Jim Harbaugh and player motivation

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

The Rams game poses some interesting questions about the future of Jim Harbaugh's tenure as Head Coach with the 49ers.

A lot of people were talking about this last game being a "must win" game for the 49ers. The notion is, of course, based purely on how one defines the term "must win." I would argue that a must win game for a team is a game that the team must win in order to not be eliminated from the playoffs or from playoff contention. Anything short of that is not a "must win." For me, then, the Rams game was not a must win.

But other people seem inclined to define a must win game as somthing that would somehow alter the momentum or course of a season. Under this definition, the Rams game was a must win because, if the 49ers had lost, the season would have been far enough on its way to being lost that the 49ers may never have recovered.

I think this doesn't give Jim Harbaugh enough credit - or his coaching staff for that matter.

Alongside the sentiment of the "must win" game that was popping up in the media was this notion that the Harbaugh-era 49ers had never faced this level of adversity. I am inclined to agree with this. Player injuries, media drama, and multiple loses had coalesced into the short week of hell against a divisional opponent. The team seemed to be in dire straights.

And then the sweet, sweet win.

But the win does beg an interesting question: is this how future Harbaugh led teams will respond to adversity? Not with a whimper, but a defensively-strong bang?

As a coaching staff, the current coaches have always had the wins to fall back on. If some level of adversity was plauging the team or some controversy just wouldn't let go with its media-constructed talons, Harbaugh could always point to the win-lose record and get the players motivated. We hadn't seen the team face large loses before.

So, the win on Thursday night does go a good distance in reassuring fans that Harbaugh can keep control of the locker room in times of distress - and, more importantly, in times of losing.

But, I don't think the question is fully answered. For one, it seems like a players-only meeting was instrumental in boosting moral. Was that the only reason the 49ers played the Rams with a fervor? Of course not. Nor does that reflect poorly on Harbaugh, necessarily. He, and his staff, is the one creating the locker room enviroment in which this type of meeting could occur. That's good coaching.

But, ultimately, Harbaugh is an eccentric coach coming from college with a schtick. And his only NFL team hasn't really faced a level of adversity that can happen in this parity-loving league. We have to hope that he will be equipped to deal with future obstacles derived from loses.

So, on Thursday, this coaching staff passed a big test. That doesn't ensure future success. But, it feels a lot like a step forward.

And I, for one, look forward to watching him evolve as a coach as the next few years go by.

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