Old Scores to Settle. Harbaugh/Payton Feud More than Preseason Beef
Newsflash: NFL Head Coaches LIE. Sorry to break it to you.
Take Saints Head Coach Sean Payton and 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, who doth protest their “mutual respect” for each other a little too much this week after reporters rehashed the alleged squabble between the two after the 49ers 24-3 loss to the Saints Week 1 of Preseason to build up Saturday’s Divisional Game into a grudge match.
Grudge match? Add the Saints and 49ers bitter history as former NFC West rivals and what we have here is a DEATH MATCH. Payton’s and Harbaugh’s career paths have been on a quarter-century collision course to prove who the better man is. (Hint: he's wearing a #9 Saints jersey.)
In the Saints/49ers preseason contest, the Gregg Williams’ D blitzed the 49ers so furiously they looked destined to be 3-13 rather than a 13-3 team. Almost immediately, reporters jumped on conspiracy theories circulating around the press box, locker room, and internet to explain the aggressive display of the Saints’ arsenal of exotic blitz packages so early in the season.
“The Voice of the Saints” WWL’s Jim Henderson reported the Saints blitzed the 49ers early brought the heat because 49ers’ Coach Jim Harbaugh snubbed Saints’ Coach Sean Payton’s request to swap game plans prior to the preseason opener.
“When that didn’t occur, Sean just said to Gregg, ‘Let the dogs out.’ And they did,” Henderson stated.
Henderson referred to the purported “gentleman’s agreement” that allegedly exists between Head Coaches during preseason in which they discuss how their teams will play prior to the game—an arrangement similar to professional wrestling. Supposedly, this quid pro quo between Coaches exists so each can evaluate their teams and talent without the pressure of regular season’s competitiveness which forces them to play real games.
While the practice violates long-standing League policy that prohibits coaches from discussing strategy and personnel before preseason games, other Coaches openly acknowledge that it’s a common practice. Exhibit A: Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett admitted Aug. 6 he spoke at length with Broncos Coach John Fox prior to their preseason matchup. “I think everybody in the league will do something like that because everything has been so shortened and you need to be on the same page as to who is playing against whom and what kind of stuff we’re using. I think those conversations are important,” Garrett said.
Earlier this week, both Harbaugh and Payton denied such overtures made prior to their preseason game or that a perceived “snub” had anything to do with the Saints’ D’s blitz attack. Coach Payton said every season the Saints pick one preseason game to pull out all the stops on Defense and test all their personnel combinations in their blitz packages. Usually the Saints chose a game later in the preseason schedule, but since the lockout compressed training camp and free agency there wasn’t the luxury of time to get players up-to-speed on Gregg Williams’ schemes so they unleashed the Krakens the first week.
Harbaugh said he even asked his brother Ravens’ Coach John Harbaugh. “Is there some sort of gentlemen’s agreement that you call a coach before a game, a preseason game? He wasn’t aware of any. And even if there was we wouldn’t do it anyway. We ask no quarter. We give no quarter. That’s how we approach things,” he said. Although his NFL debut of a 24-3 beatdown didn't seem to make him too happy at the time, Harbaugh said he was later glad the Saints’ D exposed deficiencies in the 49ers’ protection schemes (so his brother John wouldn't have to.)
Given Harbaugh’s fiery antics and Payton’s propensity to seek revenge on the scoreboard, many wonder if any bad blood will boil to the surface Saturday. As one reporter put it to Harbaugh this week, it seemed “excessive that there was that much blitzing going on with an established Defense against a team that was just installing stuff and after the lockout as well.” (Is blitzing 18 times in the first Half of a preseason game “excessive?” Ok by me.)
What the reporters fail to mention is the most obvious connection between the two Coaches: As Rookie QBs, an undrafted Sean Payton replaced Jim Harbaugh on the Bears roster during the ’87 Strike. In a weird twist of fate, Jim Harbaugh faced the man he replaced once the Strike ended in his inaugural game as an NFL Head Coach.
Stranger still, Harbaugh’s Defense will attempt to stop the QB who replaced HIM as a starter on the San Diego Chargers: Drew Brees.
Both have been eager to dismiss their ’87 Bears experience as relevant to the present day. Harbaugh maintains he and Payton never even met then. Although he admits he watched Payton play during his short three-game QB career, he says “I don’t remember how he played…I remember him and Mike Hohensee was the other QB. I believe, it’s testing my memory here, but Hohensee was from Minnesota maybe? And then I don’t remember how the two of them played. I think they both played though in those games.” Even without Harbaugh’s swipe at Payton’s forgettable QB career, the Saints’ Coach is self-deprecating enough about his three-game stint as an NFL QB in ’87—with good reason. He completed 8 of 23 passes (34.8%) for a career 27.3 QBR. In one of those three contests he lost to the Saints, the team he’d become Head Coach 19 years later.
Unlike other replacement players around the League, “Spare Bear” Payton said he wasn’t harassed or abused by striking players unlike other replacement players on other teams. Turns out that was Head Coach Mike Ditka’s job who turned his wrath on his striking players which he made public (as usual.) He called replacements like Sean Payton his “real players” which infuriated his returning roster that included the Bears ’87 1st Round Draft pick, Rookie QB Jim Harbaugh. Ditka’s remarks alienated his team and damaged his relationship with them that only worsened until Ditka was run out of Chicago in ’92, a year before Harbaugh departed to the Colts.
During his 14 years as an NFL QB, Harbaugh had one “star quality” season in ’95 when he came one Hail Mary pass short of leading the Colts to the Super Bowl for the first time since ’70. In ’95, he earned the Passer Rating Title with a 100.7 QBR, the A.P. NFL Comeback P.O.Y. Award, his only trip to the Pro Bowl and NFL MVP runner-up.
In ’98 he was traded to the Ravens to make room for Peyton Manning. After one season, he landed in San Diego in ’99 and led the Chargers to 8-8. The next season, he split time with epic first-round Draft Bust Ryan Leaf; the Chargers finished 1-15. The Chargers traded their #1 pick in ’01 to Atlanta who burned it on dog-killer Michael Vick. In exchange, the Chargers acquired the #5 pick and Punter Darren Bennett. The Chargers took RB LaDainian Tomlinson, and then used the 1st pick in the 2nd Round on Harbaugh’s replacement: Purdue QB Drew Brees.
From that point, Harbaugh’s career took the same exhausting/demeaning path of trying out, being cut and hanging on past his Sell-By date as Sean Payton’s did in his brief playing career. In ’01, Harbaugh signed with Detroit, but was cut after a last-minute trade for Ty Detmer came through. He ended his playing career that season with the Panthers, though he didn’t take a snap all year.
By the time Harbaugh was benchwarming for Chris Weinke, Sean Payton was the NYG’s O.C. and had been to his first (of many to come) Super Bowls. After his brief NFL stint during the ’87 Strike, Payton went on to play for two Arena Football teams before his rights were sold for $1,000 to the Ottawa Rough Riders in the CFL. In ’88 he played in the semi-pro U.K. Budweiser National League before returning to the U.S. to begin his NCAA coaching career at San Diego State. Payton climbed the collegiate ranks at five universities over the next nine years before breaking into the NFL as the Eagles’ QB Coach in ’97.
Harbaugh also began his coaching career in the college ranks—as an unpaid assistant for his father, Jack, at Western Kentucky—from ’94-’01 while still playing in the NFL. Upon retirement, Harbaugh rose from the Raider’s QB Coach in ’02 to University of San Diego’s Head Coach in ’04 to Stanford’s in ’07 to his first job as an NFL Head Coach with the 49ers in ’11.
Payton and Harbaugh are two of the fiercest competitors in the gladiatorial NFL. Born 6 days apart (Dec. 29 and Dec. 23, 1963 respectively), both are weapons-grade alpha-males with strong personalities and big egos; where they differ is in HOW they display aggression.
In interviews and press conferences, Sean Payton is laconic. He takes the “high road” talking about opponents pre- and post-game. We who follow Pa-Yoda have long ago stopped believing 90% of what he says--not that he lies. Payton just watches every word that comes out of his mouth like a Hollywood starlet watches every calorie that goes in hers. He knows little NFL ears are listening. He’s more paranoid than Fox Mulder. You can’t read his Poker Face on a podium, but watch him on the sideline. Behind his cool Frankie Muniz-exterior, Payton is a MAD MAN. His training camp and pre-game motivational stunts are legendary. When the press overlook or under-recognize his team, he won’t complain publicly. His next opponent’s Head Coach will after the Saints run-up the score on them to get the NFL’s attention (there’s a long list of victims this season.) When no one gave the Saints a snowball’s chance in hell of beating the Patriots on MNF in ’09, Payton beat his fellow Parcells-School-of-Devious-Coaching Graduate Bill Bellicheat so badly he pulled Brady out with six-plus minutes to go; together they watched the Pats go down in flames from the sidelines. The more successful you are, the more Payton wants to destroy you—just ask his mentor, Bill Parcells. Payton doesn’t get angry, he gets even—on the field. When Mike McCarthy beat Payton for the Packers’ H.C. job, he destroyed them in their first meeting. When Roddy White trash-tweeted the Saints won the Super Bowl by the “grace of God,” he allowed his team to dance on the Falcons logo midfield after the Win. If you celebrate him breaking his leg in your silly Pirate Ship Stadium, he pastes your silly Pirate logo on wooden baseball bats and puts them in his team’s lockers then instructs them to beat you on the field like they’re clubbing a baby seal. Stomp off the field after you’re licked in the Super Bowl, go down in the NFL Record Book as the Biggest Beatdown post-merger.
Harbaugh’s an open trashtalker but unlike Rex Ryan he can prove it on the field--I can respect that. He did it at Stanford vs. Pete Carroll. In the NFL, he’s built a Defense that has his back against the threats he provokes from players and coaches whose skin he gets under. Then there’s “Handshake-Gate.” Listen to victim Jim Schwartz’ account of the Ford Field mugging: “I don’t know. Went to congratulate Coach Harbaugh and got shoved out of the way. Didn’t expect an obscenity at that point, so it was a surprise to me at the end of the game…After the game, went to shake an opponent coach’s hand. Obviously you win a game like that, you’re excited and things like that, but I think there’s a protocol that goes with this league.” Protocol??? Coach, please! Jim Harbaugh can’t even spell “protocol.” Remember when the NFL reprimanded him and Raheem Morris for contacting players during the Lockout? Like the “honey-badger” the 49ers Head Coach recently hijacked from L.S.U.’s Tyrann Mathieu MULTIPLE times (even splicing it into highlight film) Harbaugh just thinks he can take what he wants.
That’s why Sean Payton’s going to make an example of Harbaugh. He’s everything Sean Payton hates when he looks across the field on gameday: the guy who could easily beat him 20 years ago as a player for a roster spot who now thinks he can outwit him as a coach 20 years later for a shot at the NFC Championship. Not with that 90’s-style team Harbaugh's built you don’t. Alex Smith is NOT a signature QB, the 49ers do NOT have multiple weapons on Offense and Defense NO LONGER “wins Championships” in the 21st Century Madden-Football-esque scoring NFL. Harbaugh’s nickname with the Colts was “Captain Comeback” (ripped off from Staubach—see a trend?) Saturday, Payton and Brees will sling it through the air so many times Harbaugh will be forever remembered as “Can’t Comeback.” Let the 49ers' Biennial Rebuilding begin.
Harbaugh was somewhat un-Harbaugh this week when asked this week about his relationship with Sean Payton (i.e., didn’t try to provoke his opponent, more likely from sheer terror he’ll be “Caldwell-ed” as punishment.) “Yes, just been around him,” he sound-bit. “Have great respect for him. I know some of the other coaches that are on the staff there. So, yeah good visits every time I’ve been around him. Professional.”
No, Jim, you’re furious your “Keanu Reeves” from “The Replacements” beat you like a drum in your auspicious NFL Coaching Debut—with that punk kid from Purdue who replaced you in San Diego, oh no he didn't! You’re going to go for the jugular Saturday. Or at least try.
And Sean’s going to EMBARASS you. Or DIE TRYING.
That’s the game plans. Don't forget your Coach of the Year Award on your way home, Jimbo. You earned it. Now scoot.