For years, Jim Harbaugh has led his teams in a victory chant that poses the question “Who’s got it better than us?” The quick answer to that question has been “Nobody!” But after Super Bowl XLVII, the answer seems to be “Your brother, John Harbaugh!”
It’s the differences between the two men and their style of leadership that had a huge impact on the outcome of America’s biggest game.
We’ve heard the discussions of the brothers’ differences this week almost to the point of nausea. John is more outgoing, the brother who is more accommodating to the media, the one who plays nicely with people. Jim is more hard-bitten, less socially aware, more introspective and, frankly to some to in the Bay Area media, the one who’s more of a jerk.
Sometimes intangibles in sports are just that: much ado about nothing. Sometimes they have a real impact. This is one of those times.
Emotion in sports can be a force. The Baltimore Ravens run to victory was predicated by the emotional wave that ran through their whole season. From the deaths of former owner Art Modell and other figures close to the team, to the injuries of key players like Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis, to the constant questions about Joe Flacco‘s ability to lead the team, the inner turmoil of the 2012 Ravens locker room could have quickly derailed the team’s championship hopes.
But it didn’t.
John Harbaugh was a master at that this season. He kept the Ravens focused and on point and got them ready to play their best football at the most important times. He also kept the ship from sinking when he added to the pressure by firing OC Cam Cameron during the season.
John Harbaugh rode the tsunami of crisis and danger as well as any coach in the NFL this year, and essentially shot the tube at the end of the ride.
Jim Harbaugh in his two years and three games as San Francisco 49ers head coach has been as close to a miracle worker as a sports figure ever can be. In terms of getting his players to play up to their talent level, Jim’s been nails. In preparation and scheming, his teams have been a pleasure to watch on a week to week basis
But when it comes to stirring up his locker room and getting them to find their passion on the field, well, that’s a riddle that this brother hasn’t been able to solve.
In Jim’s tenure, the 49ers haven’t lost to teams to which they’re clearly superior. But with the teams that they are even with in terms of physical power (Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants, Ravens, maybe even the St. Louis Rams now), they seemingly have lacked that “winning time” gear that all champions need.
Under Jim Harbaugh, when the 49ers haven’t dominated physically from the starting gun, they’ve been in trouble. They also have had a strange tendency toward emotional flatness in big games, as if taking a few quarters to get going against a quality opponent is no big deal.
The first half of SB XLVII was the latest in bad starts in big games for Harbaugh’s teams. That was four times this season for the 49ers to miss their wake-up call. Three of those snooze button moments led to losses, two of them blowouts.
Jim in his aloof, at times bordering on arrogant, demeanor seems to think that opponents will collapse under the weight of his team’s appearance on the field and his own personal coaching brilliance. The idea that some of these teams will come to fight until the last moment seems to take him by surprise.
I’m sure someone, somewhere has a fully data mined explanation for why the 49ers failed to pick up a big third down until the second half of the game and why the Ravens receivers made big plays at will against the Scarlet and Gold’s defenders.
This is still a physical sport, played by players who bleed, fight and triumph as a team. A coach who can get his players to focus and believe and can take the passion of 53 different individuals and harness it towards a goal still has the advantage.
It’s why John got his hands on the Lombardi trophy instead of Jim, and until Jim solves the riddle of passion, it may be a prize that continues to elude him.