This past Friday during practice, San Francisco 49ers’ head coach Jim Harbaugh ejected veteran wide receiver and team leader Anquan Boldin. Boldin and cornerback Darryl Morris got into a scuffle, tempers ran high, and Boldin swung at Morris. That was enough for Harbaugh, Boldin was gone.
After a day off on Saturday, things got feisty at the 49ers’ practice again on Sunday. This time it was cornerback Chris Culliver leveling wide receiver David Reed in a non-contact drill. Harbaugh stopped practice and warned everyone about cheap shots and told everyone to make sure their teammates aren’t hitting the ground. Culliver seemed to take exception with this and Harbaugh gave him the boot too. When Culliver went to the sideline he got a talking to from defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, linebacker NaVorro Bowman, tight end Vernon Davis, and linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. With Harbaugh, every word has a purpose and every action has a goal. So what’s the purpose behind these ejections?
Well, the 49ers gave up 1.6 first downs per game due to penalty, 50.5 penalty yards per game, and had over six penalties per game in 2013. For a team that has come up just a single play short in the Super Bowl and two NFC Conference Championship games in the past three season, those penalties could be the difference between winning it all and coming up short on the final play of the game for a fourth straight season.
Harbaugh runs a pretty tight ship and has a tremendous eye for detail, so shoring up this part of the 49ers’ game only seems natural for him. Ejecting players in practice enforces that they need to keep their wits about them, even when they’re tired and tempers are running high. Would it be acceptable for Boldin to take a swing at Seattle Seahawks‘ cornerback Richard Sherman and cost the 49ers 15 yards in an important division game? No. So why should it be acceptable in practice?
By ejecting a leader such as Boldin, Harbaugh sent a message to the whole team that no one can lose their cool and go unpunished. Ejecting a presumed starter such as Culliver in the very next practice reinforced that message to everyone. If you’re going to cost the team field position, it’s going to cost you playing time. In a game of inches, you can’t be giving away 10 and 15 yard penalties. For a team so close to breaking through and winning their sixth Super Bowl, every little bit helps.