Jim Harbaugh executes idiosyncrasy better than any coach lacking the surname Ryan. But football is his family business, and before his great handshake rematch with Lions coach Jim Schwartz on Sunday night, he knew not to abet the conversion of a game into a subplot.
So he pocketed the piece of himself that a year ago in Detroit grinned through questions about the vigorous post-game handshake and back-slap that sent Schwartz into a flying-wedge rage. He dutifully remained as bland as the clothes he wears to every 49ers game and practice -- khaki pants, a black fleece pullover and the team's scarlet logo as the only bit of color in the ensemble.
Schwartz made the first overture in warm-ups, reaching out to Harbaugh in the greatest sports peace-making gesture since Nancy Kerrigan posed primly alongside Tonya Harding for the 1994 Olympic figure skating team photo. Harbaugh accepted, necessarily playing the passive role.
He stayed relatively subdued all through the 49ers' 27-19 win, becoming less animated about poor officiating than he had been in one of the exhibition games, more careful in his postgame ritual of untucking the pullover from his khakis.
Not until the final question of an assiduously dull news conference did Harbaugh air out his personality. Asked about quarterback Alex Smith's bloodied nose, he said, "He's as tough as a $2 steak." An illicit (though unpenalized) forearm stab at Smith's face at the end of a run had left him resembling Tom Brady from a week before, in the mangled state that earned Wes Welker's "toughest metrosexual" designation.
Smith had to settle for being his coach's emotional proxy. Blood thrills Harbaugh. It probably thrills all coaches, but few have ever described the exhilaration as macabrely as Harbaugh did after a game last season. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks, his helmet off, made a tackle and then came to the sideline with red oozing all over his face. "Wished he would have come wiped some off on my cheek," the coach said.
Smith's blood stained his uniform pants and streaked his face. More than that, it illustrated the incessant nastiness of Sunday's game and validated the evolution of a quarterback who was once called "meek" by a head coach. (See Mike Singletary, who meant to prop up Smith.)
In the last two weeks, the 49ers' quarterback has outplayed both Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford, in part because they faced San Francisco's lockdown defense and he didn't.
Neither of them, however, spent even a minute of the offseason worrying about where he'd be working this fall.
Had he been willing to sign the 49ers' contract offer before free agency began, Smith wouldn't have been in that situation either. But while he tested his leverage, Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman visited Peyton Manning in North Carolina. Smith looked around at the other options. Limited from the start, they narrowed to almost nothing (the Dolphins) after Seattle signed Green Bay backup Matt Flynn without bothering to bring Smith in for a talk. The exact level of flirtation with Manning remains a mystery. But it is almost inconceivable that the quarterback who beat the Lions Sunday night could not tempt the Seahawks to wait on nabbing Flynn, who later lost the training-camp fight for their starting job.
Stafford's arm at its best can shoot lasers at receivers. But the 49ers' quarterback is far more mobile and makes better decisions. No one will choose him over Stafford in a fantasy league, but in a real game, the erstwhile bust of the 2005 draft probably offers a better chance than the acclaimed No. 1 from the class of 2009.
Then again, one has to wonder whether what Stafford might accomplish under Harbaugh's wing. Become the new Brady, minus a few degrees of metrosexuality and Gisele Bundchen?
Harbaugh cultivated Smith both professionally and personally. He delegated the honor of accepting his Coach of the Year award to the quarterback. When the coach played in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, he took Smith as his caddie, promising to reverse roles at next year's tournament. Harbaugh may not be able to follow through on that promise; his sixth child arrived Sept. 4. But status considerations probably won't deter him. He has given up his first-class seat on the team plane so that linemen can stretch out, and he served as honorary student manager for the Indiana basketball team, coached by his brother-in-law, Tom Crean.
Smith has said several times that watching Harbaugh taught him the importance of not caring about the opinions of outsiders. Some of the last week's events may have upended Smith's theory, however. Harbaugh did seem to care how he was perceived as he and Schwartz faced off on a football field for the first time since their players and the 49ers' public relations chief, Bob Lange, had to separate them.
Before the game, NBC reporter Michele Tafoya said Harbaugh had called the Lions a "late-hit bunch." The remark sounded like an end-around on the understanding that the coaches would play nice. Asked about the comment after the game, Harbaugh said he didn't remember saying it. Later, he approached the questioner, Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, and said he had answered a Tafoya question about how the 49ers would handle the Lions if they took cheap shots. Up in the press box, Lange repeated the explanation for everyone, again running interference for Harbaugh after a Lions game. If Harbaugh didn't care about perceptions, why all the bother?
The rescheduled untucking of the pullover also hinted at an unexpected sensitivity. In Detroit last year, Harbaugh pulled the shirt from his waistband soon after the last whistle, exposing his lower torso as he tried to chest-bump a lineman in a midfield celebration. Then came the apocalyptic handshake and back-slap.
On Sunday, Harbaugh waited until after he and Schwartz had shaken hands to tug the shirt loose. He does it, he says, because hard-working men have historically marked the end of a day on the job that way. Harbaugh loves working-class imagery, like the blue auto-mechanics shirts he distributed to the entire team. He's pretty fond of maritime references, too -- he has quoted an admiral and a pirate's ballad, and he once tweeted lyrics from Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
Oh, and the blood, that mark of valor. Smith's smacked nose merged a pair of the favored themes. Two-dollar steaks represent working-class roots.
"I grew up eating a lot of them," Harbaugh said. "I know what I'm talking about."