NEW ORLEANS -- Jim Harbaugh left Louisiana as he arrived – with no Super Bowl trophy, and with a perception that he is a flawed coach like all the ones not named John Harbaugh, as well as the one who is just a half-beat off.
Of course, that’s how it works when you lose. There is a moment in every close game when the losing coach does something that doesn’t work, and pays the price for that misjudgment. Or that correct judgment that the players cannot execute. He will own the last four offensive plays of the 49ers’ season – the ones that featured no Colin Kaepernick runs and no Frank Gore at all – and wear them as proof that he isn’t as smart as the people ripping him today said he was.
But there is also the matter of his postgame press conference, to which which he devoted large chunks tearing into the officiating in at least four instances as substandard, or at least contrary to his wishes. He said he wanted to go out with grace and class, but try as he might, he couldn’t finish what he started. His boys didn’t lose the game, they were jobbed.
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“I really want to handle this with class and grace, and we had several opportunities in this game,” Harbaugh said in search of the high ground before abandoning it. “We didn't play our best game, and the Ravens made a lot of plays and battled back. They competed to win.
“But there's no question in my mind that there was a pass interference -- and then a hold on (Michael) Crabtree on the last one.”
He then doubled back later to reiterate his dissatisfaction on the Crabtree non-call, plus the festival of holding on Sam Koch’s punt/safety near game’s end, although he admitted that that is exactly how it is coached by all people who understand the play.
He did acknowledge his vested interest in those calls, which is a measure of self-awareness, but he couldn’t stop himself from making the officials the reason for his sour disposition.
“I realize I'm on the side of the 49ers. I'm the coach of the 49ers -- there is some bias there,” he said. “But I wouldn't be bringing it up unless it was obvious. But that's not the way (the refs) saw it. That's the only reason I bring it up.”
Surely, though, he knows that there were lots of ways the 49ers couldn’t finish, beginning with their mediocre start. He knows the play calls at game’s end, which were either offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s, his, or Kaepernick’s to check out of, were too difficult when compared to other options. He knows that Baltimore is a very bad team in which to spot 22 points.
And frankly, the officiating issues he saw are a minority opinion outside the Bay Area, to be sure. The game ended with his bigger brother John holding the big pointed shiny thing, and him holding the inadequacies of others as proof that it should have been him instead.
It is a stance that simply doesn’t play well, not on this stage, not in this game, not against this opponent. Whining about officials on borderline calls is the purview of the fan base, not its leader. It reinforces the national picture of him as monomaniacal and utterly self-absorbed, the one who hates losing so much that he denies it when it happens.
And maybe he’s just wired that way, or maybe he picked up one of Bo Schembechler’s less cheery traits from the good old days at Michigan, or maybe it has nothing to do with Schembechler at all. Maybe he’s just the guy you love when he’s your guy, and hate him when he isn’t. Maybe he just doesn’t care at all about that, because he knows what nobody else thinks ever matters, because he knows how it all works.
And that’s all fine. He gets to be who he is, especially if this is his truest self.
But there is a corrosive aspect to being The Guy Whose Dukes Are Always Up, in that you can’t keep your gloves up forever. A reputation gained may not be one earned, but it is one that must be worn all the same. And it just is too hard to be the guy who has his elbows up all the time.
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The players see that and assume it’s their place as well. The officials see that and cut you off in mid-sentence, and stop listening when you do have a valuable point to make. When you complain too many times, eventually you’re just complaining to yourself, and that’s a losing proposition.
Harbaugh’s public image and personality has always run close to the third rail, but the Super Bowl has a way of turning an impression into a tattoo. He should be the most real Jim Harbaugh he can be, because honesty doesn’t have to be charming. But he needs to know that the price for that is not only full retail, but that it gets paid even after the debt has been settled. Perception is a miserable aspect of the human experience that way.