Register | Forums | Log in

Harbaugh's decision turns out to be indecisive

Published: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 6:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 6:17 p.m.

"Did you ever have to make up your mind?

Pick up on one and leave the other behind

It’s not often easy and not often kind

Did you ever have to make up your mind?"

— Courtesy of those philosophers, the Lovin Spoonful

It’s tough to make up your mind. Just ask Jim Harbaugh, who made up his mind about his quarterbacks and reluctantly shared his mind with the media on Wednesday in one the most anticipated, most dramatic 49ers’ news conferences I can recall. There may have been more dramatic ones I don’t know about — but I’ve been covering the 49ers for only 33 years.

The subject of the Harbaugh mind brings us to the two relevant questions, the only relevant questions.

RELEVANT QUESTION NUMBER ONE: Did Harbaugh make the right decision choosing Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith?

Heck, yes. If you’ve been reading this column, you know I prefer Kaepernick over Smith — better arm, more daring, throws the deep ball, runs better, has a higher ceiling, might lead the team to the Super Bowl.

Smith never could. If Harbaugh went back to Smith, he would return to a methodical, dull, low-production offense. Harbaugh always will go with the better player — feelings and loyalty never factor in with him. So, he chose Kaepernick for all the right reasons.

RELEVANT QUESTION NUMBER TWO: Did Harbaugh handle this quarterback controversy the right way, and did he acquit himself well at his Wednesday news conference? (OK, those are two relevant questions shoe-horned into one question.)

No, he didn’t, on both counts. But first, this man who gives almost no one sympathy, deserves a little sympathy himself. He was in an impossible situation. He really was. No matter which quarterback he chose, people would criticize and second-guess him. Sure, Kaepernick has played well, but Smith had a winning record and went out only because of an injury.

“This is a decision of tremendous magnitude,” one former NFL coach told me before Harbaugh revealed his mind. “If Jim lets Kaepernick play and the 49ers win the Super Bowl, he’s a genius. If he picks Smith and the 49ers do not get to the Super Bowl, then he let down his obligation to the 49er franchise.”

So, sure, Harbaugh had everything riding on his choice and he still does. Kaepernick could fail. There are no guarantees.

Even Joe Montana had bad games. And if Kaepernick has a bad game — against the Rams, for instance — Harbaugh is the one who made the decision to start him.

That’s enough sympathy for Harbaugh. He did some things right and some things very wrong.

He still is stringing along Smith. This falls into the unforgivable-way-to-act category.

“We’ll go with Colin,” he said. “And we’ll go with Alex. They’re both our guys.”

Asked if Kaepernick is the quarterback going forward, he shot back, “No, I wouldn’t assume anything. I know you probably will.”

Why were these crummy things to say, these statements pretending Smith still is in the picture?

For starters, what he did simply was not nice, not what a gentleman would do, although Harbaugh may not acknowledge the concepts “nice” and “gentleman.”

You don’t string along a player week to week, especially one as loyal as Smith, a team captain. He’s a good guy, and he deserves candor from a coach who already has moved away from him.

It’s also crummy because it creates factions on the team.

Let me amend that. There already are factions on the team, have to be. There’s an Alex faction and a Colin faction, and this unfair stringing along of Smith congeals the factions among players and coaches — some of whom must feel Smith is getting jobbed.

And finally, and most important, what Harbaugh said was weak. You could call it weaselly. Harbaugh needed to be decisive, to convey strong leadership. Instead, he conveyed evading, waffling, uncertainty.

This wasn’t just any news conference. This one may define the direction of the team for years.

Harbaugh was representing the Niners at this enormous moment. He needed to convey self-assurance and poise and goodwill.

He did nothing of the kind. He was petulant. He was defensive. He was impatient.

He seemed put upon, like the media had no right to ask questions about a controversy he created and fueled — and continues to fuel.

In response to questions about Smith and Kaepernick, he impatiently said he had “plowed” that ground already. He used the plow metaphor so many times, you would think he’d been raised on a farm.

When asked if he had discussed his QB controversy with other players, he might have said something neutral like, “We keep that sort of thing in-house.”

Forget that. He went full rude. “You really don’t have the right to know what those conversations are,” he said.

Thanks, Farmer Jim.

He needs to grow into his role as the coach who represents this important franchise. He needs to act like Bruce Bochy, who handles every crisis — Melky Cabrera, anyone? — with dignity and charm. Maybe he can hire Bochy as a private tutor.

Harbaugh, so tone deaf, needs to understand being head coach of the Niners is partly a people business — coach to player, coach to media, coach to fans. On Wednesday, he needed to be polite, to explain his position as many times as it took. The seriousness of the event demanded a congenial attitude and a soft-spoken language that related the immensity of his decision making.

The Harbaugh mind is incapable of that. And the controversy rages on.

Jim, you’re gonna have to make up your mind.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn.pressdemocrat.com.

All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top