Harbaugh's formula of success hard to pin down

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

SAN FRANCISCO – He kicked off the new year as the hottest football coach on turf, hijacking the hearts of college and pro football fans from coast to coast as he pondered his many lucrative options.

During the first week of January, Jim Harbaugh had high-powered alums juggling portfolios and NFL owners digging even deeper into their pockets – including one, the Dolphins' Stephen Ross, who got on a plane from Miami to make an in-person pitch, even though no head-coaching opening existed.

[ Related: Reggie Bush among attractive trade-deadline options ]

Finally, Harbaugh made his decision, leaving Stanford for a job about 20 minutes down the freeway. He signed a five-year, $25-million contract to coach the San Francisco 49ers, then immediately was saddled with a lockout-generated anvil, making an instant turnaround of a 6-10 team even more implausible.

Now here he is, five games into his first season, hotter than ever. Harbaugh's 49ers are 4-1 heading into Sunday's who knew? marquee matchup with the 5-0 Detroit Lions. The Niners have a two-game lead in the NFC West and are coming off the franchise's biggest margin of victory since Joe Montana went nuts on John Elway and the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.

Oh, and the three highest-rated passers in football are Aaron Rodgers(notes), Tom Brady(notes) … and Alex Smith.

Is it possible Harbaugh is already underpaid?

"I'm loving it for sure," Smith said of Harbaugh's presence after last Sunday's 48-3 thrashing of the Bucs at Candlestick Park. "I think all the guys are loving it. They're loving coming to work. It's been great."

As I roamed the Niners' locker room Sunday, my mission was to get a sense of the new coach's seemingly magical formula for reversing the futility of the Mike Singletary era, and the Mike Nolan era before that. Though Harbaugh and I go way back, he is a coach's son who majored in cliché-spewing at Michigan and perfected the skill during his long NFL career. When I heard him declare early in his postgame news conference, "We'll just move on with humble hearts and get ready to face Detroit," I figured I'd have to find the answers elsewhere.

[ 32 Questions: Lions not measuring up to defending champs yet ]

I started with Smith, the former No. 1 overall draft pick who is the franchise's all-time Survivor champion. Surely, Harbaugh's leadership style must border on the mystical, right?

"No," he said. "No, no, no, no – anything but. No secret. It's all ball. Blue-collar. It's all about the details."

That doesn't sound too exciting, but in subsequent conversations with other players, including tackle Joe Staley(notes), running back Frank Gore(notes) and tight end Vernon Davis(notes), I kept getting the same answers. Later, when I left the locker room and walked back onto the Candlestick grass toward the press-box elevator, I ran into 49ers radio analyst Eric Davis, who excelled in shutting down opposing receivers and feeding me tremendous insight during his playing career.

E.D. proceeded to show he's still got it.

"Jim Harbaugh," Davis said, "is better at being Mike Singletary than Mike Singletary."

Davis laid out his premise, and it made a ton of sense: Singletary's mantra was that his team would develop a power running attack and play ball-control football, minimize mistakes and keep games close with a tough, bend-but-don't break defense. It sounded good, in theory. Harbaugh and his assistants, in 10 short weeks, have put it into practice.

So what, specifically, has Harbaugh done well?

• He keeps it simple: Harbaugh is a man with a healthy ego – trust me, it takes one to know one – but, to his credit, he doesn't scheme or play-call like some ultra-confident coaches. Rather than wowing his audience with flash and burnishing his credentials as a perceived quarterback guru, Harbaugh has been willing to snooze his way to success. Part of this, undoubtedly, was because of the lockout. With no access to players over the offseason, Harbaugh correctly assessed his options and decided that sticking with Smith – and retaining an offensive system similar to the one the team ran last season – was the most prudent move. The Niners had the league's lowest-rated offense after three games but were 2-1, with only a narrow defeat to the Cowboys blemishing their record. They seem to be improving every week.

• He plays to his quarterback's strengths: For so many years, 49ers fans received a primer on the things with which Smith struggles – throwing on the run, spotting open receivers on the backside, forcing passes into coverage. Harbaugh's offense is centered around what Smith does do well: Getting the ball to his first or second read, reacting to pressure by unloading the ball to a "hot" receiver in schemes that allow for such options, throwing quick passes out of three-step drops, using play-action fakes to his advantage, spotting mismatches in man-to-man coverage and milking them for big plays. Along with this has come an emphasis on ball security: Smith, who had nine interceptions at this stage last year, has thrown just one in 2011, and San Francisco has just four turnovers total.

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• He knows how to ground and pound: Harbaugh, says former 49ers quarterback and current ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, has "done exactly what he did at Stanford. He's taken guys who thought they were tough and taught 'em how to be tough. His offensive genius isn't necessarily in the modern-day passing game. He and his staff are very good at scheming the running game. He's a master of creating matchups in the running game and capitalizing on the play-action. He's the anti-Mike Martz."

• He hires good assistants: Harbaugh took both of his coordinators from Stanford, Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, and hired a staff adept at teaching technique and concepts, and committed to dwelling on details. Says Dilfer: "The message is very consistent. He and his assistants are good teachers, and they teach 'The Why' – not just what to do but why it's important. There's a great conviction in what they're teaching: Physicality in the run game and accountability. A lot of toughness comes from being able to maintain technique when things are hard." Says Vernon Davis, the talented tight end whose numbers are down in Harbaugh's offense: "You can't make mistakes. You can't get penalties. Those are the things that lose games. In practice, we always focus on the snap and the count. Discipline is big."

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• He has a plan, and he sticks to it: This seems ridiculously elementary, but you'd be surprised how many coaches don't pull off such an approach. Harbaugh has stayed on message and has made it clear that anyone who doesn't get with the program will be replaced. "It's just a bunch of guys believing in each other, believing in the system," Staley says. "We believe in everybody on the field. It's been demanding. His system is demanding. It's just spreading throughout the locker room."

• He keeps it real: OK, this is a bit of an exaggeration – find me an NFL coach who's truly down to earth, and I'll search for a four-leaf clover, and we'll see who cries "Uncle" first. Yet when Harbaugh, after the team's dramatic comeback victory over the Eagles two Sundays ago, gave up his first-class seat on the team charter to a player (center Jonathan Goodwin(notes)) and hung back with the guys for the duration of the five-hour flight, the coach in coach sent a message that was well-received. Just as when former Niners owner Eddie DeBartolo used to hand out towels to players at the entrance of the locker-room tunnel at halftime of some home games, a seemingly cheesy gesture can go a long way in an NFL locker room. Call it an acknowledgment of the players' pronounced physical sacrifice for the good of the organization, or something less fancy, but the bottom line is that dudes who strap it on like being assured that they're not merely pieces of meat.

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Yahoo! Sports Radio: 49ers safety Donte Whitner high on Jim Harbaugh]

So there you have it. Harbaugh's 49ers are far from a finished product – "Man, there are so many areas I've got to get better at … we've got to get better at," Smith says – but they're appreciably more polished than they've been in awhile and seem well on their way to the franchise's first playoff appearance since the 2002 season.

"We've got something great going," Gore says. "We've just got to keep believing in ourselves and our coaches and keep getting better."

Says Vernon Davis: "All the guys are excited about what we have planned. We have a lot of plans to do some great things this season. We're playing football, playing together, playing to win."

Sounds simple, right? Well, maybe not that simple. As Harbaugh left Candlestick and headed to his car an hour after Sunday's game, I stopped him long enough to run that assessment of his current coaching style by him.

"I don't think it's simple, no," he said. "We're doing the best we can."

In other words, he isn't making $5 million a year for nothing.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

The Giants – one week too late for my purposes (see below) – will get their mojo back and prevail in a high-scoring shootout against the Bills. … One of the two NFC South intra-division clashes (Panthers at Falcons, Saints at Bucs) will end in an upset; I'm not sure which, but I'm going with Carolina. … Behind big days from receivers Dez Bryant(notes) and Miles Austin(notes), the Cowboys will pull out a pivotal road victory over the Patriots.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Foxborough, because this Californian needs some fall foliage in his life – and because, one way or the other, Tom Brady and Tony Romo(notes) are always compelling theater.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. Upon learning that LeBron James is dropping hints about wanting to take his talents to the NFL, Andy Reid called the Heat superstar to offer him a role as the "Dream Team Defensive Consultant".

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2. After Super Bowl XLV coaches Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy got testy with reporters on Wednesday, a jealous Rex Ryan told Jets beat writers, "I don't like the tone of those questions, so either get with the program or this interview's over … Wait, come back. I didn't really mean it. "

3. Tiger Woods knows how to pick 'em.

WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL

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Eli Manning(notes) threw 3 interceptions and lost a fumble against the Seahawks.
(Getty Images)

After opening the season with four consecutive blowouts, with the teams I picked outscoring the opposition by a 144-37 margin, I was feeling really good about the prospect of the Giants cruising to victory over the Seahawks. It turned out Seattle was the team that Cruzed to victory, as in Victor Cruz(notes). After the young receiver made some spectacular plays to put the Giants on the brink of a game-winning touchdown – trailing by four, New York had a first-and-goal with 1:25 remaining – Cruz couldn't hold onto an Eli Manning pass, and all hell broke loose. The ball bounced into the air, off of Seattle's Kam Chancellor(notes) and into the grasp of teammate and CFL refugee Brandon Browner(notes), who raced 94 yards for the touchdown that spiked my dreams to the turf. Or something like that; devastated as I may be in the aftermath, I'm determined to find the strength to soldier on. So thanks for tuning in, and to the Texans, Steelers, Ravens and Packers for getting me through the first four weeks. Oh, and Giants: Thanks for nothing.

Remember, you can find all of my picks here – yep, I'm still awesome, thanks for asking – and receive the analysis behind them by registering for the Silver Insider at ridewithsilver.com. (Also at Ride With Silver, you'll find executive editor David Seawright's coverage from last week's stirring Seahawks victory over the Giants … wait, that's a horrible game on which to dwell.) Also, from the sage who a week ago called a Buccaneers victory over the Ninersmissed it by that much – here are some Locks of the Week that are actually likely to come true.

FANTASY ANNOYANCE OF THE WEEK

"I'm the feel-good story of the season," my buddy Malibu announced after Sabbath Bloody Sabbath improved to 3-2 with a 20-point victory over Balls Deep. "I lost my two best players [Jamaal Charles(notes), Kenny Britt(notes)], and no one is playing particularly well, and yet I'm still hanging in there. It's just great coaching. I think the whole country has embraced this team." Well, I know Malibu's success makes me feel good like James Brown. Yet there's no reason to get comfortable, and in advance of this week's showdown with 3-2 Varmint 'Tang (Tom Brady, Jimmy Graham(notes) and not much else), Malibu and I decided to do an extreme team makeover. In: quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) (starter Philip Rivers(notes) has a bye), running backs Jackie Battle(notes) and Bernard Scott(notes) (he has Cedric Benson(notes), whose suspension could kick in at any time), wideout Torrey Smith(notes) and the Raiders' defense (vs. the Browns). Out: quarterback Eli Manning, running backs Roy Helu(notes) and C.J. Spiller(notes), wideout Kevin Walter(notes) and the Jags' defense. And with Julio Jones(notes) injured and Mike Tolbert(notes) on a bye, Sabbath's lineup will include Jacoby Ford(notes) ("It's an Al Davis tribute," says Malibu, a rabid Chargers fan) and Kevin Walter.

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Adrian Peterson scored 3 first-quarter TDs vs. the Cards.
(Getty Images)

Also sitting pretty (prettier than Malibu, if you must know) at 3-2 is Cal women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb, whose Bringin' It Back rolled to a 15-point triumph over Any Given Sunday on the strength of Adrian Peterson's 30-point showing and nice contributions from Willis McGahee(notes), Shonn Greene(notes) (finally!) and the Bengals' defense. This week's matchup with 3-1-1 Debos Bucs (Cam Newton(notes), Arian Foster(notes), Cedric Benson, DeSean Jackson(notes), Marques Colston(notes), Jason Witten(notes)) should be a challenge given that Jones is hurt and McGahee and newly acquired Battle are on bye weeks. I recommended Stephen Gostkowski(notes) over Dan Bailey(notes) and told her to pick up Montario Hardesty(notes) in case the Peyton Hillis(notes)/Browns situation blows up.

[ Fantasy Flames: Ryan Torain to bring pain vs. Eagles ]

LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Linebacker Dhani Jones(notes), who announced his retirement from football earlier this week and will surely soar off to exciting heights in other realms. Among other talents, the man can sing, as I learned a few nights before Super Bowl XL when he took the stage with the Reefermen in Royal Oak, Mich., picked up the mic during an R&B-laced set and tore that rickety stage to shreds.

THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

This is a spicy sports weekend in Berkeley, beginning Friday night when Cal's No. 4-ranked women's volleyball team hosts No. 2 Washington at Haas Pavilion. The Saturday offerings on campus include a water-polo showdown between No. 2 Cal (led by junior goalie Justin Parsons, the reigning MPSF player of the week) and No. 4 USC at Spieker Pool – a rematch of last year's NCAA title match. This year's NCAA championships will be held at Spieker on Dec. 3 and 4, and I know Bears coach Kirk Everist will get there or drown tryin'. On Sunday at 1 p.m. at Maxwell Field, Shellie Onstead's 12th-ranked field hockey team battles archrival and ninth-ranked Stanford for the second time this season. If you like chicks with sticks, this is as good as it gets on the West Coast.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

Mountain biker antelope

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

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Derrick Mason(notes) had 13 catches with the Jets.
(Getty Images)

Derrick Mason's short and sour stint with the Jets ended Wednesday when he was traded to the Texans, something which may have had something to do with his subpar performance, his grumpy demeanor or a combination of the two. The 37-year-old receiver greeted his relocation warmly, saying it was nice "to come to a situation where they want you and they believe in what you can do." Oh, and their star wideout is sidelined, their quarterback is banged up and they just lost a game after failing to gain five yards on a team with only 10 men on the field. As a result, while Mason says the Texans are "a breath of fresh air," his new teammates are merely hoping they don't get choked out this Sunday by the Ravens in Baltimore, where Mason played from 2005-2010.

[ Related: Derrick Mason trade latest episode of Jets' drama-filled season ]

Here's my send-up of Houston quarterback Matt Schaub(notes) and his fellow offensive starters serenading Mason, to the tune of Pearl Jam's "Just Breathe":

Yes I understand that all careers must end, aw huh
You can't get open, they'll decide that you must go, aw huh
Yeah you're a lucky man to count on three hands
The years you've had
Some folks have a ring
Others got nothing, aw huh

Play with me
Oh let's just breathe

Here on the Texans
Seems we're never gonna win, aw huh
Under Kubiak, just another third-down sack, aw huh
Yeah, I don't wanna hurt, it's Ray Lewis'(notes) turn
To make me bleed

Play with me
Your majesty

Did I say that I need you?
Did I say that I want you?
Oh, if I didn't I'm a fool you see
Andre Johnson's(notes) injury
Creates a need

I stumble every year
Watch the playoffs disappear, aw huh
Kelly said I choked
And Cushing is so yoked, aw huh
Can Arian run?
Mario is done

Did I say that I need you?
Oh, did I say that I want you?
Oh, Tannenbaum is a fool you see
We'll use you more than Rexy
No more Gang Green

You will not complain
Closed roof in the rain
Play till you retire
Or till Kubiak gets fired

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