49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

October 20, 2011
49ers winning -- and grinning -- under big brother, Harbaugh

Mike Singletary sought to turn the 49ers into one, big happy family. The former head coach wanted players to like each other, to enjoy being around each other in the belief that doing so would make them want to win for each other.

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Singletary was a rigid dad. There were no so-called "Win Mondays." If the players weren't in the office the day after a victory, he reasoned, how could they connect? Team meetings - long team meetings - were common. Singletary often gave speeches - sermons, really - during the week. He wanted the 49ers to bond, but it was forced bonding.

Jim Harbaugh also aspires to a family-like atmosphere, but he is running the team like Patrick Swayze ran his family in "The Outsiders." Harbaugh is like the older brother who lets you drink out of the milk carton and who isn't beyond getting into scrapes of his own. (See: Handshake, Ford Field, circa 2011). Under the new CBA, Harbaugh was required to give his players four days off during the bye week. He worked a deal with them three weeks ago: If they won their last two games, they would get an additional day off for each victory.

The approach is working. The 49ers are a loose and happy team. That's primarily because they are a winning team, but there are other elements involved. For one, Harbaugh and his staff have done an excellent job of getting everyone involved.

The show Turning Point (7 p.m., PST, VERSUS) will document the 49ers' fourth-quarter comeback against the Lions. In it you'll see receiver Joe Hastings - he looks like actor Michael Cera - celebrating wildly on the sideline and also in the locker room during Harbaugh's post-game speech.

Hastings is a member of the practice squad. Practice-squad players are the low men on the totem pole, and they are almost always left behind on road trips. They are not going to play in the game, so why foot the bill for their flight and hotel? This year, all eight members of the practice squad have travelled for all three road games.

The first two were out of necessity. The 49ers played in Cincinnati, then went through their week of practice in Ohio before visiting the Eagles. The trip to Detroit was more like a reward for preparing the 49ers to play the Lions. Hastings' practice role, for example, was playing receiver Calvin Johnson. The 49ers didn't shut down Johnson, but they kept him out of the end zone for the first time this year, and he didn't make the back-breaking play he had in previous weeks.

Others are more involved, too. Tackle Alex Boone, for example, was on the sideline all last season. He's not starting this year, either, but he has a role in the heavy jumbo packages the 49ers use to close out games. It was Boone who was giddily belly-bumping Harbaugh before Harbaugh's handshake encounter with Jim Shwartz on Sunday.

Even players with a reason to sulk, such as guard Chilo Rachal, who lost his starting job to Adam Snyder, still have a role. Linebackers like Blake Costanzo, Larry Grant and Tavares Gooden, who are stuck behind superstars Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and who don't play on defense, have roles on special teams. Everyone - or at least nearly everyone - is involved. And that makes for a happy team.

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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