There have been many great storylines in NFL history, but I can't remember a rematch of a handshake. We will have one this weekend. The 49ers host the Lions on Sunday Night Football, which means 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh faces Lions coach Jim Schwartz for the first time since Schwartz looked ready to behead Harbaugh.
That happened last fall. The botched handshake, and subsequent near-fistfight, have been replayed thousands of times. It is wildly entertaining. And if you want to know what happened, and why it happened ... well, I think I know how to figure this out.
They're football coaches. Do what they do.
I once asked Harbaugh if he liked another coach (not Schwartz). His response was telling.
"He's no friend of mine," Harbaugh said calmly. "I'm competing with him."
This is the kind of statement that makes some people dislike Harbaugh. He can sound harsh and unfeeling. But I don't think he meant it that way at all.
Competition has been the core of Harbaugh's life forever. I really believe that 20 years from now, we will look at him as one of the most competitive figures in NFL history. He became a star at Michigan mostly because of his competitiveness. He built a long NFL career for the same reason.
Anybody can be a friend; not everybody is worthy of competing with Jim Harbaugh. When Harbaugh says a guy is not a friend, but a competitor, that is a compliment in his world.
Harbaugh gets so caught up in competition that he doesn't always notice things most people would notice. Sometimes he says something he probably shouldn't say or insults somebody he doesn't mean to insult. In this case, he didn't see Jim Schwartz until the two men practically bumped into each other.
Jim Schwartz often seems like he thinks he knows everything. But that isn't really the case. If he thought he knew everything, he would not be such a good coach.
Schwartz, who majored in economics in Georgetown, has a deep-seated intellectual curiosity. He was an early embracer of advanced statistical analysis, and he is constantly asking questions that many football people never even consider. He challenges the conventional wisdom about running on third-and-two, punting from your own side of the 50 or when to use timeouts. He doesn't think he knows everything. He
Still, there is no doubt that Schwartz's self-confidence often comes off as arrogance. This probably explains why he was a highly successful defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans for eight years before anybody would hire him as a head coach. His personality can turn people off. Schwartz puts in the work. He asks the questions. And then he wants you to know he has the answers.
This self-assuredness was exactly what the Lions needed. They had lost most of their games for half a century and all of their games in the season before Schwartz showed up. Schwartz's confidence was a huge boost for the organization. He has never -- not for a minute, not for a SECOND -- viewed the Lions the way the locals do: as the same old Lions, destined for failure.
When Jim Schwartz thinks he is right, he lets everybody know it.
Jim Harbaugh played 177 games in the NFL. Jim Schwartz did not play any. And yet, Harbaugh views himself as an outsider, while Schwartz sees himself as part of the NFL establishment.
Harbaugh likes to say "I love being underestimated," and throughout his career, he has either been underestimated or seen himself that way.
He was one of the last players in his recruiting class to get an offer from Michigan. The most prominent quarterbacks of his era never seemed to accept him. (When one of them, Jim Kelly, became a broadcaster, he called Harbaugh a "baby." Harbaugh punched him.) After he retired as a player, Harbaugh tried to go into coaching, but he couldn't even get a job as an NFL assistant.
Schwartz, meanwhile, wants to be ... well, at least properly estimated. He often talks about Bill Belichick as a mentor. Thing is, Schwartz never coached under Belichick. He was a scout with the Browns when Belichick was there. He surely learned a ton from Belichick and he loves the affiliation. It gives him credibility, not just in the locker room, but in a conversation.
When Schwartz was asked about the handshake after the game, he explained his actions like this: "I think there's a protocol that goes with this league." It was a brassy statement from a guy who, to that point, was 13-25 in his head-coaching career.
You could see a familiar look on Harbaugh's face at that moment, and you could definitely see it in the postgame press conference. The look says: "Good grief, did I just get involved in ANOTHER one of these fights?"
It is never conscious with Harbaugh. Some great competitors make you uncomfortable -- they seem too intense for their own good. Harbaugh is not like that. If you spent an hour with him, you'd think he was the calmest, nicest guy on the planet. I doubt he meant to demean Schwartz. He was just preoccupied.
And if Schwartz had bit his lip and walked away, nobody would remember that handshake. But Schwartz is not the type to bite his lip. When he enters a room, he fills it up. The charisma can rub some folks the wrong way but it makes people follow him, and anyway, the Lions have been biting their lip and taking abuse for 50 years.
Our instinct is to take sides in a fight like this -- to say one coach was right and the other was wrong. I prefer to quote another NFL coach: They are who we thought they are. And their franchises are quite happy about it.