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49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh: Smarter Than The Average Bear?

During Sunday's victory over the New York Giants, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh made what many felt was a head-scratching decision late in the game. The 49ers were leading 27-20 with 3:25 to go. Eli Manning appeared to complete an 18-yard pass to Mario Manningham on 4th and 6 for a huge completion. The Giants decision to go for it on fourth down surprised the announcers, but they connected on the pass and had some momentum in their favor.

And then, Jim Harbaugh threw his red flag to challenge the play.

In the game thread and on twitter, people were wondering what was going on. The play seemed clear-cut and on the replays there was nothing that even seemed remotely questionable about the call of a completed pass. Why you wasting the timeout Jim?

While initially confused, I realized that maybe it wasn't the worst decision in the world to challenge the play. I don't know if we'll ever know for sure, but my thought is that Coach Harbaugh wanted to calm the troops down and get them a rest. He could have simply called a timeout for that, but why not use the challenge? The use of the challenge stops the clock for a bit longer than a normal timeout. Additionally, maybe they get lucky and something unexpected happens to turn that pass into an incompletion. Worst case you've bought some time to get your defense some rest. The 49ers also still had an additional challenge since in their pocket, so they had that going for them.

It is possible this decision is somewhat similar to Harbaugh's decision to challenge an un-challengeable scoring play by the Detroit Lions last month. The 49ers challenged it and got a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, which was added to the kickoff. Harbaugh wanted to get a little more time for the replay crew to check out the play even with the penalty. It didn't pan out, but given how many touchbacks there already are, was there any harm in it?

There is one argument, which is that the 49ers could have used that extra timeout if the Giants scored. The 49ers had one timeout left after they lost the challenge. That is a reasonable argument, but with the lead and just looking to stop the Giants on that particular drive, I'm not quite as concerned about the lost timeout.

That's the second time we've seen some "manipulation" of the challenge system by Coach Harbaugh. This coaching staff has generally struck me as fairly smart, and decisions like this prove Coach Harbaugh can think quickly on his feet. So many coaches don't seem to know what they're doing half the time on the sidelines. If I'm not overanalyzing what went down there, that would make it pretty nice to have a smart coach handling things.

What do you think? Do you buy what I'm saying or do you think there's something else to it?


Head Coach Jim Harbaugh
Press Conference - November 13, 2011
San Francisco 49ers vs. New York Giants

What was happening on the last play of the game. It seemed to be helter skelter:

"We made a late substitution to get into nickel. I was watching it, I would have called timeout if we didn't get lined up but then we got lined. Glad we didn't call timeout."

Second game of the year where DT Justin Smith makes a huge play to save the game at the end. Just talk about him and his ability to come through when you need him most.

"He's a great player. He's having a great year, he should be in the MVP category, conversation. He's having that kind of a year, he's having that kind of a year for us. He's got a huge heart, that guy is just a big, strong, mighty man and we had a lot of them today. A lot of guys that stepped up and played great when they had to. The New York Giants are an outstanding football team. It's a character team to. It's a well-coached, disciplined team. Just a smart, smart team. The team who won today was just going to have to play better. We're the same type of team; it was just a matter of who played better. They were doing some great things offensively. They roll of the rock on first down and then come back with a trap. They made plays when they had to make them. That's a smart, good team. Just got a lot of respect for the way they play. Our guys played better. They deserved to win and they've got big hearts, too." 

Can you talk about the feel of the stadium? This is something we probably haven't seen in about nine years, with that kind of crowd and that kind of noise. Even earlier this season, maybe the fans weren't as engaged...

"You really could start to see it. We talked about it as a team not too long ago, the last time we were here. Just every week, the fan base, the crowd is really building behind us. We feel that. We love it. We love it, love it." 

What were you feeling at half-time? Kind of an odd game, 9-6, no rushing yards other than what Alex had gotten. Were you happy at halftime or were you a little concerned?

"Happy, always concerned. Really came into halftime and one objective was to try to get the running game better. Do a good job, make some adjustments. I thought we did that. Alex was playing great football, we knew we had that going. [Offensive Line Coach] Tim Drevno made a great call on the [RB] Kendall Hunter touchdown. We had been running strong side to the wing, heavy wing formation, then Drevno called a wrap play and Kendall popped it. That was big after the interception. Just a great team effort, coaches, players, all of our guys, our practice players. Great win for the 49ers." 

I can remember in your opening press conference as 49ers head coach you said you hoped the this team would be vastly underestimated. Do you think you can still be vastly underestimated after a game like today?

"I believe in you guys, the media. I believe that you will find a way. As long as all that is written is written against us, we'll be happy. Alex Smith, you find a way to keep diminishing the guy. They call him a game manager and he's a great game manager, but you read it and you hear people talk about him and they're trying to slight him when they say that. He, once again, goes out and plays great football and keeps proving it. That's what the guy's about and I have a ton of respect for him as a player. You can write whatever you want, the more against us the better." 

The way Giants QB Eli Manning has played in the fourth quarter this season, some of those second half throws he made, in some ways did you think that game was heading to overtime?

"It was two evenly matched teams, so it could have gone into overtime, definitely. Our guys played better. Our defense played better, made plays when it had to make plays. Kept them out of the end-zone twice in the first half and that's not easy to do against an offensive team like that. You knew they weren't just going to hand it to us; we were going to have to play better. We were going to have to play better in special teams, we were going to have to play better on offense and in defense and I think we did. I think in all three of those phases we played better. That's a great job, give that credit to the players and the coaches. Those players are out there, they're doing the blocking and the tackling. Just a great team effort." 

On the onside kick, was that something you brought into this game as part of what you could do or was it you just saw it and you went for it?

"We knew it was an option and we had liked it, the way they were lining up to our kickoff. Almost called it one kickoff earlier, but the second kickoff just reconfirmed it in our mind that it was there. Great job by [Special Teams Coordinator] Brad Seely, great job by our players executing it and we've got a kicker that can execute that as well as anybody in football. Felt really good about it." 

Was that your Skywalker play?

"No, that wasn't. That was not Skywalker but Skywalker did work today. I think wee got about a 14-yard gain on it." 

Why is it called the Skywalker play?

"We met a Sergeant in Arlington, at the Arlington Cemetery, and his name was Sergeant Skywalker. We heard that name and we said we have to name a play after this guy, so we did." 

How much do you think you were able to turn this team around? Obviously, you knew the team was going to be better but to be 8-1 at this point, can you talk about what that means?

"I don't take any credit for it. This is these guys. This is these men, these mighty, strong men. They're easy to coach. They're a joy to be around. They just come to work; they're about each other more than anything. They'll diminish themselves to raise up a teammate. That's who they are. They're very good character guys. I told them the other day just how proud I was of them, just on another note. We haven't had any off the field kind of stuff. These guys are locked in to see if they can't get a mile-an-hour faster each day. Love them for it. Itake no credit for it because they were that way before we got here."

RB Frank Gore went out for one play in the second half. What made you change your mind after that and decide to sit him out?

"At halftime, he was working through something and we decided we had better go [RB Kendall] Hunter and [RB Anthony] Dixon the rest of the way." 

Was the game plan to come out passing all along, or was that influenced by Gore's injury in the first half?

"No, that was the game plan coming into it" 

Have you seen any evidence that [CB] Carlos Rogers has bad hands?

"I've seen some evidence, and I've seen some evidence to the contrary of that. Carlos keeps fighting. He got another big interception in this game. The guys are doing what they have to when they have to do it."

Can you talk about the season [K] David Akers is having?

"Near perfect. If there is such a thing. That's the way David Akers has been kicking this year. I don't know how many touchbacks he's got. It's got to be up close to 30, I would think. And that's what we were hoping he'd bring to us. We were hoping he'd have high-20s, maybe get to 30 on the season.  We thought he'd be a high 80-percent field goal kicker and in the 87-88 range, but he's darn near 100. Already close to 30 touchbacks, and then factor in the pressure kicks. These are plus-50 kicks, plus high-40 kicks, these are game-on-the-line kicks he's been making. He's been near perfect." 

Do you think this is Alex's best performance of the season, not because of statistics, but because he's a leader?

"He's always been that. He's always been a leader. The game plan was to put the ball in his hand, and he responded like we knew he would. He's done that for us all year. He's a top-flight quarterback. Love him." 

Why did you make the decision to put the ball in his hands?

"We've always done that. He's our guy. We'll always put the ball in his hands and Frank's hands, and [TE] Delanie's [Walker] hands and [TE] Vernon's [Davis], Crab's [WR Michael Crabtree]. He's got great hands. We've always done that. It's nothing that's new. Everybody in that locker room believes him and he's delivered for us. This was just another game where he delivered."