SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Jim Harbaugh was not over the defeat. That was as plain as the khaki pants he wears to every Monday media session.
Harbaugh was not eager to revisit the NFC title game loss to the New York Giants. Harbaugh cited a quote from Sir Andrew Barton about bravely rising to fight again, but he conceded to looking back at the 20-17 overtime loss and revisiting various plays or choices.
"I think we're all going through that right now, to where we look at ourselves, look at yourself in the mirror," Harbaugh said. "What could you have done differently? Wishing you had done the other because you know the way the decision worked out."
After the still-largely-unbelievable turnaround 49ers season, it is obvious that most of Harbaugh's decisions worked out over the past six months. He deserves an A-plus on his report card (with a gold star) for the way he reconstituted a 6-10 team into a 13-3 division champion. Along the way, there were many unpredictable and entertaining escapades. Harbaugh used the words "amazing" and "incredible" to describe the ride.
So is this what we can expect next season -- and every 49ers season with Harbaugh? In terms of wins and losses, there are no guarantees. Consider this: Six of the previous seven teams to lose in the NFC title game have missed the playoffs the following season. The only exception was the 2008 Philadelphia Eagles, who lost in the 2009 wild-card round. So don't expect a 13-3 repeat. The 49ers could easily be better next season with a worse record.
But in terms of intensity and a no-holding-back philosophy, you definitely can expect more of the same. It's what makes Harbaugh so successful. He will never take his foot off the gas -- even if, as is the case with many good coaches, his best asset occasionally cuts both ways with unintended consequences. One example might have even decided Sunday's game.
Kyle Williams, the 49ers' punt returner, is manfully holding himself accountable for the lost fumble that set up New York's winning field goal. That is what Williams should do, even if other 49ers made mistakes in the game. That is what a pro athlete does. The cowardly Cro-Magnon idiots who sent death threats to Williams deserve no comment except to call them cowardly Cro-Magnon idiots.
Yet did you notice? The Giants fumbled away zero kick returns, in part because of New York coach Tom Coughlin's strategy. Throughout the wet afternoon, he instructed his two punt returners, Will Blackmon and Aaron Ross, to take no chances. If they did not call for a fair catch, they handled the ball securely and ran upfield only until tacklers approached -- whereupon Blackmon and Ross quickly hit the ground and covered the ball rather than risk a fumble.
Williams, who was subbing for regular punt returner Ted Ginn Jr., was given no such instructions. Harbaugh was asked after the game if he had given Williams any advice about fielding the punts, in overtime or otherwise. Harbaugh confirmed that he had told Williams to stay aggressive and "play football."
That choice could have paid off big time if Williams had broken a punt return for a score, as he came close to doing at least once. But we all saw what happened instead.
Can you rip Harbaugh for that? Only if you also rip him for the same push-it-to-the-limit principles that won the playoff game against New Orleans the previous week. On the 49ers' final drive, Harbaugh could have been conservative in the final seconds and told his offense to position the ball for a tying field goal to create overtime. Harbaugh rejected that idea and dialed up Alex Smith's daring pass to Vernon Davis at the goal line for a touchdown.
This is what you get with Harbaugh, the uncompromising edge. It is why watching his teams is such a compelling exercise, why it will be fascinating to watch them in the future and see if he ever dials back on that mindset. Can't fathom that he will. When asked Monday what he learned over the past six months as a rookie NFL head coach, Harbaugh deflected the question by answering: "I don't have that list in front of me."
Would love to see that list. Harbaugh's uncompromising edge is what led him to trust Smith in the final minutes at Detroit on an audacious go-ahead touchdown throw to Delanie Walker. But the uncompromising edge also indirectly led to a crucial injury suffered by receiver Joshua Morgan one week earlier against Tampa Bay. The 49ers were ahead by 38 points with five minutes left in the fourth quarter when, facing fourth down at the Tampa Bay 20-yard line, Harbaugh disdained a field goal. He sent in a pass play. He wanted more points.
The play worked. Morgan caught the ball for a first down -- but landed awkwardly and suffered a broken ankle. He was out for the season. It is one reason the 49ers went into the game Sunday against the Giants with a depleted wide receiver corps that was no factor and wound up with just one reception.
Of course, the 49ers never would have reached the NFC title game, without Harbaugh's all-in, all-the-way approach. It's great to have them back in the mix of NFL contenders. It will be even more riveting to see where Harbaugh takes the 49ers from here. It won't be someplace dull. Never someplace dull.