49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh spoke with the media Wednesday before practice and did his usual best work of not saying a whole lot in spite of answering a lot of questions. He did have some intriguing answers, but as always it can be like pulling teeth.
One questions, but which he would never get into too deeply is the issue of playing two games in five days. The 49ers play the Cardinals this Sunday and then have a quick turnaround to face the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday. The 49ers are not the only team that has to deal with this, but it is still an interesting issue in light of the physical nature of football.
While Coach Harbaugh won't discuss much of that Ravens game since they still have a game on the schedule, he and his coaching staff have to have put some time into preparing for the game. In a normal week the 49ers players don't get into full, physical practices until Wednesday. This coming week the 49ers will have a quick turnaround with practices Monday through Wednesday. More than likely Monday's "practice" will be a simply walkthrough style of practice.
Head Coach Jim Harbaugh
Press Conference - November 16, 2011
San Francisco 49ers
Week 10 with your second division opponent, how familiar are you with the Cardinals?
"Getting more familiar with them every day."
How much time in the offseason during the lockout did you really study what they do?
"Quite a bit, defensively, because we were familiarizing ourselves with our defense which is similar to Pittsburgh's, Green Bay's, many of the 3-4 concepts."
Your team is leading the league in turnover differential. Can you explain some of the ways you emphasize that to the team, both offensively and defensively?
"Ball security, playing good situational football. There's several ways."
QB Alex Smith has mentioned that the big thing in his mind is he knows he can take the ball down and run if there's nothing there. That that's one of the ways he is avoiding turnovers in his mind. Is that something you specifically saw on tape or you specifically thought was an important thing to tell him, ‘go ahead and take off if there is nothing there'?
"Yes, because he's athletic enough to do that and he's got good instincts to do it."
Do you want there to be a clock in his head or generally what is the emphasis to him when he can go ahead and do that?
"There's some drill work that can be done. There's definitely coaching points with it. Probably the greater percentage is instincts and thinking about doing it, having that be an option that's on the tip of his tongue so to speak."
You had said earlier this week that LB Patrick Willis is the greatest player right now that no one is talking about. What is he doing this year that might be different or improved than his first four seasons in the league?
"What I said was he's the least talked about great player in the National Football League, in my opinion. He doesn't get talked about near enough for just how good he is. What he's doing is ... we talked about it about a month ago. It's really the same thing. He's the five-tool linebacker. Plays downhill, I think, better than any linebacker in football, but he can also cover in pass protection. We've seen evidence of that over and over. Saw it in this past game, the final play of the game. [DT] Justin [Smith] bats that ball down but Patrick has it covered so well that I don't think that ball gets complete even if it doesn't get batted down. Then, the third-and-two, Justin makes the tackle; Justin does a great job beating his block. Patrick is selling out in the A-gap and if Justin doesn't make it, I think Patrick does. He can run sideline to sideline. He can run plays down for the backside. He's got the speed to shoot a gap and make a play from behind and you see that many times. You see that many times when he's fully laid out making the late tackle on a quarterback or from behind on a back. Excellent blitzer ... saw him get another sack in the past game."
But that's relatively new this season, the blitz and pass rush for him?
"No, he's done that in the past. That's not new to him. He's blitzed before in his career. He does it all at the highest level. Sometimes you see a linebacker that's a good downhill linebacker, but not as effective in pass coverage."
That last Giants play was controversial in New York, especially what Willis did. Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin criticized him for tackling TE Jake Ballard on the line of scrimmage there. What did you see from Willis on that play?
"His arms never got involved. He was playing Ballard off the line, saw his head dip down and I thought it was an outstanding play. There's allowed to be contact within the first five yards. I have to disagree with coach on that, that he was tackled. I didn't see Ballard be tackled by Patrick Willis."
Some quotes yesterday out of New York...
"Didn't see it that way."
What do you mean by downhill?
"Downhill between the tackles, take on a lineman thick. Be able to even burp a lineman with contact. That physical downhill linebacker."
On sort of a lighthearted note, you guys share the league lead in won coin flips. The Saints are 0-11 we figured out.
What goes into that? People wonder how much really goes into the coin flip. Do you tell them what to call, is there an audible?
"What goes into it is you pick heads or tails, and then they flip it, and it comes up heads or tails. But I don't tell them what to call or even who to call it."
But then what goes into taking the ball?
"There's some factors, there's different factors week to week."
So do you consider that luck of the draw then, that you guys have such a good record?
"Yeah, that's a good thing. I'd rather have a little more luck at roulette or something like that."
Every game you guys have started on defense, the other team's had the ball first. So obviously you like to have the defense on the field first or is it more of a strategy for the second half?
"It's week to week."
Everything that people have said Alex Smith can't do, he's proven that he can so far this year. The one thing people still question is, can he throw long? Can he throw long?
Is he elite at throwing long?
"He is very good at throwing long."
Is that an important part of your offense, being able to throw long?
"It's part of it. It's part of the scheme. We want to be good at throwing long. We want to be good at throwing short. We want to be good at running the ball."
Is it a drastic different type of throw throwing long, technique-wise, than throwing short or intermediate?
You mentioned a couple times now that this team will praise others and say that they didn't do it, they're very self-sacrificing. When did you notice that and is that a surprise to you that any football team could be like this after having lost so many games as they have in the past?
"No. I don't think that lost games in the past somehow affects who they are, and their character, their humility."
When did you first start to detect that? Was it in training camp. When did you first realize that there was some character in this locker room?
"In a lot of cases, right when I first met them. A few of the guys that I met in January when we first got hired here. Before the lockout, met some more fellas. Then didn't meet anybody until training camp. Some then, some during training camp. In talking to some of the other coaches, [Defensive Line Coach] Jim Tomsula, [Offensive Line Coach] Mike Solari quite a bit to try to get to know our team without them being here. That was a big factor. Jim was right. He said, ‘You're going to love our guys, you're going to love being around these guys.' Then he would break out in his Jim Tomsula laugh and just wait and sure enough that's been the case. Ever since we got together in training camp, it's obvious. They're the kind of guys that just shower you with virtues: humility, character, hard-working, disciplined, mighty guys."
As you were watching them a little bit from Stanford, could you pick up some of that from afar?
"Not so much. You don't know until your knee to knee and eyeball to eyeball and around people. Sometimes some things you pick up quickly in a half hour conversation. Other things, you go through training camp or some adversity to really know fully."
From the outside, it looks like this team also is having a lot of fun. Sometimes when you watch an NFL team from the outside it seems like they're going through nuclear science. You guys also seem to be having fun. Is that the case from the inside, too, and what's your line of debarkation where you can have too much fun? Is it the same issue as Freddy P. Soft or is it something different?
"First of all, it's guys that enjoy each other's company. That's where it starts. Second thing is we're going to treat each other with respect, that's how you earn respect. The last thing is we are allowed to make fun of each other, joke around."
Do you ever worry that you think you can have too much fun? Can you have too much fun playing football?
"I mean you have fun. You have fun winning games. It's great to be outside, have a job where you get to get out and see the horizon. To us, that's where the medicine is. It's not in the din of the inside or an office. You get to go outside and do something that we love to do. We're all very blessed and thankful to be able to do that."
Can you explain where your philosophy of having the practice squad guys travel comes from? Why you do that, what you think it came from?
"No real explanation. It doesn't come from anywhere. We just noticed that the (practice squad) guys were asking ‘are we going on the road trips' and we said ‘yeah, heck yeah, why wouldn't we take you guys on road trips?' ‘Well we didn't go on road trips last year.' ‘We're going on the road trips now.' So that's where it came from."
In the offensive linemen meeting room, does one of your coaches have a lead role and the other coach have a supporting role. How do you divide that up, the responsibilities?
"We do it and we work together. They work in tandem. Not going to get into the percentages. We feel like it's just better to be working in a group and have two guys coaching the offensive line, to be able to see everything. Probably the greater share is Mike Solari, but both Tim Drevno and Mike Solari do a great job working together and coaching up our offensive line."
Was there any kind of risk to put two offensive line coaches together, not knowing how they would mesh?
"Taken that risk before and it worked out better that way and we felt like that's just our way of doing it."
Is RB Frank Gore a go at practice today?
"I believe so."
So everything seems fine with his knee?
"Again, I'm not in Frank's body. I know you guys ask me to speculate each week on exactly where everybody is or ballpark where they are. I'll have more information than that during the week."
People want to know how your guys are.
"I know they do. I'm only in my skin."
Did it require any testing or MRIs?
"Like we said, we're going to do everything medically, Frank's going to get the gold standard of medical care, just like all our fellas. But, Frank just a little bit more, a little extra for Frank."
So some may not get an MRI?
"I said everybody gets it."
You've got two games in five days. How does that influence your game planning? How do you divvy up responsibility among the coaching staff as far as preparing for both games in such a short time period?
"We can talk more about that next week or after the game against Baltimore. We're really focused on this one right here."
Does it change how you approach this game as far as the players? Do some of your reserves get more playing time than they ordinarily would just to save some of the front line guys to be able to play both games?
"No, we're not going to save anything for the swim back if that's what you're asking. This is a division game, these games are worth two games. It's all important. This is the most important game of the year, because it's the next game."
How quickly is RB Kendall Hunter adjusting?
"He's adjusting very quickly. He's done a magnificent job just right from the beginning. Really pleased with how Kendall is progressing and contributing. Not just progressing, but contributing in a big way on our football team. [Running Backs Coach] Tom Rathman has done a really good job with all the backs and Kendall. It's been good for our football team."
LB Blake Costanzo seems like the classic special teams psycho. What was your impression of him?
"He's a ball player. He loves the game of football. We go on road trips and he packs a great attitude and a toothbrush and that's it. He's there to play ball."
Did you ever play special teams?
"Yes I did."
Were you good?
"You can research that, it's well documented."