49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh chatted with the media this morning and was all over the map as questions were on just about every subject under the sun. My favorite talking point was when he was asked about the 1995 AFC Championship Game when his Indianapolis Colts came within a Hail Mary pass of stunning the Pittsburgh Steelers and advancing to the Super Bowl.
I remember jumping on the Captain Comeback Colts bandwagon that postseason and seeing them come oh so close to the upset. I've posted the final few minutes of the game below if you want some evening material. Coach Harbaugh talked briefly about that and how he walked off proud of his effort. He thought there'd be more days like that, but who know it would take 16 years to get back to this point.
Head Coach Jim Harbaugh
Press Conference - January 16, 2012
San Francisco 49ers
"Sorry for being late. Had a matter that needed my attention. I apologize."
When you faced the Giants on November 13, did you have an inkling that it might come to this?
"I think it probably surprised a lot of people that the Giants and the 49ers are in the NFC-Championship game. In October and November and September, we were trying to win the next game. That's where our focus was."
A lot of your players talked about how emotionally draining this game was. How do you move on from that game and do you sense that that has taken place already? Do you have to do something to make sure that happens?
"I think it was a physical, emotional expenditure by everybody that was in that game. The thing that you're so proud of is the character of the football team. Offensively, the way they answered. Special teams and the way we covered. Defensively, there was some great play and just the wicked fight that's in this team."
Couldn't that be a problem as far as preparing for the next game? When you're so high one week, is it hard to remain at that level for the next week?
"There are great challenges ahead, in store for this team. Number one is preparing for the New York Giants. Tremendous football team. There's other things. The team realized, and where you're going with the question is, ‘Does the team realize that it doesn't matter what you did or what you proved, and you might have proved it a thousand times before, but now you're proving it again.' That's the challenge."
When you were watching the Giants yesterday, did you see a different team than you saw two months ago? How have they improved?
"Yes. Great question. Healthier, is the biggest thing. Especially on the defensive side of the ball. Especially the linebacker unit that is playing outstanding. When we faced them, they were really down to one linebacker and two young linebackers and the one the linebacker was playing out of position. Those two linebackers have grown in experience and production. They added [LB Chase] Blackburn who's playing very well. They got another linebacker back and that has really fortified that group. That group has really played at a high level and much different than the team that we played earlier. The defensive line was strong when we played them and now they're stronger. One of the best in the National Football League. The secondary has grown in experience and playing together. That group has been intact. The offense remains very potent. Eli Manning has played at a high level the entire season. The running game has been bolstered since we played the Giants. The receiver group has really asserted itself even since we played them. So yes, a much healthier team. A very good team from when we played them. That game when we played them here certainly could have gone either way."
What strides have you guys made in the last two months that jump out to you?
"I think we've made several. The character of the team, the execution of the team, the way our players play. Players like, again, [DT] Justin Smith, played great in this past game. I don't think there is a tougher player that I've ever been around or known or even a tougher person, put it to that level. I was even talking with [Defensive Coordinator] Vic [Fangio] and [Secondary Coach] Ed Donatell about the same thing. Do you know a tougher guy than Justin Smith? Have you ever been around a player like this? We really couldn't come up with one. The only guy we could even say maybe that's tougher than Justin Smith is OJ Brigance, who is with the Ravens. Just the class and toughness that he's displayed since being diagnosed with ALS, would be the only one that we could come up with."
The batted down pass that he had in the last Giants game was kind of a game saver. Where does that rank on some of the great plays he's made this year? I know there have been others.
"There's that line from that movie. What is that movie? I can't even think of the name of the movie. But, you talk about 10 out of 10. You can't get any better, can't be any better than 10 out of 10. Then, he finds a way to take it up another notch on the ladder when you didn't think there was another notch to go. Same thing in this game, too. Six or seven hurries. Gets a sack. The play where he's hurrying [QB] Drew Brees while he's being locked out by their left tackle. Legs off the ground and he's holding on to Drew and pulling him down. Is there an 11 out of 10? Is there such a thing? Is there a 12 out of 10. He just keeps finding another rung."
Did [S] Donte Whitner find another rung?
"No doubt, no doubt. Donte Whitner, this was his most physical game. He really came to play and hit. The play he made on the goal-line was a tremendous tackle. Saved points, whether it was seven or three. Gets the turnover for us. Tackled physically the entire game. Our defense did that really all game long, against tough guys to tackle. Their backs, [RB Darren] Sproles, their receivers, those are hard guys to bring down in the open field, [TE] Jimmy Graham. We did a tremendous job limiting yards after catch, yards after contact. Dashon Goldson is another. The plays he made on the ball, the interception, the return, PBUs. And then the tackling. You really look at him, his arms are so long and so wide, wingspan. I don't even know what his wingspan is, basketball folks really concentrate on that. He's got a great wingspan and that really helps him in tackling."
Your message to the team last week was "don't overcook it." Maybe it was partly because so many guys hadn't been to the playoffs before. This week, with that victory under your belt, with one home game between them and the Super Bowl, does that shift a little bit? Do you want them thinking a little differently? Or still don't overcook it?
"We don't have as much time as we had to prepare as last week. But we have more than enough time to get ready for this team if we have proper focus and attention to detail. There's going to be a need for laser-light focus. Be in to the details. There's a real sense of urgency in doing that, yes."
Last time you played the Giants, DE Justin Tuck made some comments that could be construed as disparaging toward Alex. Do you think with this last performance, you mentioned you have to continue to prove yourself, but do you think that game-manager stuff might be gone?
"I think there are going to be a lot of people running around this week trying to find bulletin board material. Take things out of context and stretch them. Look for that nugget and then can't wait to hurry back here and ask us, or them, what they thought of that. We need to really focus on our task here. This is a big game. It's against a great opponent. That's where our thoughts will be, not on the irrelevant things that show up in the newspaper. But people will be working hard, I predict. I see a lot of people in this room here."
As a follow up to that, Alex has illustrated six comeback wins this year, what is it about him that clicks in these situations that you've seen?
"Again, the word that pops into my mind is just toughness. Mental toughness. Physical toughness, that's evidenced, that's there. He's started and played practically every snap for us for 17 games. He has great mental toughness. He has a way to be focused and loose in the most pressure situations. He's got that make up about him that allows him to play and execute. Experience, demeanor, confidence, all those things give you a chance. He goes out and executes them. It's why I said that the other day. These guys are my heroes. All of them. Alex was heroic in this game. So was Justin, so was Donte, so was [LB] Aldon [Smith], so was [TE] Vernon Davis. You take your play to the heroic. That's what he did. That's what all our guys did. Just the way they all fight. It's a wicked, competitive fight that's in our guys."
Eli was scrutinized early on in his career for not taking the next step and then he did it, and now Alex has done so. I know you don't compare, but do you see some similar path for these two quarterbacks who will be on the big stage on Sunday?
"Well, yes. I think you can say that for just about every quarterback that's played the position in the National Football League who's felt the white-hot spotlight. They've been stung by criticism, sometimes justly, sometimes unjustly. They handle it within their own personality. They either do or they don't. They either rise above it or it pulls them down. I think you're talking about two guys that have all the wiring, all the make up, all the fortitude of all the best that have played this game from that standpoint."
Please bare with me on this line of questioning. Through the year, I've noticed the pinky on your right hand is a little beat up, damaged. Did that happen in football?
Would you mind telling us how it happened?
"I was a sophomore, I believe, at the University of Michigan. I was taking a snap from center and the snap came up early and I didn't have my hand open. The ball hit the pinky and sent it sideways."
And you played your whole pro career with that?
"Yeah. Sometimes I'd have to tape it up. Once it goes out that bad, then it usually comes out a lot easier."
Did you break it or just dislocate it?
"I don't recall. I think some things got dislocated in there."
Have you ever, after you retired, considered having it fixed or anything like that?
"Gosh, I'm just so moved that you care this much about me."
I'm sincerely interested.
"I feel that. They said there's no real surgery that can be done for it. I like to strip my sleeves and show my scars and that's one of them."
Do you have other scars, physical remembrances of your career? Sometimes it seems when I see you on the field you walk with a tiny hitch in your step. I could be wrong about that, but it seems to me that, like Montana has certain things, or any player. You have certain physical things from your warrior days.
"Yes. Yearly, I like to have the neighbors over and put on a barbecue and tell them all about it. You're almost kind of proud of some of those. Yeah, a few things, but nothing worth talking about now. We've got bigger fish to fry. Thank you though."
Once you saw film, was there anybody that stood out to you on kick coverage?
"The coverage units across the board. I made the comment, and I hate to make comparisons, I really do, but I really think our guys are the best in the business at what they do. They attack it with a real joy that way. They love to do what they do. [S] Colin Jones, two tackles. [S] C.J. Spillman, two tackles. [LB Blake] Costanzo a tackle, forced fumble and a recovery. [S] Madieu Williams, a forced fumble and a recovery by, I believe it was Colin Jones. Average drive start on the kickoff was the 17-yard line for the Saints. That's a potent return game that they have. We got the turnover on the punt as well. Those guys would be highlighted the most. Costanzo, Jones, Spillman."
How did Justin Smith end up on offense on a few plays?
"That was part of the game plan that we worked on this week."
"Why not earlier? Good question. Probably should have. He did an outstanding job. He was off on the snap, rolled off on the snap. Had a nice block. Just went right for the hip and moved the defensive end. He knows how to do that. He knows when an end is vulnerable, too. Yeah, probably should have done that a little earlier."
You mentioned Donte earlier and his physical play on Saturday. How much, beyond him, just for your defense, how much of that is part of your defensive persona, for lack of a better word. How helpful is that in sort of sending a message to receivers that you guys are going to play that way.
"Donte's tackle, in particular, I thought was a real tone-setter in the game. Also a point saver and a momentum change in the game. Both safeties, Dashon Goldson and Donte made those kind of tackles all game. So did [LB] NaVorro Bowman, so did [LB] Patrick Willis. [LB] Ahmad Brooks is that kind of tone-setter. He had a big sack in the game, but he also had some huge turn and run hustle plays early in the game. He hit Sproles out in the flat on a swing route. Retraced after rushing the quarterback and prevented that from being a longer gain. He had the big tackle for a loss there in the 4th quarter. He was outstanding. Everybody, they play within the framework of the defense. They feed off each other. I think they have a high standard for the way they play. [CB Tarell] T-Brown had an excellent game. Tremendous interception. Got us a stop there. [CB] Carlos Rogers, any time you have a touchdown saving pass break-up, which he had on the post. He also had another big one on the critical third down to force a punt. He tackled well. He's a get-him-down tackler. Donte and Dashon, they really bring a tone-setting physicality to their tackling. Aldon had a tremendous game. Whatever it gets recorded as, five, six, seven hurries in the game, plus a sack. Good hustle run plays as well. Getting off blocks. Hurried the quarterback quite a bit in this game and we'll need to do that again this ball game to be successful."
Vernon Davis was a player who, years ago, was sent to the locker room by the coach. He used to have a reputation of fighting in practice. Can you sense the maturation process Vernon's made and do you remember hearing about some of those things with Vernon a couple years back?
"I try to be around people to make my own antenna to come up with - is he about us or is he about himself? Usually, when you're on a team, that's the one thing, even if you don't even know it, that's the one thing you're trying to figure out about each guy and every guy. The only Vernon Davis that I know is the team guy. Is the study hard guy, smart guy, willing to do whatever he needs to do for the team. Put his own statistics, his own accolades aside for the betterment of the team. That's the only one that I know. The evidence is there. It's showered on him. It's been all year for us. What a great feeling, emotional feeling, for a guy that does that for your team. To have a heroic day like he had in this ball game. We don't win it without plays that Vernon Davis makes. The second effort plays, the physical plays, the catch on the goal line, the speed that he had on that play in particular. He raged off the ball. He got around the linebacker. He got in front of the safety. Alex made a perfect throw. Bodied up 41 [S Roman Harper] and won us the game."
Your teams have been known for blocking pretty well through college and here. Was curious as to what your influences were in terms of blocking schemes. Is there an old offensive line coach in your past? Is there something that sort of made your philosophy in terms of blocking and getting people blocked?
"Yes, in fact, my quarterback coach when I was at Michigan, Jerry Handley was an offensive line coach for every year that he coached except the five that I was at the University of Michigan. He was my quarterback coach. I was always coached with an offensive line perspective to everything. It was always about the offensive line. So, maybe that was, and probably, that deep abiding respect for blocking and offensive line play. It probably came from Jerry Handley."
In the meat of the game, you guys struggled a little bit against the Saints blitz, especially on third down. But in the fourth quarter, you were very good in that regard. What changed in the fourth quarter?
"It was an ebb and flow to it. No doubt about it. That was in every phase that you want to look at. You want to look at any phase in the football game, there were struggles. There were superlatives, too. There was fantastic plays being made. There was an all-out style that you're facing. They were being riverboat gamblers, too. They were sending the heat. The corners, safeties, with no help playing man to man coverage. Nobody in the middle. There's times they got home, there's times that they hurried us, there's times that they won the down. I think there was more times when we won the down. That's probably the best way to explain it."
Has TE Delanie Walker been cleared yet?
"Don't have an answer on that yet?"
Do you expect him to practice this week?
"We'll see. All will be in the doctor's hands. I have not gotten confirmation one way or the other."
Ted Ginn, his injury; is that something that could keep him out this week?
"We'll see. Again, I don't have my MD."
But something hasn't shown up that will clearly keep him out?
"Not that I'm aware of."
Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio said he put DT Justin Smith's picture on the cover of the defensive notebook earlier in the training camp and I was just wondering, is Justin a motivator for his other teammates? Do they look at his picture and want to win for him?
"I think you get down to the essence of why these guys play. They play for each other. They play for themselves. They play for their team. But mainly they're playing for each guy. They're playing for the guy next to them. And I think that's true in any level of football, even college football. I don't think the guys are playing for the good old alma mater, or as much as they are for each other."
But Justin in particular?
"You could make that case. I think they all do. I think Justin plays for-they all play for each other."
But it was his picture that they put on the cover?
"Yeah, he was the only guy we had in a playoff game. That was in a playoff game on our defense. So, that's why it was up there at that time."
RB Frank Gore was actually hurt for the game when you first played the New York Giants. How much of his presence will change what you can do against them this Sunday?
"Well, his presence has always been, we talk about it every week, he's a team leader. He's a big part of what we do offensively and he was big in this past game. Popped a big run that led to a field goal. Got the ball off of our goal line after the [S] Donte Whitner forced fumble. He had two, three excellent runs on that drive to change the field position and the flow of the game at that point. He was very good in pass protection. He's Frank."
Jim, the 49ers obviously have built a reputation this year on defense and it was a defensive game for three quarters, then all of a sudden up and down the field. Was that disturbing at all? I mean, you want to win and you won on offense in effect. But the fact that they had the quick scores in the fourth quarter, does that bother you?
"No, no it doesn't bother me. You've got to score more points than the other team does. That's the thing that matters the most. So, offensively there are games that 20 points is what we need in a game, or 10, or sometimes you need 36. Defensively there are times that you can pitch a shutout. You can play four quarters of shutout football, but that's not realistic either. That's why it's the greatest team game that's ever been invented. It's both sides. It's all sides. It's every player."
A little over a year ago you took this job. I know you don't always like looking back on what your mindset was, but could you have possibly figured you would be hosting the NFC Championship game when you took that job, 6-10 team, hadn't been to the playoffs?
"Well, we've talked about this before too. Never thought about that then. It was always, ‘Make the day better than yesterday. How can we find a way to be better today than we were yesterday? How can we be better tomorrow than we were today? And if we could get a percent better every day for the next 30 days, we'll be 30 percent better as a team. And then how can we get a mile an hour faster, or how could we get a .01 percent better? Let's chase that.' So, there was never any..."
Two-year plan, three-year plan?
"No, the plan was to win this year. There was no five-year plan, or three-year plan. It was let's win this year. How can we do that? By getting better every day."
You're in the grind right now. Have you had any chance to reflect on your brother's success and enjoy that as well?
"Yes, yes. Had a chance to watch his game and find myself as always pulling very hard for him and his team and very happy for him and his success."
When you watch that do you watch it as a fan, as a brother? Or do you watch it as a potential opponent down the road?
"Both now, really. As a brother, as fan of his team and also as a possible opponent, yes."
You came during your career within a Hail Mary of going to the Super Bowl one year. Do you bring that up to your team as evidence of how fleeting these opportunities can be?
"I think I did once, yeah. I can recall one time thinking that. Just walking off that field that day, that AFC Championship game, feeling good about that we had given it everything we had. And I always feel like when you do that you can look back and feel good about what you accomplished, if you gave it your all. And also, to be honest my thought going off that field was there'll be other days. Turned out that that was the only day, and I think I did share that at some point with the team."
Did you bring it up again this week given it's the-?
"This week just started. No, I haven't [laughs]."
Well, is that something that going into the Championship game this could be the opportunity that a lot of these guys have?
"Not so much. I don't think I will. And I don't even know why I did that before. Usually don't think about the good old days, or the what-ifs. Just think about what's in front of us. Making the future better, that's the main thing."
Alex's touchdown run, that came from Quarterbacks Coach Geep Chryst to Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman to you? Or how did that play unfold?
"Alex's? Greg had suggested that one, yeah. And Geep called the Vernon Davis touchdown and that whole two-minute drive there at the end. That was coming from Geep."
Can you talk about T Joe Staley's block on that Alex Smith touchdown run?
"Yeah, I would say Joe was running like a tight end, but he wasn't. He was running faster. He was running like a DB. It was a great block. And Joe told us in the locker room, ‘Wait until you see my block. Wait until you see my block on film.' And it was a tremendous block. The stride, the beauty of the arm action, the leg cycle, the speed. And to cut a corner in open space, that's similar to tackling a guy in open space, and Joe is that kind of athlete. And then he got into him and rolled him up and to me it was like barbed wire getting rolled up. Everything in its path just gets collected. And I've got a great picture. I was going through all the pictures this week of Alex running and he's going down the sideline and he turns and looks at Joe making that block and he's just grinning. And the next frame it's like he's got this amazed look on his face and then he takes his next stride into the end zone. And yeah, that was a really well designed play. It was a great call. It was tremendously executed from [WR] Kyle William's block to Joe's pull and cut on the secondary. Alex perfectly stretching it from hash to numbers to sidelines. And you're just pleased when a plan comes together like that."
Jim, did you watch the Packers/Giants as a staff and were you openly rooting for home-field advantage?
"No, I never really root. It's almost like one of those things, be careful what you wish for. Just watch the two teams play and if I ever do root in a game it's always for the team that's playing harder. And it became evident that the Giants were playing harder and just executing better and played as a team. And that's a formidable opponent. That's a worthy opponent. That is a scary opponent. That's one that we will have to come with every ounce of our A game as well."
You would say though that it worked in your favor?
"In terms of having the game here, that is an advantage for us. And I really say that after feeling the game this past Saturday in Candlestick. Our fans turned that stadium into a fortress. That was as good as it can get. And our crowd was behind us. Our players felt it. It was a great environment. It felt like somebody locked the gates and put us in here and we got 70,000 and a city behind us. It just felt that way. It felt good. It felt like an advantage. I hope we get that this week as well."
Had the warm parkas even been discussed yet, pulling those out of the supply closet for a potential trip to Green Bay, or was all that stuff not even in the works yet? Warm weather gear to stay warm for a potential trip to the frigid Midwest.
"Parkas, I don't know what you're talking about, parkas. Were any plans made? No, no."
New York Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin was saying that they are a dangerous team. How dangerous are you guys?
"I think we're a good football team. I like our team. I think we're a tough team. When we're prepared, when we have our focus and we fight like we did, shoot, every game we played this year, we're a darn tough team to beat."
There's a cliché in football that it's hard to beat a team twice in the same season. Can you explain from a coach's perspective things about that that may not be apparent to us?
"Well, no. I don't think I could give that a real good answer."
Do you agree with that?
"I've heard it. I've heard it said that way before, yes. Yes."
Does it provide special challenges that you could explain at all?
"No, I don't think I could give it a real good answer. We'll do our best though."
The game-winning play was evidently installed just Wednesday. Your staff is known for a lot of creative play calls throughout the year. Is that fun for you? Is that a fun part of your job, talking with guys and sort of thinking of different ways, let's throw to Staley, let's throw to Sopoaga. Those type of plays. Is that enjoyable to you?
"Really enjoyable. Yeah, it's a fun part of the job. And I think the thing that makes it fun is that the players are really stimulated by that. And we've got smart guys that they want it, they almost need it. And really keeps them on a razor's edge."
Could be a play drawn up this week?
"I hope so. I hope we can find a few. Yeah, we're going to have to-it's a big challenge in front of us really getting to know this team, since the 10 weeks we played them. Or however many weeks it's been because they are an outstanding football team."