Focus, leadership make Jim Harbaugh hot name for 2011

Jim Harbaugh isn't going to like this.

After all, the Stanford coach has a season to finish, an 8-1 team to coach and recruits to pursue. The last thing he wants to look at is something that's beyond what's directly in front of him, or anything that could adversely affect that.

But it's coming. And Harbaugh's loathing for the talk of his being the apple of the NFL's eye is exactly why, come January, he likely will be.

Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher might be bigger names to the masses. Some might question the history of hiring college coaches into the pros.

When it comes down to it, though, there's a better-than-good chance Harbaugh's name is the one raised internally by each and every team looking for a coach come January.

There's flash to Harbaugh's name, sure. He's Captain Comeback. But there's substance to him, too, rooted in a respect for the profession that's a family business to him, which makes him the kind of culture-setting presence that would attract any NFL club to his doorstep.

And there's a variance in his experiences -- he's been an NFL quarterback, as well as a quality-control coach -- that makes him the kind of candidate that's hard to find. So yes, Jim Harbaugh, you're gonna be a popular guy when NFL teams go to hire new coaches, maybe more popular than anyone else.

"He was the guy who drew all the pictures," said Montreal Allouettes coach Marc Trestman, the Raiders' offensive coordinator when Harbaugh was in that quality-control role, referencing the role of diagramming plays. "He did all the entry-level work guys do when they leave football to get into coaching. The quality of his work was outstanding. He has great communication skills, great emotional intelligence. He's a guy who played at a high level, but he's also got great coaching skills.

"Everything he gave us in the scouting reports -- the drawings, the precision of everything -- was great. So he got to spend some time coaching on the field with the quarterbacks that year, because he deserved the opportunity. It wasn't because he played the position, it was because he deserved the responsibility."

That's why he also deserves the adulation he's about to get.

Harbaugh's been down this road before. Al Davis and the Raiders tested the waters with him, and were rebuffed, and chances are that he'd be picky about any opportunity that might come along. University of San Diego athletic director Ky Snyder, the man who gave Harbaugh his first head-coaching job, believes the NFL intrigues the coach, but doesn't know if/when he'd act on that. And NFL types won't be the only suitors, with big-time college ADs likely to look into prying him from Stanford.

All the rumors and speculation swirling? Harbaugh doesn't have time for it now.

But it's that focus that makes him attractive. That experience as an NFL quarterback, too. That dedication to coaching that was apparent when he was volunteering for his father at Western Kentucky during his playing career. That understanding of the process that showed in those long nights and early hours in Oakland.

And those people skills. Especially those people skills.

The clashes between players and coaches in places like Minnesota and Dallas of late show that dealing with today's athlete is vastly different than it was even five or six years ago. To combat that, Harbaugh has a borderline cocky swagger (remember those call-outs of USC and Pete Carroll?) that's real and something players can identify with, an ability to lift their level of play that they can get behind, a work ethic that sets a tone and the respect that a high-profile ex-player can command.

"He's a great motivator, and young men respond to that very nicely," Snyder said. "He gets down and dirty with them. He runs sprints with them. He lifts weights with them. There's a relationship he builds with them. His standards are high, his vision is ambitious, and people want to be on that ship. They're going to be attracted to him, no matter who they are.

"He's very confident, to the point where he can sometimes be brash. But he's always looking for that edge to keep people moving forward, and if it's not there for the taking, he'll create it. I think young people respond to that. Football players are looking for that."

Put it this way: He has the fearless, devil-may-care way that Rex Ryan does, yet also has the knowledge and studious nature of a Nick Saban. Does that mean he's a combination of the two? No. It'd be foolish to make that comparison already.

But it does explain what NFL folks would see in the guy.

Then, there's his ability to command. Rich Gannon tells a story from 2003, when Harbaugh was still a quality-control coach and things were going haywire in Oakland. A star veteran stood up in the team meeting room and challenged head coach Bill Callahan on his decision-making. The players were stunned. Harbaugh bounced to his feet, told the player to sit down and authoritatively said, "You don't talk to coach like that."

The other stories Gannon tells? Those are the same Trestman offered, of a coach working around the clock and doing the work the others didn't want to do, something a lot of other ex-star quarterbacks might not be willing to do.

"He's a regular guy, and people relate to that," Gannon said. "He's approachable, but he's also fiery and he's a natural leader. He played the quarterback position, so he knows how to lead, but just as he's comfortable around the superstar, he's comfortable around the rookie free agent. And he cares about the people he works with.

"I can't say enough about him. We came into the league in the same year, and he had no problem working with me as a coach. At the time, I'd gone to Pro Bowls, I was league MVP, and he had no problem coaching me. He was great, absolutely great. Everyone respected him."

Another element going for Harbaugh is the presence of his older brother, John, who's already considered one of the league's better head coaches in just his third year in Baltimore.

When Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti hired John three years ago, it raised some eyebrows, since there were higher profile candidates to be had. This year, there are plenty of such big names, like the aforementioned Cowher and Gruden.

But when it comes time to hire someone in January, here's betting that plenty of owners will find that there's no better name than Jim Harbaugh.

Going deep

The Dolphins need a spark, to be sure, with their once-promising season teetering at 4-4. But few expected the bombshell that dropped on Wednesday in Davie, Fla., with coach Tony Sparano announcing the news that 34-year-old backup Chad Pennington would replace Chad Henne at quarterback.

Temper your expectations

The Dolphins are in need of a spark, but other than fewer turnovers, there isn't much Miami can expect from aging QB Chad Pennington, writes Jason La Canfora. **More ...**

The bottom line is the folks in Miami feel like they're close to being a serious AFC contender, and Pennington can make up the difference. How? The idea there is to turn three points into seven.

On the year, Miami has finished twice as many possessions with field goal attempts (22) as it has with touchdowns (11). And thus, inserting Pennington, is about better converting chances and in the end, according to those in that building, it's simply "all about scoring."

Here are the career stats of both quarterbacks when the line of scrimmage is between the opponent's 19 and the goal line:

Pennington: 159-272 (58.5), 1,006 yards, 69 TD, 4 INT, 99.7 rating
Henne: 13-25 (52.0), 84 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT, 82.3 rating

On top of that, Pennington has been even more proficient in his three years in Miami in such situations, posting a 99.1 rating and a 13-1 TD-INT ratio. The bottom line is that those short areas highlight Pennington's accuracy and decision-making, and mitigate his lack of raw arm strength.

And while we're on the subject of arm strength, there's no questioning Henne's talent in that area, but it hasn't added up to creating the "chunk plays" that Sparano has so often referenced a need for. Tight end Anthony Fasano's average of 13.0 yards per catch is a team high, and the argument could be made that possession, run-after-catch receivers like Brandon Marshall and Davone Bess might be a better fit for Pennington.

Now, that's not to say the Dolphins have thrown in the towel on the 25-year-old Henne. In fact, part of the reason the club felt comfortable pulling the trigger in this case was because they believe the young guy can handle it.

And the Dolphins will continue to evaluate Henne in his new role as Pennington's backup.

The Dolphins' hope is he can benefit from seeing things from a different perspective, and take the proverbial mental reps watching Pennington critically with the experience of 21 starts behind him. Miami will be monitoring Henne's progress there, and also closely watching how he handles this piece of personal adversity.

The main thing is that this is a move to make Miami better today. But the ultimate goal is to wind up making the team, and Henne, better in the long run, as well.

I know this truth ...

The Steelers might have fallen from the mighty last year -- after starting 6-2 coming off a Super Bowl championship -- but it won't happen this time around, as Pittsburgh once again marches into the second half of the season at 6-2. And the biggest reason why has to do both with where they've been, and where they're going.

The Steelers went through a training camp with a most unusual quarterback situation, and then the presumed temp (Byron Leftwich) for Ben Roethlisberger got hurt, and that led to two other quarterbacks (Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch) drawing starts. Throw in the month-long re-acclimation of Roethlisberger into the Steelers' offense, and it's a) pretty remarkable that they're 6-2 and b) hard not to see them as an ascending team.

"We're still growing," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "We just had a lot of guys banged up (on Monday night). We're trying to hit that fine line. Did we pass the ball like we did last year? I think we did that. Mike (Wallace) came up with some huge plays. The defense was keying on me on some of the (hot routes), leaving Mike one-on-one, and he made some huge plays coming back.

"It's gonna take time. We're at the halfway point, there's still a lot of football. Last year, we were 6-2 at the same time and went on a five-game losing streak. But I think there's something different, having gone through that. I think guys have learned to come out on the better end of that. We went through it, we experienced it, and we have a young nucleus of guys pulling through."

The truth is that Roethlisberger, by the numbers, isn't far off. His completion percentage (63.3) is right at his career mark, and his QB rating (96.8) and TD-INT ratio (6-3) are better than his previous standards. The Steelers are throwing it slightly less, and Roethlisberger still has that maddening tendency to hold the ball too long, but to those paid to study him, it looks like business as usual.

"I think the acclimation's been smooth, for how long he's been off," texted one AFC scout. "The guy's a stud. He might be the hardest QB to sack or contain while still in the pocket. He missed on a couple throws here and there in recent weeks, but once he gets his timing down with Wallace like he had with Santonio (Holmes), they'll be a threat.

"Not many QBs can make that throw he made to Hines Ward for a touchdown on Monday night in the red zone, but that's routine for Ben. When Heath Miller becomes a bigger part of the team's offense, that'll be when you know the offense is hitting on all cylinders."

"They're legit," said another AFC scout. "I'd say it's more of their offensive line issues that have really hurt them in the running game, and forced them to be more one-dimensional. ... There's always gonna be some rust (with a quarterback missing time), but I wouldn't say that's their issue. His numbers have been legit, and I honestly think they're more focused now."

Could the line's injuries sink Pittsburgh? Well, Max Starks' season-ending injury compounds the June loss of fellow tackle Willie Colon. But most believe the Steelers will weather the storm with some combination of Flozell Adams, Jonathan Scott and Tony Hills. Remember, in the 2008 championship season, the Steelers lost left tackle Marvel Smith and guard Kendall Simmons, so this isn't the first time they've been down this road.

I don't know a thing ...

I'm not sure the Giants can keep up this pace at all for two reasons. First, they haven't been the best finishers of late, with 11-1 and 5-0 starts the last two years giving way to late-season swoons. Second, they've beaten just one team with a winning record, and that's a Chicago Bears team that's hard to put a lot of stock in.

But they believe they've fixed what ails them, and it does have to do with a new outlook on that past of theirs.

"I think it's our trust level together as a unit," said defensive end Justin Tuck. "We're having fun. The last few years, we've been trying to repeat 2007. This year, we placed our chips in the middle of the table, and we're just playing football. We're not as worried about what people say. It's making the game simpler, and when you do that, you allow your athletic ability to take over."

Funny thing is that, in doing that, the Giants are starting to closer resemble that championship team of three years ago. They've restored the two primary strengths of that group, ranking third in the league with 151.9 rushing yards per game and fifth in the NFL with 24 sacks, and the swagger seems to be back as well. It's added up to a team that has the league's best defense, by about 24.1 yards per game, and its second-ranked offense, with Eli Manning and a revamped receiving corps bringing balance.

The challenges, though, have been different.

"Back then, a lot of us didn't know what we were doing, we were naïve to how important some of the games were," Tuck said. "The last couple years, we knew how important those games were, and it got to us. This year, we're letting 2007 go. We're not trying to repeat 2007. We're having fun, enjoying each other, and we'll see what happens."

One addition that Tuck says has helped in that regard is Perry Fewell, the new defensive coordinator who's injected a spirit and energy into the defense that wasn't always there. The result has been a group that sent five quarterbacks to the sideline injured in a four-week span.

"You don't want to get anybody hurt," Tuck said, carefully. "But for us, the quarterback is the leader, and if you take him out, it puts the offensive coordinator and really the whole team behind the 8-ball. Our focus isn't to hurt him, but it is to hit him a lot. He's not going to have a good day if we hit him a lot."

All this is well and good, but it remains to be seen if New York can keep it up, given what's happened the last couple years. And just as Tuck sees this year as different, he acknowledges what's left to fix.

"Our consistency could be better," he said. "There are stretches where we're lights out, and there are stretches where it looks kind of like the end of the year last year. We need to finish games. I'm not happy with the way we finished against the Cowboys, how we finished against Seattle. Those things, it might not have mattered then, but it's gonna matter in other games.

"We have to have that mentality. We can't take our foot off the gas."

First ...

It might be time to take the Cleveland Browns seriously. Their last two wins, over the Saints and Patriots, have come by a combined 33 points, which is impressive enough. But it's just as noteworthy that they won the games in different ways.

The Real McCoy?

Don't be fooled by Colt McCoy's boyish looks. The rookie QB has shown the Cleveland Browns might have something special under center, writes Vic Carucci. **More ...**

In New Orleans, the Browns were opportunistic, taking two of their four interceptions back for touchdowns and scoring their only offensive touchdown largely on the benefit of a 38-yard pass-interference penalty. The Patriots game was far less of a smoke-and-mirrors effort, with Cleveland outgaining the Patriots by 121-yard margin and running New England over for 230 yards on the ground.

Teams like this, folks, that win different ways, tend to stick around. Expect the Browns to be a problem for all their opponents going forward.

... and 10

1) It's easy to forget, as Jason Garrett takes over in Dallas, how sought after he was the last three offseasons, with Baltimore, Atlanta and St. Louis his top pursuers. One exec privy to those proceedings this week said, "Obiviously, he was off-the-charts intelligent as a human being. That's obvious, you can tell, it's just way he was. But what was interesting with him was he combined that intelligence with a football intelligence." Three things this guy added were particularly intriguing about Garrett: His experience as a backup to Troy Aikman, his two-year stint under Nick Saban in Miami in learning to run a football organization, and his roots in a football family. The biggest question was whether he could develop players who weren't as smart as him, and might not be able to handle the mental demands he puts on them. "He can go find the guy who can think on his level, but it's hard to find guys with the same ability as a player," a source said. "You wind up with a team of smart backups." That said, our guy went on to say, "I did think this guy would be a successful head coach in the league. That was then. I don't know if he'll do it in Dallas. If he got a job when he was a hot name, guys kind of respect that. It's different now. He needs to succeed. Then, they'll really believe."

2) Last Sunday's performance by Charlie Whitehurst (44.3 QB rating) showed that Pete Carroll and Co. made the right decision in sticking by Matt Hasselbeck. But it also underscored the uncertain future at the position for the club. This much the Seahawks know: Whitehurst is not the long-term answer, which is a blow for the team considering it gave up a 2011 third-round pick and 20 spots in the second round last year to get him. Hasselbeck hasn't lit the world on fire himself, his contract is up this offseason, his durability has been a question of late, and he'll turn 36 during the first month of next season (if it starts on time). That means next April, the Seahawks very well could be a player in what figures to be a decent crop of quarterbacks, provided big names like Andrew Luck and Ryan Mallett declare. The good news, in that regard, is that the Seahawks already have that guy's blindside bodyguard in place, Russell Okung.

3) Speaking of Luck, Stanford's stud QB, he's becoming a runaway favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft. The question now, as we mentioned, is whether he declares or not. And there could be an interesting dynamic at work there: He's expected by those who've been around him to factor in who has that selection in making his decision on whether or not to leave Stanford after this, his redshirt sophomore season. His father, former NFL quarterback and current West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, is expected to be pretty involved in all of this as well. So keep an eye on that race for the first pick in December, and keep your memories from 2004 fresh. That was when Eli and Archie Manning orchestrated the son's arrival in New York with the Giants. Something similar could happen again, but my understanding is that Luck would have no issue with returning to Stanford for another year.

4) Love this note that someone in the league passed along to me -- Jason Babin is really helping the Titans. Again. In 2004, the Texans gave up second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-round picks to move back into the first round and get Babin 27th overall. Houston also got Tennessee's sixth- and seventh-round picks. Tennessee came out of that trade with the three best players, as far as what they did for their drafting teams, in three starting-level performers: tight end Ben Troupe, defensive lineman Randy Starks and guard Jacob Bell. All three of those guys are gone now, but Babin has surfaced in Tennessee as a reclamation project, being a game-to-game starter for the first time since his rookie year, and posting seven sacks. Pretty interesting, for sure.

5) The Jeff Garcia saga with the Omaha Nighthawks tells you all you need to know about why a guy who's been a pretty accomplished pro has had trouble finding NFL work. Garcia was yanked from the UFL team's last game, in favor of former NFL journeyman Matt Gutierrez, and got the requisite coddling from coach Jeff Jagodzinski and GM Randy Mueller afterward. He then used injuries to explain his performance, even though he's thrown more interceptions (9) than touchdown passes (8) this year. The fact of the matter is that most NFL people felt that Garcia would be unwilling to accept a backup role, and wouldn't be good for whomever was the starter. For some reason, he's considered unable to make that natural transition that so many quarterbacks deftly navigate. Call him the anti-Pennington.

6) The Buccaneers followed their pattern last weekend, with a loss to a good team (Atlanta) following a win over a not-so-good one (Arizona). The positive for Tampa Bay is that it says something for its focus that the winnable games are being won. The negative is that the Buccaneers aren't quite there yet talent-wise to compete at a higher level. And this young nucleus they built, which is impressive, might face another challenge soon. "They've done a nice job getting young talent," said one rival exec. "But they're really, really young, and it'll be interesting seeing that bunch in the next few weeks. Know how they say the NFL season is like two college seasons? Well, we're at the point where we're through a college season. Can they keep it up mentally, emotionally, and health-wise? We'll see. But they should be formidable in the future."

7) In the wake of the rib injury he suffered over a month ago, Michael Vick has said he plans to be more careful running to give himself a better chance to stay healthy. But his comments to reporters in Philly on Thursday -- "I don't know how to slide" -- underscore how this will be a challenge for the quarterback. What separates Vick, from a running standpoint, from just about every other quarterback is his explosiveness. And you have to wonder if too much thinking will cause a hesitation that takes away from that ridiculously quick first step of his. There's no question that Vick has developed as a passer, being No. 1 in the league in quarterback rating. But he's still a signal-caller averaging more than seven rushes a game, so tucking-and-going remains a big part of his game.

8) The Titans expect Randy Moss to enter Sunday's game against Miami with a fairly intricate knowledge of the playbook. "He's football brilliant," said one team official. And so you can count on Moss being more involved in his Titan debut than he was in his Viking debut against the Jets. Unless, that is, Vontae Davis has something to say about it. Moss had zero catches in his last seven quarters against Miami as a Patriot, and Davis was the one chiefly responsible for shadowing him. The second-year cornerback's physical style is a tough matchup for Moss, so it's hard to expect a huge debut from the new Titan on Sunday.

9) Can't have Moss without some Terrell Owens talk, right? Well, in the wake of how Moss handled his short stay in Minnesota, it's worth noting that Owens has actually behaved himself fairly well since wearing out his welcome in Dallas. He was a good soldier in a tough situation in Buffalo, at least publicly, and in Cincinnati, he's pumped life into a declining career. He has as many catches (55) at the midpoint this year as he did all of last year. At 36, he's on pace to set career highs in catches (110) and yards (1,540), while scoring 14 touchdowns. The market for Owens should be interesting next year.

10) All the best to Kevin Curtis in his return from testicular cancer. In case you missed it, Curtis had surgery in September, and has been cleared to sign with a team and get back to playing football. The 32-year-old was slowed by knee injuries the last couple years, but had 77 catches for 1,110 yards and six touchdowns during his last healthy season, 2007.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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