Once again, Jim Harbaugh and San Francisco came up short against a tough opponent in a big playoff game. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
SEATTLE -- Jim Harbaugh is wired for success. In football, he's gotten results wherever he's gone. For the Michigan Wolverines from 1983 through 1986, he was one of the Big Ten's best quarterbacks, leading the conference in yards per attempt in each of his last three seasons. He was selected in the first round of the 1987 draft by the Chicago Bears, and he threw for over 26,000 yards and 129 touchdowns for four different NFL teams. He gave the San Diego Toreros and Stanford Cardinal new winning identities as a college head coach, mixing a constant, tough-minded approach with his own thoughts on how to use the passing game with great success, no matter who his quarterbacks may have been.
And when the San Francisco 49ers hired him to be their head coach in 2011, Harbaugh took a talented team to the next level with a few extra parts and a heaping helping of order, discipline and winning attitude. What initially sound like clichés are never as easy to instill as one may believe, but Harbaugh was able to do it with the 49ers at an historic level -- in 2013, he became the first NFL head coach to lead his team to three straight conference championships in his first three seasons.
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But when speaking after his 49ers lost the 2013 NFC Championship game 23-17 to the Seattle Seahawks, none of Harbaugh's past successes seemed to matter to him. He was stripped bare emotionally, forced to reflect on the fact that in each of those three seasons, he and his team had fallen agonizingly short.
In 2011, the 49ers lost the conference title to the New York Giants in overtime, as receiver Kyle Williams fumbled two returns to keep the eventual Super Bowl champions in the game long enough to steal it with a field goal. In 2012, Harbaugh had to experience the sensation of losing the Super Bowl to his brother's team -- and the 49ers were one completion to Michael Crabtree away from winning the game. On fourth-and-goal from the Baltimore five-yard line, quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw to Crabtree, who appeared to be held by Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith, with 1:50 left in the game. There was no call, and Baltimore got the ball on downs. After the game, Harbaugh spent a very long time indeed complaining about the officiating, which fit his public persona of the difficult genius who is so wired to win, he can't seem to process defeat.
Thus, his reaction to his latest postseason loss at the visitors' podium at CenturyLink Field was a bit of a revelation. Harbaugh was not contentious. He did not complain. He was gracious in defeat as he perhaps had never been in victory, and it was an extension of his attitude over the last few weeks, as his 49ers team turned things around with eight straight wins before this oh-so-close defeat. This time around, Kaepernick threw to Crabtree again, but the outcome was never in doubt. Any fade throw to Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman is an engraved invitation to a turnover, and when Sherman batted the ball in the end zone to linebacker Malcolm Smith with 30 seconds left, it was all over but the shouting.
Except that, for once, Harbaugh left the shouting at the door.
Though he was his usual prickly self on the field at the very hint of a bad call (which in his mind is any call that goes against the 49ers), Harbaugh seemed to have made peace with the result. Even when linebacker NaVorro Bowman appeared to recover a Seahawks fumble with 8:54 left in the game on a play in which Bowman may have suffered a torn ACL, Harbaugh refused to take the bait.
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"That's just the rule," he said, when asked why he couldn't review possession. "Just a loophole in the rule. Once they rule it a fumble, it's in the field of play and the ball is ruled recovered by the Seahawks, and it can't be reviewed by me. So, I asked them what happens if I do challenge it, and he [referee Gene Steratore] said that you'll lose a timeout and we won't review it."
But did that change the momentum, he was asked?
"Well, on the very next play we recovered a fumble that put us on the 11-yard line instead of the one-yard line, so I can't say that, no. I can't say that had any factor in the game because of what happened on the next play."
By that time, the 49ers had lost the lead they'd held for three quarters as Kaepernick's game started to fall apart after a ridiculously successful beginning. The dual-threat player ran for 130 yards in this game, the second-most by any quarterback in a playoff game -- and Kaepernick owns the record as well, with 181 yards in the divisional round last season. Seahawks player after Seahawks player praised Kaepernick's athleticism and the designed runs the 49ers used early on to take advantage of it. And when Kaepernick busted loose for a 58-yard scamper with 12:30 left in the first half, it seemed that things were finally rolling the right way. The touchdown run by Anthony Dixon four plays later gave San Francisco a 10-0 lead, but the Seahawks became a different team in the second half, and sadly for Harbaugh, so did the 49ers.
San Francisco's last three possessions of the game ended with turnovers, and the Seahawks scored 10 points in the fourth quarter while shutting the 49ers out. Kaepernick lost a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Michael Bennett, he threw his first interception to safety Kam Chancellor on the next drive, and he finished off the game -- and the 49ers' season -- with that ill-advised duck to the NFL's best cornerback.
Harbaugh was not the fire-breathing coach one might expect in the face of such failures. He was kind and patient with his players, explaining the importance of being in this arena in the first place, and he went through Kaepernick's mistakes using logic instead of anger.
"Well, he got flushed on the one fumble, and [defensive end Cliff Avril] did a nice job running the rim and struck him with the ball. The first interception on the boundary, Kam Chancellor was ... Kap never saw him. [Chancellor] buzzed out underneath the double move by [intended receiver] Anquan [Boldin]. And the final interception, the ball thrown to Crabtree, could have gone either way. If that goes by an inch or two, Crabtree catches it for a touchdown, and we win.
"But Richard Sherman made a terrific play -- he made a great athletic play batting the ball, getting a hand on it, and deflecting the pass. That's what I saw."
In the end, and quite against type, Harbaugh learned to enjoy the moment, to understand that these occurrences aren't all that common, and to pass that thought along to his players when his players surely needed them.
"The way I assess it is that not many people get to be in this competition at this level. I thought our guys had tremendous fight. I think our guys are great football players, and congratulations to the Seattle Seahawks. They were also in this arena, and they won the football game and they're moving on. That's how I assess it."
It's a far cry from the fit he threw after Super Bowl XLVII, but perhaps in losing once again, Harbaugh has learned to distance himself from the martinet tendencies that have unraveled even some of the few coaches who have been more successful than he has early on.
"They have great fight," Harbaugh concluded about his players. "What more could a coach ask for?"
Perhaps a deeper insight into the idea that success is never final, and failure is never fatal. More than ever, Harbaugh seemed to take one of John Wooden's most famous aphorisms to heart, and he spread that emotion around.