Bill Walsh is known in the Bay Area as “The Genius”. He drafted Joe Montana in the third round, and by the end of their third season together, the 49ers had already won their first Super Bowl. Walsh then built a dynasty. His offensive system was a paradigm shift for the entire NFL. To this day, it is referred to with a name that would make the likes of Tupac and Snoop Dog proud: the “West Coast Offense”.
Walsh was the only coach in NFL history to develop a transition plan at the QB position that segued from one Hall Famer, Montana, to another Hall of Famer, Steve Young. Walsh imbued the 49er QB position with a sense of royalty .
But after Walsh left the team, the 49er QB position soon became as desolate as a mining town when the rush is over. That is, until Jim Harbaugh came to San Francisco. Harbaugh has been the first 49er coach to show signs of being a worthy successor to Walsh. In fact, in Harbaugh’s brief football coaching career, he has shown QB genius of his own.
It appears that Walsh himself saw this ‘QB horse whisperer’ quality in Harbaugh. In 2007, when Stanford put Walsh on their head football coach hiring committee, Walsh spoke glowingly of Harbaugh at the press conference that announced his hiring. Harbaugh, in turn, talks about how much he enjoyed getting to know Walsh when he started at Stanford. Harbaugh even taped some of their conversations. Harbaugh told the Mercury News, “If (Walsh) was being interviewed by a reporter or if players were visiting, I wouldn’t say anything. I’d sit up against a wall and listen”.
Harbaugh’s QB coaching success is not totally surprising. He is the son of a coach, and a quarterback himself –at Michigan and then for 14 years in the NFL. His first head coaching job was at Division 1-AA University of San Diego and he had Josh Johnson as his QB. Johnson proceeded to make the NFL, which is a rare accomplishment for a quarterback from a Division 1-AA school. Harbaugh also turned that program around, and when he left in 2006 their record was 12-1.
Harbaugh moved to Stanford in 2007, finding it in a state of disarray with a record of 1-11. By the time he left Stanford in 2010, their luck had completely turned around and their record was also 12-1. While at Stanford, Harbaugh recruited and then coached future NFL golden child Andrew Luck, who became the number one pick of the NFL draft.
Then Harbaugh went to the 49ers, and it is here that he really did some quarterback coaching that would have made Walsh proud. When Harbaugh arrived, former overall number one pick Alex Smith was flailing and almost out the door. Partially because the NFL lockout prevented Harbaugh from bringing in someone new, Harbaugh took on this reclamation project. He proceeded to rescue Smith from the scrap heap and save his career. In Harbaugh’s first year, the team imporved from 6-10 to 13-3. Harbaugh devised plays around the things that Smith could do well such as short to mid range passing. Harbaugh also motivated and connected with Smith in a way no NFL coach had. Smith had one great playoff victory, but then in their playoff loss, Smith only managed to complete one pass to a receiver, and this pass was only three yards to Michael Crabtree. Midway through the next year, Harbaugh replaced Smith with second year and second round draft choice Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick represented the opportunity for additional growth in the offense.
Yet the 49ers were still able to capitalize on Harbaugh’s ability to revitalize Smith: they traded him in the off-season for two high draft choices. While Smith was upset with the turn of events, I wonder if he ever thinks about what his career would be like today if it hadn’t been for Harbaugh.
Harbaugh has always been able to get the most out of the QB’s he has coached: Johnson, Luck, and Smith. Now he has a QB with what looks like unlimited potential. Kaepernick was a college pitcher who could throw in the mid 90’s. He had major league baseball teams telling him that they would draft him in the first round if he declared his intention to pursue baseball. But he wanted to play football. For Kaepernick’s pre-draft work out with the 49ers, Harbaugh travelled to him and worked him out personally. The two had a now famous throwing competition because Harbaugh wanted to assess not only Kaepernick’s arm, but also his competitive spirit.
Harbaugh and Kaepernick made their first Super Bowl in their second year together, sooner than Walsh and Montana. But unlike the Montana and Walsh duo, they lost.
Now this year is off to a slow start. These last few weeks have become an awkward phase for what has been touted as the next great era of 49ers’ quarterbacking royalty. The 49ers lost a few games, and even in victory these last two weeks, Kaepernick’s statistics have been unspectacular. Learning on the fly seems very ‘Un-Walsh like’.
How was Walsh able to groom Steve Young for so many years and make their QB transition so seamless? Back then there was no salary cap, so teams could spend as much money as they wanted on player salaries. In 1987, Walsh brought in the uber athletic QB Young and paid him more as a backup than many starters around the league were getting. During this time, Young was able to learn and develop under Joe Montana. It’s mind boggling to think that Young did not play a full season for the 49ers until age 31! In the NFL today, the salary cap would never let a team invest in a backup QB like this.
And that brings us back to Kaepernick, whose nickname is fittingly “Kaep”. Oh, but this is the wrong spelling of this nickname. The official spelling of Kaepernick’s nickname, according to Kaepernick himself, is “Kap”, not “Kaep.” He clarified to reporter Tim Kawakami that this is the way his nickname should be spelled, apparently to make it flow more smoothly. Now, if he could only do the same thing with the 49er passing game.
I have never heard of an athlete who would clarify the spelling of their nickname. Then again, none of us have seen an athlete who kisses his bicep after each rushing touchdown and sees it become a national craze called “Kaepernicking”. In this photo, we can see Michelle Obama doing it with him! Kap’s celebrity shot up so fast last year, and now his play is trying to catch up.
This is the great challenge Harbaugh and Kap are facing right now. Harbaugh wasn’t able to allow Kap to get seasoned on the sideline. Instead, Kap was thrown fully into the fire. Kap now faces the Catch 22 of being a national celebrity, while also trying to establish a track record on the field although he has less than one full year of playing experience.
Harbaugh and Kap will never have Walsh’s cachet of being undefeated in Super Bowls, but I wouldn’t give up on Harbaugh just yet. Harbaugh still has a better winning percentage with the 49ers than Walsh had.
And don’t forget that Kap is only 25 years old and has already won the NFL Championship game.
Fortunately for Kap, he also has the quarterback whisperer on the sideline, and a microphone in his helmet to listen to him.