Harbaugh Brothers Will Face Off for NFL Title
By Jon Wagner
The ever-unpredictable National Football League, always replete with interesting storylines, took a couple more surprising twists to yield a footnote first on Championship Sunday.
Forget that the NFC’s top-seeded Atlanta Falcons led 17-0 at home, that future Hall of Famer Tom Brady was a perfect 67-0 on the New England Patriots’ home fields when leading at halftime, or that the road teams in each conference title game hadn’t won on the same day since 1997.
And, nevermind that the San Francisco 49ers made a starting quarterback change as late as Week 10, or that the Baltimore Ravens switched offensive coordinators with just three weeks left in the regular season.
A Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh Super Bowl was simply meant to be this year, one year after the same very nearly happened a season ago.
Thus, Jim Harbaugh’s second-seeded 49ers rallied to an improbable 28-24 victory over the Falcons in the NFC championship game just hours before his brother John’s fourth-seeded Ravens overcame a 13-7 halftime deficit at second-seeded New England to capture the AFC crown with a 28-13 win.
And, just like that, the first pair of brothers to ever serve as NFL head coaches, will naturally become the first coaching brothers to compete against each other in the pinnacle of football, in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, on February 3rd.
Jim, exactly 15 months younger than John (who turned 50 on September 23), has a more fiery personality and was far more accomplished as a player, but each is well-versed in coaching and motivating their respective teams, as evidenced by the way the 49ers and Raven erased second-half road deficits to win conference championships.
While they’ll each be a head coach in a Super Bowl for the first time, the Harbaughs already have a combined five conference title game appearances in seven collective NFL head coaching seasons.
As a standout quarterback at the University of Michigan, Jim was a one-time a Heisman trophy finalist who guided his team to a number two ranking in the final national polls in 1986. He then had a solid 14-year career with the Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, Ravens (ironically) and San Diego Chargers.
Named “Captain Comeback” after leading the upstart Colts to road playoff wins in San Diego and Kansas City, Jim nearly sent Indianapolis to Super Bowl XXX, but his potential game-winning Hail Mary pass on the final play of the 1995 AFC championship game in Pittsburgh was dropped in the end zone at the now defunct Three Rivers Stadium.
After eight seasons as an assistant, seven of which overlapped the last seven years of his NFL playing career, Jim was an assistant coach at Western Kentucky University under his father Jack, before being named the Oakland Raiders’ quarterbacks coach for two years.
From there, Jim’s coaching career took off, with a efficacious three-year stint as the head coach at the University of San Diego, which led to a head coaching job at Stanford University, where after two poor seasons, Jim opened eyes during an 8-5 year followed by a 12-1 season that ended with Stanford’s first BCS bowl win in program history, in the Orange Bowl.
That achievement spring-boarded Jim into his first NFL head coaching job last year, and that decision by San Francisco almost paid immediate dividends, as only a couple of unfortunate bounces in last season’s NFC title game prevented the 49ers from reaching Super Bowl XLVI.
John initially followed a less circuitous route to the coaching ranks, going straight from a non-descript career as a defensive back at the University of Miami (Ohio) to a running backs and outside linebackers coach at Western Michigan University for four years.
He then bounced around as a tight ends coach at the University of Pittsburgh for a year, a special teams and secondary coach at Moorehead State for another year, a special teams coordinator for the next seven years at the University of Cincinnati, and then the same as well as a defensive backs coach at Indiana University for one year.
Finally, in 1998, John entered the NFL as a special teams coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles. He remained in that role for nine seasons before ex-longtime Eagles head coach Andy Reid (now the Chiefs’ head coach) acquiesced to John’s request to be named a defensive backs coach, thereby increasing John’s chances to land a head coaching job in the league.
One year later, John was granted that opportunity and immediately led the Ravens to the AFC championship game where they suffered the same fate as Jim’s Colts 13 years earlier – a loss in Pittsburgh.
Additional playoff losses (to Indianapolis and Pittsburgh) in AFC divisional playoff games followed in the next two years, but John directed Baltimore to the same last year, as he did this season – an AFC North division title and a trip to the AFC title game in New England, which if not for a late dropped pass in the end zone and a missed chip shot field goal, the Ravens might have won, as they did this year.
But, maybe that wasn’t the design of the football universe. Perhaps John couldn’t win that game until Jim could win his own conference title.
The upcoming Battle of the Brothers for the Lombardi trophy won’t be the first meeting between the two Harbaughs as NFL head coaches. John’s Ravens beat Jim’s 49ers, 16-6, in a Week 11, nationally televised Thanksgiving night game last year, in the inaugural Harbaugh Bowl in Baltimore, one day before the 50th wedding anniversary of the coaches’ parents, Jack and Jackie.
A second all-Harbaugh matchup will of course be with much greater stakes involved, after each head coach successfully gambled on some major late-season moves.
Benching an effective but limited Alex Smith in favor Jim’s own hand-picked 2011 second-round draft pick Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers have developed a dangerous new pistol offense led by Kaepernick acting as a dual threat with both his arm and legs.
Meanwhile, Jim’s recommendation to oust ex-offensive coordinator cam Cameron and promote former Colts’ head coach Jim Caldwell from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator resulted in the Ravens stumbling to a 1-2 finish (as part of a larger 1-4 ending) to the regular season, with Baltimore scoring just 17 points in two of its final three regular season games.
Since then, however, the Ravens have averaged 26.7 points per game, with 2008 first-round pick, quarterback Joe Flacco, finding his game with eight touchdowns passes and no interceptions in the playoffs and ten touchdown throws and no picks over his past five contests.
It’s often said that coaching in the NFL is a fraternity. In two weeks, it’ll go a step further and become a fraternal fraternity on the game’s biggest stage, with everything on the line -- not the line that typical sibling rivals Jim and John used to draw in the bedroom they shared while growing up in the same household, but in terms of the ultimate prize that will they each seek, to be decided between the white lines at the Superdome.
No matter what the outcome, it should cause one of them to be devastatingly disappointed, yet simultaneously happy for the other.
As for the rest of us, any further exciting and compelling turns in the season’s final game could have us all once again saying, “Oh, Brother!”