He’s been as a player and now as a head coach. And in both cases, it ended in defeat.
Even still, Jim Harbaugh comes back with plans to compete for the game’s ultimate prize: The Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Sure, it’s eluded Harbaugh during his 15 seasons playing quarterback in the National Football League and again in his first season as a head coach with the San Francisco 49ers. However, Harbaugh’s resolve remains admirable.
His perspective on reaching a conference championship for a second time (previously with the Indianapolis Colts as a player in 1994) made Harbaugh proud of what it took to get to Sunday’s game which saw the 49ers fall 20-17 in overtime to the New York Giants at Candlestick Park.
“It’s hard to get there,” Harbaugh said on a day simply known as “exit day.”
“It’s hard to get to that game,” said the 49ers leader, almost assured to win the league’s Coach of the Year honors later this offseason. “It doesn’t just happen. It’s a credit to everybody and it’ll be hard again next year.”
Players, too, felt pride in the 14 wins put together in Harbaugh’s first season in San Francisco. But unfortunately, a division championship and a few plays from making the Super Bowl for the first time since 1994 won’t suffice.
“It’s tough,” said offensive captain Frank Gore. “Playing hard all year and to get to the NFC Championship game, all the hard work and we didn’t get it done. It’s tough.
“It didn’t happen, but I know we have a bunch of great guys in this locker room, a bunch of great coaches. Hopefully next year we can get back… We have to move on.”
Fellow team captain and Pro Bowler Patrick Willis struggled with the loss from his home last night. But once he woke up, the support of friends and family members in town put things into perspective for the All-Pro linebacker, who’s about to make his fifth Pro Bowl appearance in five seasons.
“There’s a lot of things to be thankful about, considering where we’ve been in the past,” Willis said. “There’s a lot of positive that we can build from and move on to. We had the opportunity and we kind of let it get away from us.
“This morning I woke up, had my family and friends at home, we didn’t talk about the game. We just talked about life. That was a good thing.”
The next step for the 49ers is complicated on many fronts.
But first, the team met on Monday to hear from Harbaugh one last time. The players conducted exit physicals, before packing up lockers with any personal items that might be needed in the offseason.
Harbaugh said his plan is to evaluate his current team, and then to formulate plans for free agency, April’s draft as well as the team’s entire offseason schedule.
Alex Smith leads the discussion in terms of potential free agents.
“I’m sure there’s going to be a process there,” said Harbaugh, who doesn’t plan on meeting individually with any players this week because he’s used to communicating with them throughout the season.
The 49ers coach, however, said he wanted to reward “team guys.” He added, “Our players have built a lot of equity with me here.”
Defensively, Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson and Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers stand out as key free agents.
“I’d like to have them all back, every single last one of them,” Willis said. “The chances of that happening, who knows? I wish them all the best and they’ll forever be my brothers.”
And while no regular season roster remains intact in any NFL city from year-to-year, Harbaugh hopes his coaching staff will remain the same.
“It’s a well-coached team and our team plays with their hearts out,” he said. “I’m very pleased with those foundations of our team. I want to keep that together.”
Looking back on Sunday’s defeat to New York, Harbaugh was perhaps most pleased with the consistency in his team’s effort.
“I thought they played their hearts out,” he said. “They stand toe-to-toe in a fight every time they go on the field.
“It didn’t have the ending we wanted. The football gods had a different ending in mind for this ball game, but I’m forever proud of our players and coaches for the way they compete… I think it was an amazing season, in a lot of ways beyond description.”
That being said, nothing is given in the NFL and Harbaugh knows all about it.
In the same way he entered the NFL accepting the ultimate challenge “willingly,” Harbaugh will keep that same mentality when preparing for his sophomore year as a head coach in the league.
“It’s going to require a lot of things we last year – start from scratch. It’s going to take incredible resolve. We’re entitled to nothing.”
Notes and Quotes
Second-year receiver Kyle Williams faced the media once more on Monday to discuss the two fumbled punts that set New York up with 10 points on Sunday. Williams received tremendous support from teammates and thanked them for being by his side. “They’ve let me know that they’ve got my back and that it’s not all on me and to not think I’m about it. I’m very fortunate to have the teammates that I have,” Williams said. “It’s painful. We’re very passionate about what we do and we’re very passionate about getting to the Super Bowl. To be able to be that close and not get it done was painful, but we’re going through it as a team and we’ll be back.”
Harbaugh had this to say about his players rallying around Williams for support: “It wasn’t a surprise to me. This is a class team. They haven’t been a finger-pointing group… everyone looks at themselves first.”
All-Pro, Pro Bowl kicker David Akers was equally as moved by the solidarity of San Francisco’s locker room. “He stood in front of the media with you guys and I thought that was a great show of character. I think this will make him stronger. One or two plays did not change the outcome of that game.”
Harbaugh said the AFC Championship game was also frustrating to him with his brother’s Baltimore team losing a three-point game to the New England Patriots. “That was another painful thing. I was really pulling for the Ravens to win.”
Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., one of many 49ers who are in the final year of their contracts, will likely not require surgery on the knee injury which sidelined him Sunday. “Surgery? I don’t think so,” Harbaugh said.
The 49ers coach said he’ll continue to have his players compete for starting positions, including at quarterback. “It’s never an anointed position,” Harbaugh said. Rookie Colin Kaepernick will have every opportunity to compete with Smith, should the seven-year veteran resign with the 49ers. “Everything is competed for,” Harbaugh said.
Smith said himself that he wasn’t thrilled with his performance against the Giants. “There were a handful (of throws) there that I’d like to have back,” he said on a day where he completed 12-of-26 passes, two of which were touchdowns to tight end Vernon Davis. “Decisions I made or throws I’d like to have back, you don’t know how those would’ve changed the game.”
Cornerback Tarell Brown, who collided with Goldson in one of two plays which the 49ers safety made contact with a teammate right before a takeaway opportunity, was in better spirits on Monday a day after the big hit caused him to miss the end of the game. “We’re trying to make plays on the ball and I think Dashon was thinking the same thing, make a play on the ball,” Brown said. “Sometimes that happens when you get into collisions like that. It’s part of a game. It’s a rough game.”
Lastly, the silver lining on exit day might be the things found in the back of lockers. With players loading up their personal belongings all season long, certain items can be lost in the shuffle so to speak. Take rookie lineman Mike Person, who uncovered a 49ers Gameday magazine cover with the entire rookie draft class taken back in training camp. “Look at my belly,” Person said with a smirk. “(The photo was) not taken at a good angle, at all.” Meanwhile, Snyder found a few trading cards he’d lost sight of in his locker: a Joe Staley rookie card and a signed Guy McInytre playing card.
Tags: Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson, Frank Gore, Kyle Williams, Patrick Willis
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