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Scout's Eye

Harbaugh's contagious confidence spread fast

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Recent posts by Nolan Nawrocki

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Posted Oct. 10, 2011 @ 4:11 a.m. ET
By Nolan Nawrocki

The stories about Jim Harbaugh are legendary. Bo Schembechler was feared at the University of Michigan, with a fiery, very serious, combustible, type-A personality. The kids of Schembechler's coaches were scared to say a word around him, yet there sat a brimming full of life, young Jim Harbaugh, with his feet kicked up on the coaches' desk, just testing how loudly he could get Bo to yell at him and smiling as he walked out the door. When he got to the practice field, he enjoyed recounting tales of how he got Bo to yell at him that day.

As a young pitcher, he was known to throw floaters during warmups to fool opposing batters into believing that he did not have an arm. When they stepped up to the plate, nine b.b.'s and nine swings later, as legend would have it, he would look over at friends and wink. He was the player of the year in football, baseball and basketball in Palo Alto in high school — every sport he played, he had to be the best. He was a fiercely competitive gym rat who always seemed to be a step or three ahead of the competition. As a result, those who know him well are not at all surprised by the 49ers' fast start.

"He was dominant at anything he did," said one longtime friend who grew up with him and wished to remain anonymous. "He was cocky as all get out. He has grown up a lot, but he has never lost his confidence. Look at his coaching days at Stanford — only one guy stood up to Pete Carroll when he had it rolling (at USC). He does not care what you think. If you watch his press conference, he said he has 'unshakeable confidence' and he said it very matter-of-factly. That is Jimmy Harbaugh. He's been that way since he was in first grade."

The Niners' decision to pass on taking a quarterback with the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft drew criticism and raised eyebrows last April, as did the decision to re-sign a quarterback who has not been able to stay healthy or prove worthy of the starting job.

However, through five games, Alex Smith is playing with more swagger than ever, just waiting for defenses to bring pressure and picking them apart when he sees the blitz coming, much like a spunky young kid who had his feet kicked up on the desk and fully anticipated a verbal berating. CB Carlos Rogers, who was cast out of Washington after losing his confidence, is playing like the top-10 pick the Redskins drafted him to be when current GM Trent Baalke was in Washington, supporting the run aggressively vs. Tampa Bay and returning a pick for a touchdown.

Instead of being brow-beaten the way Mike Singletary so often treated his players, old and young, the Niners look like they are finally having fun, especially a rookie class that is contributing as much as any in the league right now. After a strong performance last week against Eagles Pro Bowl OLT Jason Peters, DE Aldon Smith racked up two sacks, and despite being one of the youngest players in the draft, is already showing signs of becoming a legitimate pass-rushing force. CB Chris Culliver, a third-round pick, intercepted a pass and knocked down three others. RB Kendall Hunter has provided a spark running, receiving and returning. Converted LB Bruce Miller is proving to be a versatile fullback and special-teams performer. Even undrafted rookie defensive linemen Demarcus Dobbs and Ian Williams are contributing to the DL depth.

The York family has been heavily criticized for the way it has handled the team since it took control from Eddie DeBartolo. However, Jed York finally appears to have the team headed in the direction his uncle left it, with the Niners standing alone atop the NFC West coming off a dominating win over Tampa Bay. The team's 4-1 record easily could have been unblemished if not for a late collapse against Dallas. And at the center of it all is a contagious confidence that Harbaugh clearly has planted and is sprouting fast.

• Credit the Chiefs for taking advantage of the Colts' misfortune. When Colts CB Chris Rucker was forced into the lineup late in the game, Matt Cassel recognized the matchup immediately and went after the rookie for the go-ahead score. Heading come-from-behind victories in consecutive weeks is reason for encouragement for the previously winless Chiefs, but falling behind so early, against two winless organizations no less, puts the achievement in context. No win is easy in the NFL and the Chiefs have momentum on their side as they enter their bye week. If they can show well in Oakland and against the Chargers on Monday night when they return, they will have a chance to get back in contention. Opening with losses to the Bills, Lions and Chargers — now a combined 12-1 — does not look as bad as it did at season's start. The Chiefs' schedule last year was much weaker in comparison.

• When Michael Huff arrived in Oakland as a top-10 pick, his pure speed, range, ball skills and coverage ability were his greatest strengths, yet the Raiders lined him up in the box where he was frequently overmatched, not being a physical tackler or aggressive hitter who liked to run the alley. He played so tentatively that team sources once said Al Davis pulled Huff aside in practice, grabbed his stopwatch and made Huff run the 40-yard dash again, trying to figure out why he did not see the 4.3 speed in pads that showed up at the NFL Scouting Combine. When the Raiders began using Huff more in coverage in recent years, he appeared much more comfortable and made more plays on the ball. Given the lack of safety talent in the league, Davis decided to extend the contract of the enigmatic safety whom the team once misused in the box. Under Hue Jackson, Huff has been allowed to focus more on defending the pass and has shown improvement. For as much as Huff has been challenged and questioned, it was fitting that he came through with the game-winning interception in a very emotional win for the Raiders.  

• One of the greatest challenges that many GMs face is managing the expectations of their owners, especially after they produce the type of seasons that the Jets and Falcons did last year, when the Falcons produced the NFC's best regular-season record and the Jets advanced to the AFC championship game, beating their division rival with the AFC's best winning record to get there. The Falcons were so close to getting there and so hamstrung by their lack of offensive weapons that they aggressively jumped up 21 spots in the draft to land Julio Jones, a legitimate playmaker whose greatest question was whether he would be able to stay healthy given the aggressive way he plays. Jones left Sunday night's game against Green Bay midway through a scoreless Falcons second half after pulling up with a hamstring injury. The greater problem for the Falcons has been how much they might have ignored other pressing needs by investing so much in Jones. Every season, because of the natural fluctuations of any roster — age, injuries and expiring contracts — most teams enter the season with at least seven key need areas. It's the annual evolution of any roster. The teams that do the best job of identifying and filling those needs often find the playoffs, while those that do not regress. The Eagles' patchwork of big-name talent did not do enough to address the offensive line, and not having their top performer on each side of the line — OLT Jason Peters and DE Trent Cole — was very difficult to overcome vs. Buffalo. The Falcons improved their receiving corps, but suffered on both lines.

• When pressure was mounting to pull Donovan McNabb, Leslie Frazier stayed the course, insisting that McNabb still had the support of the locker room, and it paid off for the Vikings in a convincing 34-10 victory over a struggling Cardinals squad. The key for the Vikings offensively, however, with McNabb producing another average performance, was putting the game on the shoulders of Adrian Peterson and letting him crease the Cardinals. His leg drive, power and determination were best displayed on his second TD run, when he bulled through CB Patrick Peterson and carried him into the endzone for the last five yards. If the Vikings are to continue their success, an offense that was once measured by the Randy Ratio must run through Peterson.

• Entering a bye week with Kyle Orton struggling, the Broncos would be wise to begin finding out what they have in Tim Tebow now. His arm strength, athletic ability and big-play flair are better suited for the Broncos' offense than Orton's skill set, and there is no better time to begin making the adjustments necessary than during the course of a bye week. If Tebow cannot show that he is capable of running the offense through the remainder of the season, at least the Broncos will have a clear idea of what they have and how high of a priority the QB position needs to be next offseason. Tebow gives the Broncos a better chance to win now and offers more upside for the future.

• Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer expressed concern when CB Johnathan Joseph was able to unexpectedly escape in free agency. However, a secondary that has since accumulated a collection of first-round picks, with Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings joining Leon Hall, not to mention the expected return of Adam Jones, has shored up and become one of the league's best at defending the pass.

• If anyone would have said that the Seahawks had to travel across the country and beat the Giants with their backup quarterback at the helm, few evaluators would have believed Pete Carroll could do it. However, with heavy contributions from a no-name cast, the Seahawks pulled off a 36-25 victory that the Giants could have won had Victor Cruz not tried one-handing a pass and bobbling the ball into the hands of Brandon Browner, who returned it for a 94-yard TD return. While Cruz has shown exceptional hand-eye coordination and makes the most difficult catches look easy, he can be careless with the ball and needs to do a better job securing it on first touch. The undrafted, big-play receiver is fast becoming one of Eli Manning's most trusted targets given his wide catching radius.

• The Bears' secondary made too many mistakes on the back end against Carolina last week and will need to be much better against Detroit to handle Calvin Johnson. Charles Tillman does, however, have the length and physicality to match up well with Megatron. The other key area where the Bears will be especially vulnerable is on the offenslive line, where OL coach Mike Tice will have his work cut out. Lance Louis did a solid job stepping in at right tackle last week and will need to have another strong week. But with the type of big-play talent the Bears feature on offense, defense and special teams, they are capable of winning any game and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and offensive coordinator Mike Martz, both of whom were fired from the Lions in recent years, will bring added motivation to the matchup.

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