Back when current 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and I worked together at the Raiders, our sons competed in a father-son basketball tournament at their school called Runts And Grunts. It was supposed to be a friendly game, where the kids would play against one another and the Dads were not allowed to score or do much more than rebound and pick. My son played with a former Raider; Jim's son played with him. Before the game, Jim's son had a high fever which rendered him weak, but he was willing to tough it out and play for the big prize -- a two-dollar trophy and the thrill of winning.
The tournament had one father-son combination that was tough to beat. The Dad was a former college hoops star and the son was the best player in the school. Naturally, the final game came down to that team against the Harbaughs.
Harbaugh and his son played like it was an NFL playoff game.
Harbaugh was determined, competitive, and willing to do whatever he took to bring home the win. He was never going to allow himself to lose, even in a meaningless game. He motivated his sick son, and his look of determination was scary. When the game was over, the Harbaughs won, the other team was shattered and I realized then that Jim was going to be a successful coach in the NFL.
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So when he was named the coach of the 49ers, there was no doubt he would do whatever it took to win, and eventually his team would adopt his incredibly competitive nature. Six games into the season, every 49er has that Harbaugh look of determination and the team is clearly the best in the NFC West. Start sewing the banner, the 49ers are division champs.
Harbaugh is not only competitive, he is a smart football man. During the preseason, he realized his team had some strong areas but also had several weaknesses. Each week, he has game-planned to accentuate the positive and play a style that best allows his team to win. The defense is strong up front, physical, tough to run the ball against and can wear down opponents. The offense can run the ball, but it's limited in the passing game, with a lack of great pass protectors and quarterback Alex Smith unable to compensate.
The 49ers never get away from their style, even if they go down by double digits. They just keep on fighting and competing, figuring the game will turn, which it has done. Harbaugh's brother-in-law is Tom Crean, the basketball coach at Indiana. He has to watch the 49ers play and think they are much like a great half-court team that refuses to get into a run-and-gun game and always finds a way to control the tempo.
Now that the 49ers have had success playing their style, the players have bought into the philosophy and have that willingness to keep on fighting. Harbaugh achieved this mentally tough team without having to embarrass anyone or send a player to the showers during the game. His will to win is infectious.
The 49ers have won five games without playing the Rams or the Cardinals, which means their win total will far exceed the seven victories Seattle needed to win the NFC West last season. Six of the Niners' remaining 10 games are against teams with losing records, a benefit of playing in a weak division. I doubt the 49ers will be looking ahead, as their competitive coach is too determined to win each game, regardless of the situation.
Just ask the father and son team that lost to the Harbaughs in Runts And Grunts. They aren't surprised by the 49ers' success.
Things I loved
Nobody was surprised that Tom Brady led a winning drive Sunday, writes Jeff Darlington, but rather that he was given the chance to do it at all. More ...
» I loved watching Tom Brady play with the game on the line. At home against the Cowboys, Brady was not his usual self, out of sync in part because of how Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was keeping him off balance. Brady didn't find his rhythm until the last drive of the game, where he completed 8 of 9 passes and threw the winning touchdown pass with just 22 seconds left. Brady fought through the adversity, overcoming two interceptions and managing the situation of the game, never allowing the Cowboys to have a real chance at a comeback. The Patriots' final drive was end-of-game-management at its best. It was truly a work of art.
» I loved how the Eagles fought hard and finally played enough defense to close out a win. Without scoring in the second half, the Eagles still were able to control the Redskins' offense, forcing them to turn the ball over four times. They controlled the clock for more than 38 minutes. It was not pretty, and there are still many things the Eagles must improve, but give them credit: They finally won a close game.
» I loved how Josh Freeman got the Bucs' passing game going and made plays on the outside to the wide receivers. Freeman played his best game of the season, from start to finish. He made big, accurate throws to lead his team past the Saints. As I wrote Friday, Freeman must be the straw that stirs the offense. He must get the ball down the field and make explosive plays. When Freeman and the Bucs can attack the outside of the defense, they are dangerous. They need receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn to be involved every week. On Sunday, without star running back LeGarrette Blount, they established the pass first then ran the ball effectively.
Things I hated
» I hated watching the Redskins' offense, especially quarterback Rex Grossman. He looks like he has a tired arm, not being able to drive the ball down the field or fit the ball into tight windows. Everything looks like a touch pass, which is fine when throws require it, but not when it allows the safeties to make plays on the ball, like Kurt Coleman and Nate Allen were able to do for the Eagles. The Redskins' smallish offensive line took a physical beating in the game. The run game never got going, which derailed the entire offense. Once that small line has to pass block, the team gets pushed around. This offseason, Mike Shanahan wanted to go with John Beck as his starter and now it appears it will happen. Good luck. I picked the Redskins to win the NFC East because I thought they would manage Grossman and not let him beat them, which he did Sunday.
» I hated watching the Vikings play on both sides of the ball. The Vikings were never in the game with the Bears. If it is not clear to everyone in Minnesota that this must be a rebuilding year, then we are not watching the same team. The Vikings have major flaws in every aspect of their team and are now 1-5. They need to start either Joe Webb or Christian Ponder at quarterback. Why continue with Donovan McNabb? He clearly does not have the skills to make the offense competitive -- some his fault, some the fault of the team -- so going forward with him is fruitless for the future.
» I hated watching the conflict at the end of the game between 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and Lions coach Jim Schwartz. It was not good for the league, and clearly Harbaugh was out of line with his behavior. There has always been an unwritten protocol in the league that any celebration should only occur after each coach shakes one another's hand. Harbaugh might have thought he shook Schwartz's hand to hard, but that was not the case. Words caused this problem. Earlier in the game, when Harbaugh incorrectly challenged a touchdown which resulted in a unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the 49ers, there seemed to be words exchanged between the two sidelines. Was that a reason for the end-of-game behavior? No one will ever know, but I got the sense that could have been the cause. Either way, I hated watching it. The conflict took away from the great 49ers' victory.
Things on my mind
» Peyton Hillis is not having a good year -- first the strep throat and now a hamstring pull. The Browns were going to try to get Hillis more involved Sunday, but he finished with six carries for 14 yards against the Raiders. The bigger concern for the Browns is that Colt McCoy cannot drive the ball down the field and is not a player who can lead the Browns back to prominence.
» Steelers LB Lamarr Woodley has woken up from his early season slumber. He is back to being a dominating player the past two weeks.
» Wonder why the Rams are struggling? Receiver Mike Sims-Walker, linebacker Ben Leber and running back Jerious Norwood were all free-agent signings this offseason and were all healthy inactives Sunday.