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COHN: Verdict on Harbaugh's season hangs in balance

San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh speaks during a news conference at the team's training facility in Santa Clara on Friday, Jan. 18, 2013.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 8:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 11:18 p.m.

There is so much at stake for Jim Harbaugh today. Every week, there is so much at stake for his reputation and his standing among NFL coaches.

Those statements probably seem hard to believe. He's already shown he's the boy wonder as coach — although, he's not such a boy anymore. What possibly could be at stake for him today in the NFC championship game against the Falcons?

Just this. If Harbaugh loses, he didn't make progress from his first season. He got to the exact same spot and stopped dead. See you later, Jim. Have an enjoyable offseason.

If he loses, people will notice some stuff. Like: He didn't win as many games as his first year. You could look that up right now. And: He couldn't fix the startling/disturbing pattern his team established this season.

Win two games in a row and then don't win the third game — the tie with the Rams was not a loss but it was not a win. This pattern has repeated itself five times this season.

Today's game against the Falcons is a third game. The 49ers won their previous two and that should be good, but if history is a guide, it also could be very bad.

The win-win-not-win pattern is all about coaching. It is about nothing else. It is impossible to know why this pattern exists or, if over the long haul, it really is a pattern, but here's a tentative hypothesis and it's all about Harbaugh.

The team gets too high on itself after two wins and then crashes in the third game. We're talking extreme highs and lows. The best coaches are emotionally stable — think Joe Gibbs — but it's possible Harbaugh is an up-and-down person, and the team mirrors his high and lows. If the Niners lose to the Falcons, it would be the sixth time this pattern asserted itself.

When the Seahawks lost to the Falcons last week, everyone pointed the finger at Pete Carroll, with good reason. The same applies here. The 49ers have six Pro Bowlers on defense, plus a potential Hall of Fame running back, a wide receiver who is clearly one of the best, a great tight end who has been a Pro Bowler and a quarterback who is the talk of the nation. The Niners are vastly superior to the Falcons, who are a weak first seed, almost a joke if you trust the national media. They are made to order for the 49ers.

If the Niners lose, they will have been beaten by an inferior team for the fifth time this season. Harbaugh surely will take the blame — should take the blame. Maybe you're thinking Harbaugh is flop-proof. Look at Rex Ryan's record. He took the Jets to the AFC championship game his first two seasons. Where is he now?

You already are seeing articles proclaiming Harbaugh's greatness, articles that are premature. One writer said Harbaugh is approaching the Bill-Walsh level. Really? Harbaugh is very good. We know that. He may become great. He possibly will show the early stages of greatness in the next few weeks. But please let him accomplish something before he's anointed the next Bill Walsh. Show a little patience.

When I saw Harbaugh several days ago, he was grim. Not scared. Not worried. Not impolite. He made it a point to be polite. Just grim.

He refused to answer questions not related to the Atlanta game, would not waste a particle of brain power on anything un-Falcon. You couldn't blame him.

Here is a dialogue between him and one journalist who was pursuing a particular storyline, as he should have been doing.

Q: On the theme of running quarterbacks, there's been stories about how when you had quarterback Andrew Luck already signed (at Stanford) that you also were sort of recruiting Robert Griffin III to possibly have a two-quarterback system? Is that accurate, and do you think that could have worked out?

Harbaugh: “It's true that we recruited Robert Griffin, yeah.”

Q: Did you have designs of possibly having a two quarterback system?

Harbaugh: “Not necessarily, no. They would have competed for the job and the top player would have played. Again, this is like, is this relevant? It doesn't seem relevant. Doesn't seem relevant to what we're trying to accomplish this week.”

Q: If a reporter is writing about running quarterbacks, it could tie in.

Harbaugh: “OK, well good luck with that story.”

Q: ”Thank you for your assistance.”

Harbaugh: “You're welcome.”

This dialogue, kind of postmodern in its way, shows how impatient Harbaugh is at this time with concept articles, articles not focused on the game at hand. He knows what the Falcons game means to his team and to him — and the meaning is huge.

Of course, the 49ers probably will beat the Falcons. They sure should beat the Falcons. What are the implications of a win for Harbaugh?

If he wins, he continues the impressive upward trajectory he had since he became a coach. He gets better, achieves more, shows greater promise. Even if his team loses the Super Bowl, he took it one step further, and the Niners probably will be favored to return to the Super Bowl next season. He took a quarterback with nine starts to the Super Bowl. All that would be a great confidence booster for the team, for him and the franchise.

But meanings are tricky things. The meaning of Harbaugh's season is still to be determined. The quality of his coaching this season is to be determined. We wait.

(For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.)

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