Jim Harbaugh was without a doubt the NFL’s best coaching story in 2011, and voters correctly honored him with the league’s Associated Press Coach of the Year award Saturday night in Indianapolis.
The question now is, was Harbaugh’s coaching magic a one-time wave of the magic wand, or will that magic have staying power?
When former 49ers coach Bill Walsh won the award in 1981, it was a signal of greater things to come for the Niners organizations, a springboard to a run of Super Bowls. When the Bengals’ Marvin Lewis won the award in 2009, it was just the prelude to an encore season of 4-12.
Harbaugh worked miracles this past season, building a terrific coaching staff, guiding his team to a 13-3 season and the NFC West title and taking a team to the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade.
But who’s to say if Harbaugh’s formula is a one-season fix or a long-term solution?
Well, former Niners star Steve Young, for one.
Young, speaking about Harbaugh in January, believes Harbaugh’s competitive nature and coaching acumen – as well as his knowledge of Walsh’s systems, many of which he’s studied and adopted – are good for the long haul.
“We thought it would be a much longer journey, right,” Young told the Bay Area News Group’s Cam Inman, of the transformation of Harbaugh’s 49ers in 2011. “It’s been an amazing, literally unprecedented – it’s not overnight. It’s been a six-month march of building substance behind substance behind substance, which makes them a legitimate championship football team. You can say, well, it happened out of nowhere, but it’s been a build-up of every yard gained this season (and it) has been not done other just through hard work and substance.
“I think this team is built now for a long run and it’s very exciting.”
To be sure, the 49ers won’t sneak up on anybody in 2012 as they did this season. Teams next season will be up for San Francisco, and they’ll know much more about Harbaugh’s coaching style, his defense and his play-calling.
But while the head coach at Stanford, Harbaugh had a chance to talk often with Walsh, and much of what he learned has been instituted in San Francisco. The West Coast offense was installed, for instance, and run well by quarterback Alex Smith. And, like Walsh, Harbaugh brought in superb coaching lieutenants to run the defense, offense and special teams. Systems are now in place for the future.
Now, Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke will need to set the table for further success in 2012 by building on the foundation from 2011. With a full off-season of work ahead, the team will need to address its quarterback situation (probably re-signing Smith), upgrade its wide receiving corps, address its own free agents and evaluate talent to upgrade the roster.
As Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com also noted this weekend, Harbaugh will need to also upgrade the team’s offensive weaknesses in the red zone and in third-down conversions and, generally, in the passing game.
Obviously, there is work to do.
But Harbaugh – with his enthusiasm and the way he’s gotten buy-in from his players – seems well positioned to keep the Niners in a winning mode.
The day after San Francisco’s loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship Game, Harbaugh already was thinking ahead.
“As Sir Andrew Barton said, ‘Fight on my men, we’re hurt but not slain,’ ” he told reporters. “ ‘We’ll lay down and bleed a while. Then we’ll rise and fight again.’ ”