Ray MacDonald of the 49ers signals a safety on Matthew Stafford of the Lions. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
If a team is a reflection of its coach, then it appears the San Francisco 49ers are going to be a tough team – emphasis on the word tough – to beat so long as Jim Harbaugh is coaching them.
The fiery former NFL quarterback has ignited a flame under his new team, which is 5-1 and one of the league’s biggest surprises this season.
First, Harbaugh’s 49ers went into the Lions’ den at Ford Field Sunday to knock off a previously unbeaten, talented and physical Detroit team 25-19.
Then, his overt enthusiasm sparked a postgame altercation that had players and coaches in a huge pushing-and-jawing scrum as they left the field.
As the game ended, and Harbaugh celebrated his team’s third comeback victory in as many tries this season on the road against an eastern team – the first time an NFL team has pulled that off since 1996 – the first-year head coach was leaping and shouting in celebration. When he shook hands with Lions coach Jim Schwartz, it was a quick, hard shake followed by a back slap as Harbaugh quickly sprinted toward the locker room, still jubilant.
Schwartz, agitated by the overly exuberant 49ers coach, then chased after him for 30 to 40 yards, but never caught up to him as others stepped in to keep them apart. Then players got involved and, for several minutes, the teams barked and scratched at each other before order was restored. (See video here.)
Later, Harbaugh took the blame for the whole episode, saying, “that was on me,” and confessing that he shook Schwartz’s hand too hard, according to a report by the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows.
This isn’t the first time Harbaugh has irritated another coach after a big win. USC’s Pete Carroll once took issue with Harbaugh after Stanford beat the Trojans 55-21.
So, what does it mean? It means this 49ers team is becoming a reflection of Harbaugh the same way those Stanford teams were.
It was as he was rebuilding the program at Stanford, after all, that Harbaugh said this about his Cardinal:
“Our guys don’t quit. They never give up. You cannot kill them. You can’t demoralize them; they won’t go away. Now we have to be relentless. We must be the hunter. Eventually, we want to kill you. We need to make that next step to get up there with teams like USC.”
Now, however, substitute “Detroit” – or Green Bay or New England or any elite NFL team – for “USC.”
On Sunday, the 49ers came back from a 10-0 first-quarter deficit, took the lead at the half 12-10, fell behind 19-15 and then put the game away when Alex Smith hit Delanie Walker on a 6-yard TD pass with 1:56 left, then added a field goal by David Akers with 1:06 remaining.
Defensively, San Francisco again held a team under 100 yards rushing (66) and sacked Lions QB Matthew Stafford five times. Offensively, Frank Gore had his third straight 100-yard rushing game (141 on just 15 carries with a TD) and Smith – who threw just his second interception of the season – connected with Michael Crabtree nine times for 77 yards.
For the 49ers, it was a hard, scrappy, spirited performance.
A reflection, it seems, of a head coach named James Joseph Harbaugh.