When Harbaughs collide: The proposed sequel

Jim Harbaugh on John Harbaugh: 'I'm half the coach he is'

When Harbaughs collide: The proposed sequel
January 16, 2013, 9:30 pm
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Jim and John Harbaugh are on a collision course toward the Super Bowl, as long as Atlanta and New England play along. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

It would be different if the NFL hadn’t contrived the Harbaugh Family Thanksgiving Special a year ago. It would be different if Johnny and Jimmy Joe Harbaugh hadn’t crossed swords and shields a year ago in Baltimore. It would be different if all the old stories about how the boys used to compete to the edge of death on a daily basis, and migrained Jack and Jackie Harbaugh on an almost daily basis hadn’t already been told and retold.

But they have been. We’ve done this one, it’s barely a year old, and there are no new stories.

Plus, the worst thing that could happen to Jim Harbaugh’s peace of mind is not a rematch with his brother and the resultant cavalcade of unchecked Harbaughiana, but the beginning of an unwinnable competition with the true face of the 49er franchise.

Yes, there’s quite a history of obsessive-compulsive hypercompetition at the Harbaugh house. Jack, a longtime football coach himself, seems like a Zen master by comparison, and Jackie Harbaugh probably refereed most of the boys’ well-known competitive excesses.

And we haven’t even gotten into the brother-in-law, Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean, who will spend the day before the Super Bowl trying to survive a home game at Assembly Hall against Michigan. So no, he won’t be a barrel of laughs before the big game, either.

But let’s try to keep this localized for the moment, and play with the notion that the 49ers and Ravens could meet in the Super Bowl. Atlanta and New England will have some debating points to express to prevent such a confluence, but run with us here.

John Harbaugh would probably find more relaxation and external balance preparing for the Super Bowl than his younger brother. For one, he’s been at this longer, and has yet to get to the big’un. He would smell the roses a bit more deeply, in part because he will be playing with the casino’s money in New Orleans.

Plus, his team would be the decided underdog, and will have the wind under their wings that an upset victory in New England in the AFC title game would provide.

Jim Harbaugh, on the other hand, would be slogging into Louisiana with expectations strapped to him like a backpack full of gelignite. His team would be a decided favorite, which is never as much fun.

In addition, the media demands of the two weeks between Sunday and February 3 would be more irksome to him, and the artificial state of Super Bowl Week even more. The scrutiny of an entire nation’s notebook-and-cellphone army wanting more substantive than “We’re going to compete like maniacs” and “We’re going to proceed with humble hearts” and his newest favorite cliché, “We’re just studying for the test” would surely paint him as the Un-Fun Harbaugh.

And yes, he does pay attention to his public image, as much as he tries to just be a football coach. That stuff does matter to him more than he likes to let on.

The bigger picture, though, is of the two football teams, and on the assumption that the 49ers and Ravens moved forward, Jim Harbaugh would have the better team with which to chase the Lombardi Trophy. His defense would be as ferocious as Baltimore’s, but with less age. His offense would be more dynamic with the upper-case X-factor of Colin Kaepernick. And frankly, the Johnny-vs.-Jimmy story line would commingle with the Johnny-vs.-Bill Walsh story line, and that’s a whole different kettle of meat.

Jim Harbaugh is already the coach with the seventh-best record after two years of professional football in history, behind George Halas (twice), Paul Brown, George Seifert, Leroy Andrews and tandem of Luke Johnsos and Hunk Anderson. Two Hall of Famers, two largely unknown coaches from the ‘20s, and Walsh’s defensive mastermind.

But as the architect of the best 49ers teams since Walsh built and Seifert maintained San Francisco’s dynasty of three decades ago, Harbaugh will also be jousting with the franchise’s pre-eminent iconic figure.

Next to that, coaching against his brother will seem like bowling with the gutter bumpers up.

In sum, if SB47 is 49ers-Ravens, Jim Harbaugh will be dealing with more than just a second helping of “What’s it like to coach against your brother?” marginalia. He’ll be jousting with the idealized memory of Bill Walsh, whether he likes it or not, and that’s probably not a pleasant proposition in the short term. John Harbaugh’s comparison to the legacy of Brian Billick is significantly less worrisome, as you can imagine.

So yes, a Harbaugh-v.-Harbaugh Super Bowl would have its repetitive pitfalls. But last January, the family went 0-for-2 in conference championship games, and that would make for a far less enjoyable family picnic come spring.