Harbaugh's Flaw

Harbaugh at Stanford

Jim Harbaugh's overall body of work at Stanford and in San Francisco has been spectacular, but an identical gaffe has now cost his teams massive games at both stops. Harbaugh must correct this mistake to take the next step as a great head coach.

Toby Gerhart's final touch in 2009's Big Game resembled a bowling ball obliterating teetering pins, a 29-yard haul that put Stanford on the verge of stealing a massive contest late.

Frank Gore's last carry in Sunday's Super Bowl XLVII turned into a rumbling 33-yard dash that put his San Francisco 49ers team on the brink of the title-winning touchdown.

The parallels are uncanny. In both situations, head coach Jim Harbaugh never turned to his stud running back thereafter, suddenly shunning his team's massive physical advantage and relying instead on a first-year starting quarterback to daintily finish the job. In 2009, it was clear that California would not have stopped Gerhart, but redshirt freshman Andrew Luck threw two horribly designed passes instead, the last of of which was intercepted to seal the game. Golden Bears 34, Cardinal 28.

History repeated itself in 2013 on a bigger stage. After a slow start, the 49ers were gashing the Ravens to the tune of eight yards per carry in the second half. Defensive bedrock Haloti Ngata, Baltimore's primary run stopper, was out with injury. Yet, after Gore's dominant run had fully exposed the Ravens' defense, Harbaugh never gave No. 21 the ball again. Instead, he took Colin Kaepernick -- making only his tenth career start -- out of his element, dialing up three consecutive low-percentage passing plays that removed San Francisco's biggest strengths from the equation. Ravens 34, 49ers 29: another otherwise spectacular drive left incomplete.

Jim Harbaugh has resurrected Stanford and San Francisco in remarkable fashion. His entire body of work at both Bay Area sites has been spectacular, but an identical flaw has now reared its ugly head at both stops. In the biggest situations, with rivalry games and world championships on the line, Harbaugh's teams have abandoned the ingenuously creative power run at its highest point of success and replaced it with a fearful, sputtering passing plan. Perhaps Harbaugh, a former NFL passer, experienced urges to live vicariously through his quarterbacks in both spots. Or perhaps offensive coordinator Greg Roman, at the helm of both the 2009 and 2013 meltdowns, saw his playcalling suggestions tighten up in both nerve-wracking situations.

Whatever the reason, Harbaugh is the man with the final call as head coach, and he must learn an important adage moving forward to take the next step as a great coach: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Sunday's final sequence demanded continued creativity, an intelligent mix of run and pass (or the magic option) that capitalized on San Francisco's staggering number of strengths, and not on a suddenly stale passing plan that summoned the team's one weakness. This much is certain: Gore's last touch shouldn't have been his 33-yard carry.

The silver lining: the year after the 2009 Cal debacle, Harbaugh's 2010 Stanford squad was the greatest in school history, going on a 12-1 tear capped by a 40-12 Orange Bowl triumph. A similar 2013 49ers response would put San Francisco in excellent position to return to the Super Bowl.



David Lombardi is the Stanford Football Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He carefully tracks the Stanford - San Francisco 49ers connection. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.


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