INDIANAPOLIS -- San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh knows a great quarterback when he sees one. Why? Start with the fact that Harbaugh was a pretty good signal-caller himself -- he played in the NFL from 1987 through 2000, made a Pro Bowl, guided his Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts teams to playoff games, and has his name in Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium in the Colts' Ring of Honor. As a player, he's perhaps best known as the guy Peyton Manning replaced.
In his first year as San Francisco's head coach, Harbaugh minimized Alex Smith's negative performance tendencies and set Smith on a path for a very unexpected trip to the NFC championship game. Of course, Harbaugh is best-known for the work he did with Andrew Luck at Stanford, but as he told the media on Thursday, he also had his eye on Robert Griffin III back in his recruiting days.
"I know a lot about Robert because we recruited Robert out of high school," he said. "Robert was a 4.0 student, great parents, comes from a great home. He has had great success at Baylor. You know, past performance usually indicates future success, and he's had nothing but a history of success. So you would predict great achievements in the future."
Of course, RGIII didn't choose Stanford, going to Baylor instead. "I can't wait to find these guys and find out why they didn't come to Stanford," Harbaugh said jokingly. "Confront 'em!
"I was really fond of Robert through the recruiting process, and he made that decision. I think you've all had a chance to get to know Robert so far and understand him a bit. He makes good decisions. He makes cool decisions. He's very conscientious in everything that he does, and I respected his decision and wished him well."
When asked about his most famous student, Harbaugh was about as effusive as he could possibly be.
"You ever played spades? Trump games? He's holding a lot of aces in a lot of suits," Harbaugh said of Luck. "He's got all the qualities, really, mentally, physically. He's as prepared as anybody that you're going to find. He's really good. How about that one? He's got a lot of talent.
"I know you're looking for bullet points but … a lot of things. What specifically? … All great. Like I said, he's one of the finest football players I've ever been around. Is that good enough? And an even better person. One of the top-5 guys I've been around. So he's just a joy to coach. Not going to like playing against him. Not looking forward to that."
Harbaugh was also asked about being replaced by Manning, the first overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft.
"If you're gonna be replaced by someone, that's a pretty good one to be replaced by, isn't it? I kind of take some pride in that. I think that is the exact right word — remarkable. That your career would be something that people talk about and remark about. And in the history of the game, you're talking about a quarterback whose career will be talked about for 50, 100 years to come. He's been that kind of player in the National Football League. Very remarkable. Good word."
And as long as he was being so positive about quarterbacks, Harbaugh took the occasion to once again let everybody know that yes, Alex Smith is his man going into the 2012 season.
"Yeah, Alex is our guy. That's well-documented. He had a tremendous season. Definitely as a coach, you worry about a lot of things. And when the quarterback's not signed and is a free agent, that leads to some lost sleep. But I'm excited to be back at work, very excited to be here and see what kind of improvement we can make from Year 1 to Year 2, and I hope all our guys feel the exact same way."
Losing the NFC championship game to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants was a blow, but nothing could take away from the amazing job Harbaugh did in his first season with the formerly directionless 49ers. That he's already back at work and thinking about what his team can do better is no surprise. Harbaugh is no-frills and all football -- he flew coach to the combine even after his return to NFL success.
"Everything you're doing, you're doing it for the second time," he said about going from Year 1 to Year 2. "You're doing it again. You've already experienced it one time. You've experienced the speed of the game, the potholes, the things that can come up. You're doing it again. You've got some muscle memory there. And it only is if you take advantage of it, if you attack it. That's been my experience. I have no empirical data to share with you at this time. That's my personal experience."
One would expect no less intensity from the only man to win the Comeback Player of the Year and Coach of the Year awards in the same remarkable career.