Editors note: This article was written on January 20th, 2014, after both the Eagles and 49ers had been eliminated from the NFC playoffs. Prior to the Eagles-49ers matchup this weekend, this seemed like a good time to rehash this debate.
Regardless of one’s opinion on 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, there are few who provide more in-game entertainment than him over the course of 60 minutes of football. Between his sideline antics, his bizarre game-day garb, his fiery demeanor, or even his ability to go from ’60 to zero’ when the bullets stop flying, Harbaugh is a spectacle unlike any other currently manning the sidelines of the NFL. What makes all of Harbaugh’s activity acceptable is the simple fact that he produces results. He is the only coach in NFL history to lead his team to three straight championship games and he has been integral in turning San Francisco into a consistent power in the NFC. One could argue that the former coach of Stanford walked into a prime situation given the collective talent on the 49ers roster. That said, his predecessor Mike Singletary went just 15-22 with a similar roster and was unable to produce results remotely near to what Harbaugh has done in his tenure. Harbaugh is part of a contingency of college coaches that have produced quick results at the NFL level. The 49ers head-man, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, and now Eagles coach Chip Kelly have all reached the playoffs in their first season in their current head coaching stint. Ironically enough, rather than coming from the talent-rich SEC, all three of the aforementioned names coached in the Pac-12 before jumping to the pro game. Harbaugh and Carroll each won playoff games in their first season, with Kelly falling in the first round of his postseason run after leading the Eagles to a division title.
Kelly is the only one of the trio that has had zero experience at the NFL level. Carroll had a previous stint coaching the New York Jets and Harbaugh was an NFL quarterback for over a decade. That said, Kelly has succeeded at every level he has coached and he would be the first to tell anyone that not having NFL experience is not a legitimate excuse for any type of struggles. With Carroll, 62, having a substantial edge in experience over Kelly and Harbaugh, the comparison will be reserved to the two relative newcomers in the coaching circle. Despite being polar opposites as far as demeanor and general presence on and off the sidelines, Harbaugh and Kelly actually use very similar coaching styles. Judging off one season of Kelly and a larger sample size of Jim Harbaugh, the two former Pac-12 rivals use mirroring ideals when it comes to approaching an opponent. Both the 49ers and Eagles have fantastic offensive lines and a healthy stable of skill players. They both acknowledge the benefit of having a team that is physically imposing and often superior to their opposition. While Nick Foles and Colin Kaepernick are about as different as one could imagine, both coaches try to limit the pass attempts of their quarterback and put them in a position to make quick decisions that take advantage of mismatches and the numbers game that modern NFL offense is shifting towards. Even on defense, where the Eagles are at a substantial disadvantage, one could see that both teams geared their talent more towards the front seven. San Francisco’s defense is so talented that they are normally able to line up and stop an opponent, whereas Philadelphia depends more on damage control and causing turnovers to mask some of their deficiencies. Rather than harping on the disparity in talent between the two teams, something that the Eagles brass can hopefully fix in the approaching offseason and beyond, it’s more apt to try to pick out some of the ideals that both coaches adhere to as far as putting a team together.
After following both coaches intently for the better part of both of their careers, it is very easy to see which one has the make-up of an NFL quarterback in terms of competitiveness and intensity. Jim Harbaugh employs the ‘follow me blindly’ style as far as getting his talented roster to buy in. Not necessarily in the sense that he does not provide answers to his players when they have questions or he is not transparent when it comes to his approach to the game, but more the fact that he was able to get his team to buy in with a lot of help from the fact that he played the game. In one of the 49ers press conferences leading up the NFC Championship game, receiver Anquan Boldin, arguably the most physical player in the NFL, was asked what was Harbaugh’s best quality as a coach. Without hesitation, the veteran exclaimed, “the fact that he played the game.” The same receiver who faced off against his current head coach in the previous year’s Super Bowl was so certain of his answer. Coming from one of the most impressive individuals in the NFL over the last decade, one has to take Boldin’s word as gospel. Mike Singletary attempted to use a no-nonsense, hard-nosed approach when it came to trying to turn a talented 49ers roster into a successful NFL team. Whether or not it had to do with the fact that Singletary had only ever had the mindset of a linebacker when it came to coaching and playing might have something to do with his inability to get more out of Alex Smith or an offense that was loaded with talent. Harbaugh has carried the same intensity he showed as a somewhat limited quarterback from a talent standpoint into the coaching ranks. In every season on the San Francisco sidelines, he has catered his approach toward his players and has shown a knack for getting a talented collection to perform beyond their means at times. Some might say that it is easy to take a roster as talented as the 49ers was when Harbaugh was brought into the fold to the level of success that he has. My counter-argument to that is the fact that winning an game in the NFL requires a ‘buying in’ from the entire roster, and it was not until Harbaugh was hired that the 49ers showed a penchant to win games when all hope seemed lost. (One of which came at the expense of the 2011 Eagles). Being the competitor that he his, Harbaugh works tirelessly to gain an advantage over his opponent and approaches every game like the Super Bowl.
Kelly does not pretend to be the former player / coach that Harbaugh is. He is not seen slapping the shoulder pads of his quarterback or throwing passes in the pregame warm-ups. Kelly is fully aware of the fact that he did not play in the NFL and, for that reason, was doubted among the NFL fraternity. What Kelly has had to fall back on, and is now the reason he is so successful, is that he has an answer for any and all questions that are thrown in his direction. The only way Kelly would have been able to achieve the success that he has is by outworking his counterparts and finding new ways to succeed that buck the ‘old school’ NFL mentality. Kelly has been praised by his players and analysts alike for his ability to demonstrate leadership and instill confidence throughout the organization. Aside from the occasional on-field blunder or missed challenge call, Kelly rarely seemed as if he had no experience on an NFL sideline. This was only possible because he made finite decisions with confidence and stood by them in the face of adversity. Whether it was dealing with the Riley Cooper incident, backing up his idea of a quarterback competition, or keeping a stable locker room when the team started 3-5 Kelly was confident in his approach and only asked that his team stay the course and buy in along with him. The amount of talent on NFL rosters, save a few examples, is usually pretty close. The key for teams to earn an extra win or two is having confidence that the product that they are putting on the field and the approach they are being told to use is one that can lead them to victories. It was perhaps most evident in the Eagles defense this year how much they were buying in to what the coaching staff was preaching. Even after giving up chunks of yardage throughout a contest, the players on the field often believed that, when it mattered most, they would be more well-positioned to make a game-winning play than their counterparts. Ultimately, the Saints were able to do what several other teams could not in the Eagles last game of the season and put together a game-winning drive. That said, what Kelly was able to show was that he was not married to the scheme that everyone linked him to and that he was going to put in the work to make sure his teams were as competitive as possible given the makeup of his roster. Kelly has a similar approach to Harbaugh in the sense that every game is as important as the one prior to it. He seems somewhat more intent on keeping a level-headed mindset with his squad than the sort of intense build-up that Harbaugh prefers. I am not as familiar with Harbaugh, but he seems to depend much more on having his players amped up and intense by the start of the game than Kelly’s even-keeled approach. Neither is better than the other, there is just a noticeable difference. Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly are both sensational football minds. The fact that Harbaugh played the game gave him a head start with a smart, talented roster and, after years of underachieving, they were in a position where they were willing to anything that their new coach was willing to preach. As far as Kelly and the Eagles, he was replacing a revered figure in the locker room and the only coach that some of the team’s best players had ever known. He had nominal results to back himself up with, given his track record in the Pac-12. That said, respect is often earned, not given in the NFL and Kelly had to wait on results for his players to start playing with the sort of confidence and assuredness that they showed late in the season and that the 49ers have displayed for the better part of three seasons under Harbaugh.
When it comes to knowing the ins and outs of NFL football, Harbaugh has a distinct advantage over Kelly. He knows how to work officials, he knows the right time to challenge calls on the field, and he recognizes the value of putting together and sticking with a strategy that works for him. That said, and it was seen to an extent against the Seahawks in the team’s loss in the NFC Championship game, Harbaugh’s quarterback mentality can sometimes get the best of him. Even by his own words, Harbaugh still favors the competitiveness of being on the field against his current position, even though he will almost certainly go down as a better coach than player.
“Well, playing, there’s nothing better than playing. Coaching is the second-best thing though because you are competing.”