SANTA CLARA, Calif. — They don’t regale the media with gregarious dialogue. Their sideline wardrobe is more practical than fashionable. Team-oriented mantras drive their success.
Are Jim Harbaugh and Bill Belichick cut from the same cloth — or sweatshirt?
Harbaugh confirmed Thursday that a genuine level of respect exists between both coaches, who will square off for the first time Sunday night when Harbaugh’s 49ers (9-3-1) visit Belichick’s New England Patriots (10-3).
“There are certain things about his program, his team that you want to be about, you want to emulate,” Harbaugh said.
Similarities aside, their reputations might need some updating. Which coach is the offensive guru? Which is the ringleader of a physical, defensive-led team?
Harbaugh is touted as a quarterback whisperer, with growing evidence on his side. His teams’ trademarks, however, are a physical running game, top-notch defense and elite special teams play.
“They’re a real physical team,” Belichick said of the 49ers. “They’re good in the running game and average almost two yards per carry more than they give up. That’s pretty impressive. . . . And they cause a lot of negative plays on defense.”
Winning three Super Bowls in a four-year span (2001-2004 seasons) enhanced Belichick’s reputation as a defensive wizard. But the Patriots offense is a point-producing machine, keyed by MVP-caliber quarterback Tom Brady.
“Bill’s definitely got a hand in it,” 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of the Patriots’ offense.
Using the same system that Belichick and Brady have flourished in since 2001, the Patriots lead the league in scoring, yards and third-down efficiency. Plus, Fangio noted, their league-high 361 first downs are 42 more than the next-best unit, the Detroit Lions.
Randy Moss, the only 49er to have also played under Belichick, doubted he could share much insight for 49ers defenders seeking a behind-the-scenes scouting report.
“Everybody knows Bill Belichick is a so-called genius and he changes it up every week,” Moss said. “There’s really not much input I can give for the week. I just said (to 49ers defenders): ‘Have your head on a swivel and be ready for anything.”‘
Aside from the Patriots’ offensive exploits, Belichick’s defensive fronts have long confounded opponents. But this season’s statistics aren’t as impressive. The Patriots rank 26th in yards allowed (376.3 per game) and a more respectable 11th in points yielded (21.1 per game).
“It’s not a complicated scheme anymore,” said Rodney Harrison, a former Patriots safety who’s now an NBC Sports analyst. “(Belichick) doesn’t have a lot of veteran players. He doesn’t really trust those young guys back there to run those exotic schemes.”
Greg Roman, the 49ers’ offensive coordinator, still marveled Thursday at how the Patriots diversify their defensive front: “Those seven pieces can move around anywhere.”
Harbaugh thinks Belichick remains very “intrigued” by the weekly chess matches on both sides of the ball.
During Harbaugh’s 15-year playing career, he opposed a Belichick-led team only once. Although Harbaugh’s Indianapolis Colts lost 21-14 at home to Belichick’s Cleveland Browns in 1994, Harbaugh passed for 194 yards — and ran for a career-high 63 yards. (Side note: Harbaugh’s quarterback Sunday, Colin Kaepernick, has unleashed a 50-yard run each of the past two games.)
It’s been 10 months since Harbaugh and Belichick both competed in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Belichick and partner Ricky Barnes placed third, while Harbaugh and his pro, Ryan Moore, missed the cut by a stroke. The coaches didn’t meet up to talk shop during the tournament, and Harbaugh said Thursday he wished they had.
Harbaugh and Brady also have shared a golf course, back at their alma mater, the University of Michigan.
“He used to have a golf tournament every summer,” Brady told CSN New England’s Tom Curran. “He’d come back, and it was a big deal. The guys all got excited when he was around. I didn’t get too many chances to talk to him. I was just one of the plebes.
“I saw him out golfing one day while he was coaching at Stanford. Talked to him a little bit,” Brady added. “He’s a tough, hard-nosed guy.”
The same has been said of the coach Harbaugh will oppose Sunday night in Foxborough, Mass.