Such mixed emotions seeing Jim Harbaugh lead the San Francisco 49ers into Super Bowl 47. The 49ers, a team I hated from around 1983 to 2003. I actually remember watching “the catch” by Dwight Clark in the 1981 NFC Championship game. And amazingly, I was happy for the 49ers at the time, because I was glad to see the (even more) hated Dallas Cowboys knocked from the playoffs for once.
Then the 49ers supplanted the Cowboys as the NFC’s virtual team of the decade. I usually stop caring for any team (other than my own) that wins consistently, so San Francisco earned a spot on my ” ” list during the 1980′s and 90′s.
Ironically, Harbaugh played a part in two infamous blowout losses to the 49ers as a Bear. He saw backup action as a rookie in Chicago’s 41-0 loss in December 1987, the game after which Head Coach Mike Ditka was investigated by the San Francisco police for allegedly throwing gum into the hair of a heckling 49ers fan. Then in the 1991 season finale, despite playing a 49er team that wasn’t going to the playoffs, Harbaugh’s Bears were embarrassed again in a 52-14 loss that cost them the ’91 NFC Central crown. Yes, that was the infamous Wayne Fontes cigar game for those who remember.
So through the 80′s and 90′s, I detested the 49ers. This continued through and including the 2003 season, when San Francisco destroyed the Bears 49-7 on opening day. Seeing former Bear and 2003 49er free agent signee Tony Parrish gloat about his new team after that game was too much.
Of course I will be rooting for the 49ers Sunday, only because of (Jim) Harbaugh being their coach. I already never envisioned myself rooting for the 49ers in a Super Bowl. Even worse, I never thought I would allow myself to root for Randy Moss winning a Super Bowl, but it looks like I will. At least today’s version of Moss keeps his mouth shut somewhat, despite what he said this week.
I will admit to my history with Harbaugh. Like many others in Chicago, I wasn’t sorry to see him be released in February 1994. He was surprisingly drafted by the Bears in the first round of the 1987 draft, at a time when the Bears had Jim McMahon, Steve Fuller, Mike Tomczak and Doug Flutie all on their roster. Including Harbaugh, I believe I counted 63 total years played in the NFL by those guys. McMahon asked to be traded through his agent following the Harbaugh pick, but eventually calmed down to stick two more years with the Bears.
Following the trade of McMahon in the 1989 preseason, Harbaugh split time starting with Tomczak, then won the starting QB job over Tomczak in 1990. He started 14 games in 1990 before injuring his shoulder, then all 16 and the playoff loss in 1991. 30 games in two seasons was perhaps the Bears record for durability going back to at least Bill Wade at the time. I always lamented Harbaugh’s inability to hit deep bombs, but he was accurate, winning the 1992 quarterback challenge in accuracy.
One thing no one could take away from Harbaugh during his four years as the mostly unquestioned starter was his ability to rally for comebacks, a trait that would earn him the nickname “Captain Comeback” at his next NFL stop. No Bears fans that were around to see them could forget rallies in 1991 against the Giants, Jets and Saints or 1992 against the Lions.
Yet, I’m afraid Harbaugh never felt comfortable or liked playing in Chicago given the circumstances. Bears fans were mostly against him, as I was when he was released following the 1993 season. Sure, Erik Kramer had the best statistical season ever for a Bears quarterback in 1995, while at the same time Harbaugh was leading the Indianapolis Colts on an improbable run to the AFC Championship game. Kramer may have put up better numbers than Harbaugh, but he never had the ability to rally as the former Bears quarterback did.
Thus I reached the conclusion that it was the talent around Harbaugh (aging running backs and offensive line, average wide receivers) that were his downfall in Chicago, not his own lack of talent. Once he left Chicago and showed the grit and talent he really had as a quarterback, I wished he hadn’t been released. Dave Wannstedt even admitted recently that he was wrong to cut his first quarterback after he didn’t fit in Ron Turner’s west coast offense for which he wasn’t suited.
After hearing boos cascading down upon him in Chicago from 1992 until his release, I’m sure he left with a horrible opinion of Chicago. He discussed this with the Tribune in 1997 when former Bears personnel boss Mark Hatley compared Rick Mirer‘s skills to Harbaugh’s. At the time, it was not yet known that Mirer would be run out of town on a rail like his predecessor.
In 2006, Harbaugh even rooted for the Colts in Super Bowl 41.
Yet during the 2009 season, Harbaugh’s representatives and the Bears organization talked through back channels about his opinion on coming to be the next Head Coach of the Bears had Lovie Smith been fired that year. Which he wasn’t, as we all know. This was the season during which Bears fans bought billboards clamoring for Smith’s firing. Yet somehow Lovie, Jerry Angelo and Ted Phillips banded together to place the blame on Ron Turner’s offensive coaching staff to save their own jobs for several more years (Phillips remains).
I had actually hoped around 2008 that Harbaugh might work his way back to Chicago as the Bears’ head coach to replace Lovie Smith, but it didn’t happen. This I will always lament and wonder what might have happened.
San Francisco’s offense revolutionized the NFL in the 80′s by the pass. Ironic that Harbaugh’s San Francisco offense of 2012 is again revolutionary, but this time with a unique running game. This is not only via the “pistol” offense run by mobile quarterback Colin Kapernick. It is also revolutionary by integrating three tight ends, wing and wishbone formations, and old-school running plays like traps, power and wham plays.
Ironic again that this offense reminds me of the Bears offense Harbaugh ran after then offensive coordinator Greg Landry implemented what he thought would be a revolutionary new offense at that time. Which was ultimately never successful. And lastly very ironic to me that Harbaugh was one of the best running quarterbacks of his era at the time, and might have fit playing in his new offense in 2012.
Finally, in researching this article, I just discovered for the first time that Harbaugh was arrested for being a drunk and disorderly 23 year old on Rush Street in May 1988. Never knew that. Maybe people were taunting him by telling him he sucked. That would have been par for the course for how he was treated in Chicago.