By Don Banks
February 23, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from day one of the NFL's underwear Olympics at Lucas Oil Stadium....

• Jim Harbaugh was replaced as the Colts starting quarterback in early 1998 when Indianapolis drafted Peyton Manning first overall. And now the always excitable 49ers head coach is back in Indy this week, talking about his former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the guy everyone expects to be drafted first overall by the Colts in April, replacing Manning.

At the very least that tidy little coincidence makes Harbaugh uniquely positioned to discuss this particular intersection in Colts history. He's kind of the Kevin Bacon, six degrees of separation character in this year's quarterback drama in Indianapolis.

Suffice to say Harbaugh believes his former Cardinal quarterback is ready to take the next step in the Colts' line of succession.

"Ever play Spades?'' Harbaugh said, in response to a question about Luck's strengths. "It's a trump game. He's holding a lot of aces in a lot of suits. He's got all the qualities, and is mentally and physically as prepared as anyone you're going to find. That's my opinion. And he's really good. How about that one?''

Harbaugh, in typical quirky form, sensed that reporters wanted more. Maybe because we kept asking essentially the same question in different forms.

"He's one of the finest football players I've ever been around. Is that good enough?'' Harbaugh said. "And an even better person. One of the top five guys I've ever been around. A joy to coach. Not going to like playing against him. Not looking forward to that.''

Harbaugh not only has extensive personal experience with Luck, the biggest headline name in this year's draft, he can even knowledgeably opine about the second-biggest name: Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, the Heisman winner who Harbaugh recruited but didn't land on behalf of Stanford. Harbaugh isn't quite as effusive about RG3, but it's close.

"I know a lot about Robert,'' Harbaugh said. "Robert was a 4.0 student, great parents, came from a great home, and he's had great success at Baylor. Past performance usually indicates future success and he's had nothing but a history of success. So you would predict great achievements in the future.

"I was really fond of Robert through the recruiting process and he made that decision. He makes good decisions, he makes cool decisions. He's very conscientious in everything he does, and I respected his decision and wished him well.''

Harbaugh was then finally asked about his own quarterback, Alex Smith, who happens to be a potential free agent. Any restless nights knowing that Smith could conceivably bolt San Francisco after finally enjoying his breakthrough season in 2011?

"Alex is our guy,'' Harbaugh said. "It's well-documented. Had a tremendous season. Definitely as a coach you worry about a lot of things, and when a quarterback is not signed and is a free agent, that leads to some lost sleep.''

And lost sleep has a tendency to make a guy a bit edgy. Which is the word Harbaugh used to describe his mental state as he enters his second NFL season as a head coach. Fresh off the 49ers disappointing NFC title game loss at home to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants in overtime, Harbaugh said year two is a huge one for his program in San Francisco.

"Being here today, approaching this offseason, approaching this Combine, I'm very much on edge,'' said Harbaugh, whose receiver-needy team holds the 30th overall pick. "I've always felt like the most improvement you can make is from year one to year two, much like a college freshman. There's a window there that will never come again that you have a chance to make your biggest strides. So yeah, (I'll) be on edge about going through this Combine a second time, evaluating for the draft, and as it relates to free agency, to our young quarterbacks, as it relates to all the football players on our team.

"But we'll chase it, like the NASCAR boys. We'll chase getting a mile an hour faster. Chasing, getting point-zero-one percent better any way that you can.''

• Here's the interesting thing about Jets head coach Rex Ryan showing up in the press room Thursday to call his Super Bowl guarantee at last year's Combine a "huge mistake'' he won't make again: It essentially served the same purpose as last year's well-chronicled guarantee, to take the pressure off his team and put it on his own shoulders. He's just trying the same trick this year, in a new way.

"Looking back, obviously it was a huge mistake to make that guarantee,'' Ryan said, even before taking any questions. "I really thought it would be a thing that would actually motivate our team, to really talk about the Super Bowl, to focus on the Super Bowl.

"But in hindsight, I think it put undue pressure on our team and we kind of lost focus, and really we lost focus on what we do best. Obviously we had a terrible season. And part of that guarantee contributed to that. I'll take full responsibility for that. I think my comment hurt us. I don't think there is any doubt. It put pressure on guys that, quite honestly, never needed to be.''

Which is all well and good, but Rex's 2011 Super Bowl guarantee at the Combine was far from the biggest reason the Jets skidded to an 8-8, non-playoff season last year after two straight trips to the AFC title game. Ryan and his organization assembled a dysfunctional locker room, and it came apart at the seams when the pressure was on last year.

So, last year Ryan tried to motivate his team and put the pressure on his own shoulders by guaranteeing a Super Bowl, and this year Ryan tried to motivate his team and put the pressure on his own shoulders by taking the blame for last season's disappointment. What's the difference really?

"Looking forward, first off no promises,'' Ryan said. "But I will say this: We will be a team. We will play as a team, and at the end of the season, we'll know it was a great season.''

But as we learned last year in New York, Ryan saying it and his Jets doing it are two very different things.

• If you don't get to know Stanford tight end Coby Fleener this spring, you likely will this fall. He's one of the top two highest-rated prospects at his position, and at 6-6, 245 pounds, he's going to obviously benefit in this draft from the remarkable early production turned in by young star tight ends like New England's Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham. Fleener is a pass-catching machine who happened to be Andrew Luck's go-to target at Stanford. That got him scouted a bit in the past couple years, I'd imagine.

"It's exciting to be at the tight end position with guys like Gronkowski, Graham and Hernandez,'' Fleener said. "The list goes on and on of the impressive guys and how they've played in the past few years. So it's exciting to be even considered part of that position. Putting the tight end outside and inside provides different matchups an offense can utilize.''

• USC offensive left tackle Matt Kalil seems to know his place in life. He has a father who was an NFL guard (Frank Kalil) and an older brother who's the highest-paid center in league history (Carolina's Ryan Kalil, a 2007 second-round pick). So, what else could he have possibly been in life besides an NFL offensive lineman?

"For my dad, 'Let's play football' means let's go do kick steps and let's work O-line drills,'' said Matt Kalil, who could go as high as No. 2 to the Rams. "My first time going to Servite (his Orange County, Calif., high school) I tried to play tight end as a freshman and my dad went on the field and said, 'No, he's playing left tackle.' That pretty much ended that dream. I would have been a sweet tight end. Maybe like Anthony Munoz catching touchdowns.''

When Kalil, his brother and their dad went to the park to play some ball, it wasn't for a game of catch. "My brother was coming out of high school and about to go to the USC camp, and me and Chris Galippo were one-on-one dummies and getting tossed around. Bloody knees and all that. Basically getting beaten up on every drill.''

Did they even bring a football along for those sessions? "Yeah, for my brother to snap and then beat me up playing D-line,'' Kalil said. "That's about it.''

• NFL head coaches these days are always being asked to react to news of someone in their organization saying something about someone else in their organization, so Denver coach John Fox didn't get his undies in a bunch over Brady Quinn being critical of Tim Tebow in the most recent issue of GQ.

"We still like Brady Quinn,'' said Fox, of his soon-to-be-free agent backup quarterback. "Knowing their relationship and knowing Brady and Tim very well myself, sometimes things get lost in translation. I know their relationship is very close. They have a lot of respect for each other and are very good teammates to each other. That's kind of what I know. It's hard for me to stay up on the comments, but I kind of know what I know.''

No harm, no foul, apparently. Still, I asked Fox if he was glad Quinn came out and apologized for his comments, which among other things questioned whether Tebow showed humility in talking about his religious faith? It might have helped Quinn build a bridge back to the organization, should the Broncos still care to re-sign him.

"Yeah,'' Fox said. "That just kind of shows you who he is, and that he's the guy I know. But sometimes that happens (meaning being quoted too accurately). Of course, it's never happened to me before.''

After that punch line, Fox made it clear that he for one is not tired of Tebowmania in the least. Even if Quinn might be.

"I think it's a great story,'' Fox said. "He's a kid that ought to be celebrated. In today's society, in sport, I don't care what facet of it, these type of guys don't come around so often. So I think it's kind of neat.''

• That wasn't the extent of our Tebow fix for the day, however. Fox was asked, of course, about Tebow's status as the team's incumbent going into the 2012 season, and repeated his assertion that the Broncos will add a couple quarterbacks before training camp, with four QBs being the standard number every team takes to camp.

"At the end of the day, we're very comfortable with Tim,'' Fox said. "He did turn us from a 4-12 team to a playoff team. The reality of it is Tim's a very good competitor, a very good player. He led us to the playoffs. But he's a young player at a position that takes some time. If you look through history, there are a lot of great quarterbacks who took some time, and we're in the middle of that process.''

And then oddly, Fox added this: "All we're trying to do is find the best human talent we can.''

That seems to rule out the robotic quarterback option in Denver for another year.

• I've already made it clear by my first two mock drafts that I think the No. 4 Browns intend to trade up with the No. 2 Rams in pursuit of RG3. And nothing I heard from Cleveland head coach Pat Shurmur on Thursday changed my mind on that front. The Browns, who own the No. 4 and No. 22 picks, don't sound like they'll get cold feet on that front.

"I think you evaluate everything,'' Shurmur said. "I wouldn't say we're hesitant to do anything. We're excited about the fact that we're going to make our team better with this draft. That's the way we approach it. We're not hesitant at all.''

Shurmur was asked if the team is willing to move around with two first-rounders?

"Yeah, we're willing,'' he said. "With two first-round picks, we have flexibility. We can just stand pat and take two really fine players, guys that we would hope to be starters for us. Having two first-round picks you have the flexibility if you want to do something.''

Seems to me like the Browns want to do something.

• Glad to see that Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert brought a little common sense to the issue of whether the Steelers can afford to keep receiver Mike Wallace. Reports of late have said Pittsburgh might have to let Wallace walk away in free agency, but the idea of that team losing one of its young star playmakers just doesn't pass the sniff test for me. My money says the Steelers will find a way to retain Wallace, with or without the use of the franchise tag.

"We're going to do everything we can to make sure Mike Wallace remains a Pittsburgh Steeler,'' Colbert said. "And I think that's Mike's hope as well. Usually when you have two parties that share the same goal, it's easier to achieve that goal. We want to make sure Mike can finish his career with the Steelers.''

I don't think Wallace is going anywhere this offseason except maybe to the bank.

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