|Photo Credit: Associated Press|
There's no I in Harbaugh and he likes it that way. The 49ers head coach is not a fan of the spotlight. Aside from his introductory press conference there wasn't a lot of peacocking in his demeanor. He always stressed the importance of "the team, the team, the team," and the 49ers played to that formula. There was no man too big for the San Francisco 49ers - they succeeded and failed as a unit.
So it came as no surprise that Jim Harbaugh was a no show for his Coach of the Year award acceptance. I imagine that the speech would have been brief and marginally awkward had he decided to make one. Most of his time on stage would have been spent deflecting the praise and giving credit to his coaching staff and his guys - his "mighty men."
There isn't a person in the world that thought he wouldn't win that award, and yet Harbaugh's absence was planned. He had just the man for the job, and that man was Alex Smith.
If two things can be equally true, then Alex Smith is just as responsible for Harbaugh's success as Jim was for Alex's. Colin Kaepernick has some serious natural abilities, but he was still too raw to start at quarterback for the 49ers in 2011. The market for quarterbacks in free agency was thin, and yet Alex Smith, who already had his bags packed for a new beginning, decided to give it one more spin in San Francisco. He worked hard with the team during the lockout, giving the 49ers a head start with Jim's playbook while the coaches were incommunicado.
Smith was efficient and smart in the passing game, making plays when he needed to and in the process leading the 49ers to an improbable season. He never made that back breaking mistake that would make the 49ers - or Jim Harbaugh - look like fools for sticking with him.
And yet one hand washes the other. Harbaugh never gave Alex more than he could handle. The first several weeks of the season featured an extremely vanilla offense while Alex got comfortable in his role. Harbaugh pushed all the right buttons - only asking Alex to be great when the occasion absolutely called for it. Alex responded to the challenges when they presented themselves, feeling comfort in Harbaugh's allegiance. It was a far cry from the days when Singletary's only words of encouragement were "good luck."
In many ways, Jim Harbaugh took no risk hitching his wagon to Alex Smith. Should he fail, the world would acknowledge that Smith was never really a talented player and the 49ers would move on to something better. But if Alex succeeded, as it turns out that he did, then Harbaugh is everything that he was advertised to be - a quarterback guru, a master motivator, an elite head coach.
I truly believe, however, that Harbaugh's faith in Alex was genuine. Their careers as NFL quarterbacks were similar. They had to overcome improbable odds. Smith is Harbaugh, Harbaugh is Smith.
So it's fitting that the man who accepted Jim's Coach of the Year award was Alex Smith. Though most fans will tell you that Alex's turn around couldn't have happened without Jim, Jim might tell you that this season wouldn't have been possible without Alex. As fate would have it, these two men will now forever be connected. Even if the 49ers go on to eventual glory with a different quarterback at the helm, there will always be a place for Alex Smith in Jim Harbaugh's humble heart.