Is Jim Harbaugh an overly enthusiastic rookie or boorish affront to society?
"Personally, I can get better at the postgame handshake," Harbaugh admitted on Monday.
This isn't Harbaugh's first handshake hullabaloo. He's been questioned by opponents ("What's your deal?"), been perceived as rude and unprofessional. But now he's doing it on the NFL stage and his behavior is suddenly a national talking point.
His belly-baring, chest-bumping, back-walloping postgame celebration was the very definition of a rookie move, of an acting-like-you-haven't-been-there before celebration. He approached Detroit Coach Jim Schwartz from a narcissistic, yee-haw, how do ya like me now angle, either unaware or not caring how he would come off.
The pro-Harbaugh faction -- loud and proud on this end of the country and in the 49ers locker room -- thinks Schwartz overreached. After all, Schwartz has had some brash moments himself this season. In a way, Harbaugh caught a break because the whole incident became a debate over who looked worse, Harbaugh for his handshake or Schwartz by chasing him down the field.
But on Monday, a toned down Harbaugh wasn't blaming Schwartz.
"There's not going to be any salvos coming out of the West Coast," Harbaugh said. "I have a lot of respect for Jim and the Detroit Lions."
The league office investigated and announced there would be no fines coming. Nor, apparently, any apologies. Though Harbaugh said he and Schwartz would speak privately at some point, he didn't take the advice of many, like analyst Bill Cowher, and offer an apology.
"No, I don't think there's any reason for an apology," he said. "Apologies always seem like excuses. I'll work on my postgame handshake."
He has a week to do that. Harbaugh has renamed the bye week, "Improvement Week," and he has his own practicing to do.
That is, if he really wants to. Harbaugh knows that every nanosecond of his every postgame handshake is analyzed, ever since the "What's your deal?" moment with Pete Carroll when both were back in the college game. And even though Harbaugh is acting every bit like the collegiate rah-rah coach who doesn't understand the NFL, the results tell a different story.
Against the odds, he's figured out the job, done it in a lockout year, and is executing a stunning turnaround. And if he hurts some feelings along the way, he doesn't really care. And neither do his players.
"It's almost like he's still playing football," said nose tackle Ricky Jean Francois. "That's our energy. We thrive off of that."
Tackle Joe Staley had the most normal response. He found the whole thing humorous. "It's something you don't see in every game," tackle Joe Staley said, laughing. "As a player I was kind of pumped up."
The whole Bay Area is kind of pumped up about Harbaugh. After turning a forgotten Stanford program into a power, the man has taken a laughingstock franchise and turned it into the second-best team in the NFC, a 5-1 surprise that has notched three come-from-behind wins in the Eastern Time Zone. The 49ers are the story of the league so far this season
Except that they're not. Harbaugh's handshake -- at least for now -- is overshadowing everything else.
"In the locker room [on Sunday] he told us he wished it didn't happen, 'cause it did take away from win," said Delanie Walker, who caught the game-winning touchdown that no one is talking about.
But there's a synergy between the overly pumped-up Harbaugh and his pumped-up team. The team has taken on Harbaugh's persona, and has displayed a relentless style (stenciled on the wall inside the 49ers training room is a definition: "Relentless: ceaseless and intense, never lacking.").
Harbaugh is perfecting an "us against the world philosophy." So even though he's the one overshadowing his own team, he'll somehow use that as a sign of disrespect. The more his postgame decorum is vilified, the more he'll like it. At some point he may pay the price for his brashness. At some point he may really have to tone down his behavior.
When will that be? We'll see in two weeks if he really has practiced his postgame etiquette.