ST. LOUIS -- Because he has had so much success so quickly, Jim Harbaugh's résumé has a glaring hole: While marching steadily along a gold-plated coaching path from the University of San Diego to Stanford to the Bay-breeze-kissed sidelines of Candlestick Park, Harbaugh has yet to conclusively demonstrate an aptitude for confronting and conquering unforeseen adversity.
Now, early in his third season with the San Francisco 49ers, Harbaugh finally has his chance to plow through a rough patch and come out the other side. Heading into a "Thursday Night Football" clash with the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome, the Niners (1-2) are reeling from the first losing streak of the Harbaugh era, not to mention a slew of injuries, intra-organizational grumpiness and off-the-field drama involving one of their most important players.
Staring up at the rival Seattle Seahawks (3-0) in the NFC West and facing another division foe that twice gave them trouble in 2012, the defending NFC champions are running high on stress and low on mojo. And even inside the organization, there's a justifiable concern that the high-strung, oft-antagonistic Harbaugh might not possess the ideal personality type to navigate the situation.
"He could figure it out and fight through this, or he could blow up -- it's a valid question with Jim," a high-ranking NFL team executive who knows Harbaugh well said earlier this week. "When you've never had any real adversity, and it strikes, it's hard to reach back and remember how you handled it as a player. What I want to know is, 'Where the (expletive) is Captain Comeback? Where is that guy?' Because that's exactly what (the 49ers) need now."
For those of us who had an up-close-and-personal view of Harbaugh's Captain Comeback heroics -- primarily, a stirring 1995 postseason run in which the Chicago Bears castoff led an upstart Indianapolis Colts team to within a tantalizingly close Hail Mary of a Super Bowl berth -- the contrast between that unfailingly loose locker-room leader and the uptight coach into which he evolved is striking.
Captain Comeback, as I wrote in Sports Illustrated at the time, was "enjoying every whiff" of his unlikely postseason experience. "I've never had so much fun," he told me after the Colts' first-round upset of the defending AFC champion San Diego Chargers. "I'm just so lucky to be playing football, and I'm enjoying every moment."
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As he moved up in rank, Captain Comeback became General Grinder. Harbaugh arrived as an NFL head coach with a brash combativeness exemplified by his on-field demeanor (most notoriously, his infamous handshake incident with Detroit Lions counterpart Jim Schwartz following a 2011 victory) and off-field prickliness. He seemed consumed with trying to win every news conference, consistently calling out reporters because he didn't like their questions, and tweaking his opponents (most typically, the Seahawks) at every opportunity.
There is not a lot of levity at the 49ers' training facility in Santa Clara, as Harbaugh has cultivated an atmosphere that values long hours, hard work and an unremitting push for maximum intensity. That's obviously not a bad thing, but it might not be a state of affairs ideally suited to breaking a slump.
When the head coach has the pedal to the metal 24/7, collectively finding that extra gear can be elusive. In theory, coming off consecutive defeats to the Seahawks and Colts by a combined 56-10 margin, the Niners now should be able to channel the mental fortitude instilled by their experiences within Harbaugh's high-pressure environment. Yet it's also possible that the disruption to their coach's sense of order -- and, by extension, that of his players -- will cause them to press, lash out and question their identity should this tough stretch continue.
The 49ers are not the first team coming off a Super Bowl defeat (in this case, a painfully narrow one) to struggle the following season. They have been hit by significant injuries, including the torn Achilles tendon suffered by their top wideout, Michael Crabtree, that might cost him his entire 2013 campaign. (Two hugely important players, tight end Vernon Davis and inside linebacker Patrick Willis, are questionable for Thursday night's game.)
There are numerous theories that have been advanced to explain the so-called Curse of the Super Bowl Loser, but one obvious possibility is that these Niners are a mentally tired bunch struggling to recapture its prior level of intensity and focus.
Regardless of if there's an actual post-Super Bowl hangover, it's tough to argue that the 49ers aren't currently suffering from a post-Seahawks hangover of some sort. Two weeks ago, for the second time in 10 months, the Niners showed up at CenturyLink Field and were rendered helpless in Seattle, this time losing by a 29-3 score. Watching them dominated by their chief antagonists, it was tough to imagine that such a comprehensive beatdown wouldn't have some residual effects.
During that game, it was abundantly clear that the Seahawks are in the Niners' heads, and Seattle coach Pete Carroll is in Harbaugh's head. That the low-stress, relentlessly upbeat Carroll is Harbaugh's stylistic opposite makes the current state of affairs even more striking -- and, from Harbaugh's perspective, likely that much more frustrating.
Payback is a mutha, and right now Harbaugh's impudence is coming back to bite him. Last June, Harbaugh chided the Seahawks, citing the franchise's spate of suspensions for performance-enhancing drug use and saying, "We want to be above reproach in everything and do everything by the rules."
On Monday, San Francisco's star outside linebacker, Aldon Smith, checked into a rehab facility following his second DUI arrest (and third high-profile off-the-field incident) in the past two years. It was one of many ominous signs in the wake of the Niners' 27-7 defeat to the Colts at Candlestick Park last Sunday, including a reported sideline confrontation between Harbaugh and veteran running back Frank Gore.
If Gore did, in fact, vent at his coach -- the running back publicly stated this week that he's "cool with Harbaugh" -- many in the organization regard his frustration as understandable. On their second possession of the day, the Niners lined up in the I-formation and marched 91 yards for a touchdown on a drive that featured runs of 22, 11 and 21 yards by Gore. Yet Gore, who ran for 82 yards on 11 carries, got the ball just four times in the second half and didn't have a single carry in the final 25 minutes.
For all of offensive coordinator Greg Roman's innovation and success, there's a case to be made that simplicity is preferable under the current circumstances. With third-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick struggling as defensive coordinators scheme to mitigate his dangerous running skills, pounding the ball on the ground behind perhaps the NFL's most physical offensive line might be the slump-busting recipe the Niners' offense needs.
The 49ers' return to the Edward Jones Dome should stoke some unpleasant memories for Roman and Harbaugh. Last December, in Kaepernick's third NFL start, the Rams (who surprisingly had tied the Niners in San Francisco three weeks earlier, in what proved to be then-quarterback Alex Smith's final start with the team) eked out a 16-13 overtime victory. St. Louis' triumph was made possible partially by some controversial play calls, including a fumbled read-option toss to wideout Ted Ginn deep in the Niners' own territory that allowed the Rams to tie the score late in regulation.
Harbaugh's team bounced back from that disappointment, as it did a 42-13 drubbing by the Seahawks later that December, to win the conference. Until Sunday, the Niners were 7-0 following a defeat in the Harbaugh era, and there's no reason to believe they can't shake off consecutive setbacks with a strong performance in St. Louis.
It might not be Captain Comeback-worthy, but any victory right now would inject some much-needed enjoyment into the 49ers' universe. It also would allow Harbaugh to demonstrate something that, because of his sudden and sustained success, he has yet to affirm as an NFL head coach: A proficiency for guiding a team through adversity.
"It's a challenge," the NFL team executive said. "In the long run, I think, this will be good for him."