player, four punts inside the 10, to some punters, that's seven or eight yards off their gross punt. He gets us down in there and allows us to get great field position. Can't say enough about Andy. The way our special teams is playing, Ted Ginn gets the 40-yard punt return to set up the game winning drive there at the end of the ball game. Was solid on kickoff return, 24 average there. He's always a threat right now. When you watch teams play against us, Ted Ginn is at the top of the game in terms of returners, punt returners and kickoff returners. He's really giving us a great lift in these ball games." 

What has LB Blake Costanzo brought to the special teams?

"Attitude, great attitude. I think we go on these road trips and Blake brings his toothbrush and a great attitude. Guys feed off that. He's a football player. Darn near blocked the punt in the ball game yesterday. Core teams guy that is a real leader in that phase and on our football team. Gives us a great look in practice, he'll play fullback for you, he'll play linebacker, anything that you need him to do. He's been a great addition, just another example of this team, these guys affecting each other."

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