San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has had a contentious relationship with NFL officials since he left Stanford and accepted his current position before the 2011 season. In 2012, he said a few things about the replacement refs that many other coaches were thinking (and the NFL did not want them to say), and he spent a decent amount of time talking about what he considered to be sketchy officiating after the 49ers' 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
Now, with the Green Bay Packers looking to avenge their divisional playoff loss to the 49ers in the 2013 regular-season opener for both teams, Harbaugh has engaged in some pre-emptive lobbying on behalf of his quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. In that 45-31 playoff win, Kaepernick ran wild through a Green Bay defense completely unprepared for his speed and agility, rushing for 181 yards and two touchdowns, and throwing for two more. The Packers famously consulted with a number of college coaches in the offseason to better deal with the new wave of mobile quarterbacks, but as outside linebacker Clay Matthews said this week, one of the best ways to stop a running quarterback is to make him think twice about the effects of his mobility.
“We’re always trying to get after the quarterback,” Matthews told the Bay Area media Wednesday morning on a conference call. “It’s not like this game is any different as far as hitting the quarterback. But it does provide a clearer picture in regards to when a quarterback can be hit.
“It looks like – and, obviously, we’ll see in Week 1 – it looks like any time that quarterback is carrying out that play fake, he loses that right as a pocket passer and the rules that govern that. So we’ll see. We’ll see the hits that are legal and aren’t legal … But we feel like our game plan fits within the scheme of the officials and what we want to do."
Matthews and the Packers are invoking the NFL rule indicating that when a quarterbacks takes off as a runner, he should be treated as any other runner, and is not protected as he would be in the pocket.
Harbaugh's response? The rules contain too much of a "gray area" and leave the officials to make too many judgment calls.
“My opinion is before the quarterback’s declared being a runner, then he should be afforded the protection that all quarterbacks are afforded until he declares and gets out of the pocket and starts running with the ball. Or running an option, or carrying out a bootleg and attempting to run or pass when he’s outside of the pocket. But when he’s in the pocket, I believe that he’s a quarterback until he declares that he’s a runner.”
Harbaugh said that he will speak to the referees before Sunday's game, and that he has asked the league for clarification on the rule. He does not expect to hear from the NFL this week, and he is laying the groundwork in other ways -- for one, he appeared to compare Matthews' comments to BountyGate in a passive-aggressive fashion.
“You’re hearing a lot of tough talk right now. You’re hearing some intimidating type of talk. Kind of things – same things we were hearing a couple of years ago. It sounds a lot like targeting a specific player.
“You definitely start to wonder. A man will usually tell you his bad intentions if you just listen. You know what’s being said publicly, you wonder what’s being said privately. You hope that their intent is not going to be anything that’s not within the rules.”
Kaepernick, more reserved than usual on Wednesday, made it pretty simple. “It’s football. You’re going to get hit.”