Jim rolled the dice first. He made the controversial call to stick with former backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick after Alex Smith, San Francisco’s starter in last season’s NFC title game loss in overtime to the New York Giants, had recovered from a concussion. Jim figured the speedy, athletic Kaepernick was the right guy to help the 49ers take a bigger step this season. Clearly, Jim nailed that one.
John was no less on point in his assessment of what Baltimore needed. With the Ravens in a three-game slide in mid-December, he fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and promoted quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell. Baltimore’s offense has surged in the postseason — and quarterback Joe Flacco has never played better.
Kaepernick and Caldwell were put into position to succeed because the Harbaughs weren’t afraid to fail. That’s uncommon in the coaching business. By nature, NFL head coaches are reluctant to take major risks. When you’re leading one of only 32 teams in professional sports’ most lucrative business, it’s better for job security to play it safe whenever possible.
But the Harbaughs aren’t the let’s-just-hang-on-to-our-jobs types. The sons of a successful college coach (Jack Harbaugh led Western Kentucky to the 2002 Football Championship Subdivision national title), John and Jim are in it for the top prize. For Jim, the decision to ride with Kaepernick wasn’t just about trying to win this season’s Lombardi Trophy. Jim’s goal is to collect a bunch of them. He didn’t think that would be possible with Smith leading the 49ers’ offense.
Selected first overall in 2005, Smith was considered a draft bust. Then Jim, after a successful stint at Stanford, was hired to coach the 49ers before the 2011 season. Together they revived Smith’s career. Smith became an efficient, albeit not spectacular, passer as he helped the 49ers win the NFC West title. San Francisco also defeated New Orleans in the playoffs before falling short of a berth in the Super Bowl.
There’s an unwritten rule in the NFL that players don’t lose their position because of injury. That’s why there was closed-door grumbling in the 49ers’ locker room after Jim rolled with Kaepernick for Week 11 — and didn’t switch back to Smith after the seven-year veteran was medically cleared to play. Smith had proven himself to his teammates and was having the best season of his career (guys with 104.1 passer ratings are seldom benched) when Jim pushed him aside for an untested second-year player.
If Kaepernick had failed, Jim could have lost the locker room. That’s one of the fastest ways to wind up back on the coaching interview circuit. Jim was a big-time college quarterback at Michigan. He played for Chicago, Indianapolis, Baltimore and San Diego in a 14-year NFL career. No one needed to explain to him the risks involved with his Smith-Kaepernick decision. It was because of Jim’s expertise at the position, however, that he knew what should be done for the good of the franchise. So he did it.