Ex-teammates doubt Jim Harbaugh would have quietly accepted demotion if in Alex Smith's shoes

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports
.

Is Kaepernick the right call?

Thanks to the 2012 NFL season's most sudden and surprising quarterback switch, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has become a polarizing figure. With the Niners (8-2-1) closing in on a second consecutive NFC West title and Colin Kaepernick having displaced Alex Smith, Harbaugh's handling of a delicate situation will be hotly debated until San Francisco's season is complete.

Even after Smith's mildly frustrated comments to reporters Thursday about losing his starting job following a concussion, Harbaugh's dramatic move has yet to mushroom into a full-blown locker-room controversy.

Had Harbaugh been confronted with a similar situation during his 14-year career as an NFL quarterback, however, some of his former teammates believe the fiery competitor would not have accepted his demotion so gracefully.

View gallery

.

Jim Harbaugh has given the nod to second-year QB Colin Kaepernick ... at least for another week. (Getty Images …

"Now that he's the coach, he's handling it like a coach is supposed to," said Ray Buchanan, a standout cornerback who played with Harbaugh on the Indianapolis Colts from 1994-96. "But the Jim Harbaugh who I knew, who was feisty and competitive, he wouldn't have handled it well. I don't think he'd have handled it as well as Alex did. He'd have been a lot more outspoken with the coach. He would cause a little more havoc. And he probably would have spoken out to the media as well."

Retired defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, a teammate of Harbaugh's with the Colts ('94-96) and Baltimore Ravens ('98), agreed with Buchanan's assessment.

"The Jim Harbaugh I knew would be going crazy," Siragusa said. "He would not stand for that. He would be going ballistic. But Jim Harbaugh the player and Jim Harbaugh the coach are like two completely different people."

In separate conversations on Thursday, a half dozen of Harbaugh's former teammates with the Chicago Bears, Colts, Ravens and San Diego Chargers described him as a popular and fiery leader. They spoke glowingly of the quarterback's competitive drive, work ethic, toughness and locker-room demeanor.

[Related: Falcons still have something to prove after win over Saints]

"We used to call him 'Dog,' cause he's so feisty, a chip-on-the-shoulder type guy," said former Bears receiver Curtis Conway, who caught passes from Harbaugh as a rookie in 1993. "He wasn't a wimpy quarterback. He's tough. He was a hell of a competitor, and his will to win was incredible. And he wasn't going to back down from anybody."

Harbaugh's ex-teammates also helped shed light on the psyche of a second-year coach who abruptly switched to Kaepernick after a concussion kept Smith — then the league's third-rated passer — out of a Monday night game against the Bears 11 days ago.

Though the Niners' coach initially refused to reveal which quarterback would get the call against the New Orleans Saints last Sunday — and avoided publicly committing to Kaepernick beyond this Sunday's road game against the St. Louis Rams — Harbaugh's ex-teammates do not believe he made the decision cavalierly.

"I'm pretty sure about the fact that this is not a game-playing thing for him," said Hall of Fame halfback Marshall Faulk, who played with Harbaugh in Indy from 1994-97. "It's for the greater good of the team. There is no personal gain for him. Everything he does is for the greater good of that team, and he's not going to deviate from that."

Said former Chargers and New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, who shared a locker room with Harbaugh in San Diego in 1999 and 2000: "He has his way of doing things. He has a different personality — everyone knows that. But at the end of the day, he's either going to look like a hero or a complete jerk, and he's fine with that.

"The one thing I can respect about him is, 'Who cares what anybody thinks?' Our game is so driven by public perception. He doesn't care what people think of this decision; he's making it. It's the same way with Bill Belichick. He's going to do what he thinks is right, and that's it."

Whether Harbaugh was conflicted about the decision, however, is another matter. Though he started 140 games in his career, the former first-round pick out of Michigan didn't always enjoy the smoothest of circumstances as a player.

View gallery

.

Jim Harbaugh with former Bears coach Mike Ditka. (Getty Images)

In Chicago, he had a strained relationship with fellow quarterback Mike Tomczak, who once threatened to file a defamation suit against Harbaugh. He also had some celebrated blowups with Bears coach Mike Ditka, including a memorable sideline exchange in a 1992 game after Harbaugh defied his coach's orders not to audible and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, triggering a Minnesota Vikings comeback.

Harbaugh, then the NFL's No. 2-rated passer, was benched in favor of Don Majikowski midway through the 1994 season by Colts coach Ted Marchibroda, who later brought Harbaugh to Baltimore after becoming the Ravens' coach. Harbaugh took a seat after one season as the Chargers' starter for former No. 2 overall pick Ryan Leaf, one of the most celebrated busts in NFL history, at the start of his final NFL campaign.

Given those experiences, Harbaugh's ex-teammates believe he understood the magnitude of his recent decision and its potential effect on Smith, Kaepernick and San Francisco's 51 other players.

"Knowing Jim, he's gone out of his way to make this as easy for Alex Smith as possible," said former Bears receiver Tom Waddle, who spent five seasons (1989-93) with Harbaugh in Chicago. "I think in some ways Jim sees a lot of himself in Alex, and vice-versa. He's a talented guy who got hit with a lot of adversity and overcame it through hard work and toughness to put himself in a position to be successful.

"I'd be shocked if this is something that doesn't keep Jim up at night. I don't think it's a decision he takes lightly."

[More: Current crop of rookie QBs compare favorably to recent ROY passers]

Yet if Harbaugh empathizes with Smith, the maligned quarterback he surprisingly embraced after taking the Niners job before the 2011 season, the coach may relate to Kaepernick on a more instinctive level.

"Kaepernick has a different swagger, an excitement, a confidence about him," Conway says of the second-year passer. "That's Jim. He sees the dog in Kaep, and the confidence, and I feel like he connects with that. Alex lacked confidence when [Harbaugh] got there. He never had a reason to pull him, until the injury. Once that kid got in there and proved what Jim probably felt all along, he was going with him."

Said Buchanan: "You see how excited Colin Kaepernick is — always smiling, always in the players' faces, making a lot of noise. That was Jim. When I saw Kaepernick doing that stuff, I said, 'That's Jim all over again.' I have a picture in my house of Jim all up in our faces after we made a defensive play — him coming over and showing us some love, with that big old wide smile. Trust me, he sees the same things in this kid."

One thing to which some of Harbaugh's former teammates could not relate is his penchant for making deceptive, non-committal and downright implausible statements in interviews. From his assertion last June to espn.com's Mike Sando that anyone who believed the 49ers had pursued then-free agent Peyton Manning was "diabolical" to last week's insistence that Smith is "our starting quarterback," Harbaugh the coach seems to exist in a world of his own rhetorical creation.

"He talks in circles," said Siragusa, a Fox-TV sideline reporter who has interviewed Harbaugh on numerous occasions. "You would hope what's happening in the press is not happening in the locker room."

Waddle, for one, believes Harbaugh is savvy enough not to attempt such blatant spin-doctoring when addressing his players.

"I would think that what's said in the locker room is what resonates with the guys, and everything else is just noise," Waddle said. "I'd be shocked if it was the same message in the locker room as on the podium."

View gallery

.

Alex Smith spoke with the media Thursday. (AP)

Even after the quarterback switch, it's tough to imagine that a coach who took over a team that went 6-10 the previous year and has since gone 22-6-1 (including playoffs) while nearly reaching Super Bowl XLVI wouldn't be extremely popular in the Niners' locker room. That said, the fun-loving quarterback who once cracked up Colts teammates by showing up for a Halloween party dressed as Star Trek's Mr. Spock is nowhere to be found when the tightly wound coach speaks with reporters.

"When I see him interviewed, like when he said [Smith was still the starter], I'm like, 'OK, now the system has got him,' " Buchanan said, laughing. "That's not Jim being Jim. That's Jim being politically correct.

"Cause the Jim Harbaugh I played with would be like, 'OK, we got the hot quarterback and we're gonna play him! Why would we take him out? You're on the bench, Alex Smith. Maybe if Colin Kaepernick gets one of those concussions, you'll go back in.' That's the real Jim. He would've had the whole media laughing."

[More: John Harbaugh keeps Ravens on track despite near 'mutiny']

In Harrison's eyes, his former Chargers teammate is merely executing a masterful gameplan aimed at media manipulation.

"Let's be honest," said Harrison, an analyst on NBC's Football Night In America. "The fact that he's doing this, he's getting national attention for his team. That's what he wants. If he'd just announced the switch and left it at that, it wouldn't be as big a story. Now, people care, and we're all talking about the San Francisco 49ers.

"Now that I'm in the media, I know the tricks of the trade. That's what this is about. He's playing with [the media]. It's a game. And he's winning."

In that sense, at least, maybe Harbaugh the coach isn't so different from Harbaugh the player.

More NFL video on Yahoo! Sports:

Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
NFL players use Viagra to boost on-field performance, says Bears' Brandon Marshall
NFL Week 13 Power Rankings: Texans continue to hold the top spot
Peyton Manning, Tom Brady part of wide-open NFL MVP race | Photos
Y! Movies: Leonardo DiCaprio dishes on violent film role

  • Stars attend Game 4 at Staples Center

    Stars attend Game 4 at Staples Center

    Los Angeles Lakers center Pau Gasol, Fox Sports 1 television host Charissa Thompson and writer/actor Larry David attend Game 4 between the Sharks and Kings. … More »

    NHL Highlights - 3 minutes 51 seconds ago
  • Brent Burns shows up to game in style

    Brent Burns shows up to game in style

    San Jose Sharks forward Brent Burns arrives to all his Round 1 postseason games in the same stylish suit and custom dragon beanie. … More »

    NHL Highlights - 3 minutes 51 seconds ago
  • Bruins erase two-goal lead, beat Red Wings in OT to set up elimination game

    Bruins erase two-goal lead, beat Red Wings in OT to set up elimination game

    DETROIT - If what the Boston Bruins showed in coming back to beat the Detroit Red Wings was the resolve of a champion, it certainly wasn't obvious to goaltender Tuukka Rask. The Bruins erased a two-goal deficit in Game 4 to win 3-2 in overtime … More »

    The Canadian Press - 7 minutes ago
  • Grizzlies blow big lead, beat Thunder 98-95 in OT

    Grizzlies blow big lead, beat Thunder 98-95 in OT

    The Grizzlies know they have to stop blowing fourth-quarter leads. Consecutive overtime wins makes the needed corrections much easier for Memphis. Mike Conley scored five of his 20 points in overtime, and the Grizzlies beat the Oklahoma City Thunder … More »

    AP - Sports - 9 minutes ago
  • Colorado Avalanche at Minnesota Wild - 04/24/2014

    Colorado Avalanche at Minnesota Wild - 04/24/2014

    Colorado Avalanche at Minnesota Wild - 04/24/2014 … More »

    NHL Highlights - 9 minutes ago
  • Conley scores 5 of his 20 in OT as Grizzlies blow 17-point lead before beating Thunder 98-95

    Conley scores 5 of his 20 in OT as Grizzlies blow 17-point lead before beating Thunder 98-95

    MEMPHIS, Tenn. - The Grizzlies know they have to stop blowing fourth-quarter leads. Consecutive overtime wins makes the needed corrections much easier for Memphis. Mike Conley scored five of his 20 points in overtime, and the Grizzlies beat the … More »

    The Canadian Press - 10 minutes ago
  • Griffin Uses the Glass

    Griffin Uses the Glass

    Blake Griffin pulls up and banks a jumper off the glass. … More »

    NBA.com - 11 minutes ago
  • Coyle scores, Wild control game again to beat Avalanche 2-1 and even series at 2

    Coyle scores, Wild control game again to beat Avalanche 2-1 and even series at 2

    ST. PAUL, Minn. - Charlie Coyle scored his third goal of the series for Minnesota, and the Wild dominated the Colorado Avalanche for the second straight game on their way to a 2-1 win Thursday night that evened the first-round matchup at two apiece. … More »

    The Canadian Press - 19 minutes ago
  • Wild beat Avalanche to even series at 2

    Wild beat Avalanche to even series at 2

    ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- Charlie Coyle scored his third goal of the series for Minnesota, and the Wild dominated the Colorado Avalanche for the second straight game on their way to a 2-1 win Thursday night that evened the first-round matchup at two … More »

    AP - Sports - 20 minutes ago
  • Reds' Simon accused of sexual assault

    Reds' Simon accused of sexual assault

    A woman who said Cincinnati Reds pitcher Alfredo Simon sexually assaulted her in a Washington hotel a year ago when the team was in town to play the Nationals is suing the player for $15 million. The woman, identified as Jane Doe, filed the civil … More »

    AP - Sports - 21 minutes ago
  • O'Reilly's quick shot beats Kuemper five-hole

    O'Reilly's quick shot beats Kuemper five-hole

    Colorado Avalanche forward Ryan O'Reilly throws a quick shot at the net that gets through the legs of Minnesota Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper to make it 2-1. … More »

    NHL Highlights - 23 minutes ago
  • Postgame: Mike Conley

    Postgame: Mike Conley

    Mike Conley addresses the media following the Game 3 win over the Thunder. … More »

    NBA.com - 35 minutes ago
  • Thunder vs. Grizzlies: Game 3

    Thunder vs. Grizzlies: Game 3

    Mike Conley scores 20 points and grabs five rebounds as the Grizzlies drop OKC in Game 3. … More »

    NBA.com - 36 minutes ago
  • Bruins top Wings in OT, lead series 3-1

    Bruins top Wings in OT, lead series 3-1

    The Boston Bruins took a couple punches, then hit back hard and put the Detroit Red Wings on the brink of elimination. Jarome Iginla scored with 6:28 left in overtime on a redirected shot that went off an opponent, lifting the Bruins to a 3-2 win … More »

    AP - Sports - 41 minutes ago
  • Swimming-Phelps welcomed back by rivals and team mates alike

    Michael Phelps has always been the centre of attention in swimming circles since he burst on to the scene as a teenager and his comeback at the USA Swimming Grand Prix meet had everyone in a lather. The spectators roared when he won his morning … More »

    Reuters - 45 minutes ago
  • Donaldson homers twice, A's rout Astros

    Donaldson homers twice, A's rout Astros

    Josh Donaldson hit a pair of two-run homers to help the Oakland Athletics cruise to a 10-1 win over the Houston Astros on Thursday night. It was the first career multihomer game for Donaldson, who connected in the first inning and pushed the lead … More »

    AP - Sports - 51 minutes ago
  • Grizzlies transcend another crazy Thunder comeback, go up 2-1 with OT win (Video)

    Grizzlies transcend another crazy Thunder comeback, go up 2-1 with OT win (Video)

    For the second game in a row, the Oklahoma City Thunder pushed the Memphis Grizzlies to overtime with a thrilling, improbable comeback spurred by a four-point play. For the second game in a row, the Grizzlies bounced back in the extra period to take … More »

    Ball Don't Lie - 52 minutes ago
  • Postgame: Scott Brooks

    Postgame: Scott Brooks

    Scott Brooks talks with the media following the tough Game 3 loss to the Grizzlies. … More »

    NBA.com - 54 minutes ago
  • Jarome Iginla's OT goal helps Bruins take 3-1 series lead over Red Wings (Video)

    Jarome Iginla's OT goal helps Bruins take 3-1 series lead over Red Wings (Video)

    Jarome Iginla’s goal 13:32 into overtime gave the Boston Bruins a 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings and a 3-1 series lead. The series now shifts back to TD Garden Saturday afternoon where the Bruins can advance to the second round with a win. … More »

    Puck Daddy - 57 minutes ago
  • Postgame: David Joerger

    Postgame: David Joerger

    David Joerger addresses the media after taking a 2-1 lead in the series against the Thunder. … More »

    NBA.com - 1 hour 3 minutes ago
  • Toronto Blue Jays fall back to .500 mark after 11-4 loss to Baltimore Orioles

    TORONTO - The Toronto Blue Jays' bullpen has struggled mightily over the last week. The Toronto relievers took it on the chin again Thursday as the Baltimore Orioles turned a close game into an 11-4 rout at Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays wasted a … More »

    The Canadian Press - 1 hour 4 minutes ago
  • Phelps beaten in first comeback final

    Phelps beaten in first comeback final

    By Julian Linden PHOENIX (Reuters) - Michael Phelps suffered a narrow loss to his old rival Ryan Lochte in his comeback to competitive swimming on Thursday, but still showed enough to suggest he will be a force to be reckoned with. Racing for the … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 10 minutes ago
  • Nady's single in 12th lifts Padres over Nats 4-3

    Nady's single in 12th lifts Padres over Nats 4-3

    WASHINGTON (AP) -- Former Nationals outfielder Xavier Nady's tiebreaking RBI single off Craig Stammen in the top of the 12th inning, right after an error let the runner get to third base, gave the San Diego Padres a 4-3 victory over Washington on … More »

    AP - Sports - 1 hour 10 minutes ago
  • Swimming-Phelps beaten in first comeback final

    * Phelps narrowly beaten by Lochte in comeback race * Satisfied with return despite loss * Qualifies for national titles later this year (Recasts with new quotes) By Julian Linden PHOENIX, April 24 (Reuters) - Michael Phelps suffered a narrow … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 11 minutes ago
  • Michael Phelps beaten in first comeback final

    Michael Phelps beaten in first comeback final

    By Julian Linden PHOENIX (Reuters) - Michael Phelps suffered a narrow loss to old rival Ryan Lochte in his comeback to competitive swimming on Thursday, but still showed enough to suggest he will be a force to be reckoned with. Racing for the … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 12 minutes ago
  • Iginla scores OT winner off the redirection

    Iginla scores OT winner off the redirection

    Boston Bruins forward Jarome Iginla scores the OT winner by redirecting Dougie Hamilton’s shot past Detroit Red Wings goalie Jonas Gustavsson. … More »

    NHL Highlights - 1 hour 13 minutes ago
  • Solarte has 4 RBIs, Yanks top BoSox 14-5

    Solarte has 4 RBIs, Yanks top BoSox 14-5

    BOSTON (AP) -- Yangervis Solarte drove in four runs, Mark Teixeira hit his first homer of the season and the New York Yankees capitalized on five Boston errors to beat the Red Sox 14-5 on Thursday night. … More »

    AP - Sports - 1 hour 13 minutes ago
  • Icher leads at Swinging Skirts Classic

    Icher leads at Swinging Skirts Classic

    Karine Icher and her caddie husband, Fred, evaluated the conditions and course at challenging Lake Merced and decided on a Day 1 strategy: stay short of the pin and putt uphill. The move worked beautifully, and Icher delivered the most consistent … More »

    AP - Sports - 1 hour 16 minutes ago
  • Crawford for Three

    Crawford for Three

    Jamal Crawford pulls up and sinks the three-pointer. … More »

    NBA.com - 1 hour 16 minutes ago
  • Boston Bruins at Detroit Red Wings - 04/24/2014

    Boston Bruins at Detroit Red Wings - 04/24/2014 … More »

    NHL Highlights - 1 hour 16 minutes ago
  • Cruz extends RBI streak, Orioles win

    Cruz extends RBI streak, Orioles win

    Adam Jones called Baltimore's lineup ''scary'' after back-to-back double digit outbursts against Toronto. The Blue Jays pitching staff wouldn't disagree with that assessment. Chris Davis had two hits and three RBIs, Jonathan Schoop homered and the … More »

    AP - Sports - 1 hour 22 minutes ago
  • Torey Krug goes top-shelf off faceoff

    Torey Krug goes top-shelf off faceoff

    Boston Bruins defensemen Torey Krug fires a hard slap shot top-shelf past Detroit Red Wings goalie Jonas Gustavsson midway through the 2nd period. … More »

    NHL Highlights - 1 hour 23 minutes ago
  • Kronwall fires opening goal through traffic

    Kronwall fires opening goal through traffic

    Detroit Red Wings defensemen Niklas Kronwall unleashes a furious slap shot through traffic to score the opening goal on Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask. … More »

    NHL Highlights - 1 hour 23 minutes ago
  • Datsyuk buries it on Rask from in tight

    Datsyuk buries it on Rask from in tight

    Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk takes a short pass from Niklas Kronwall before scoring on Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask. … More »

    NHL Highlights - 1 hour 23 minutes ago
  • Rask snatches one away from Tatar

    Rask snatches one away from Tatar

    Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask makes a quick glove save on Detroit Red Wings forward Tomas Tatar. … More »

    NHL Highlights - 1 hour 23 minutes ago
  • Rask denies Abdelkader on OT breakaway

    Rask denies Abdelkader on OT breakaway

    Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask makes a great stick save to deny Detroit Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader on a breakaway in overtime. … More »

    NHL Highlights - 1 hour 23 minutes ago
  • Phelps loses to Lochte in comeback meet

    Phelps loses to Lochte in comeback meet

    Michael Phelps is 0 for 1 in his comeback to the pool. The 22-time Olympic medalist lost to Ryan Lochte in the 100-meter butterfly final at the Arena Grand Prix on Thursday night. Phelps took second in 52.13 in his first meet since retiring after … More »

    AP - Sports - 1 hour 24 minutes ago
  • Texas LB sorry for calling Baylor trash

    Texas linebacker Steve Edmond has apologized for calling the reigning Big 12 champion Baylor Bears ''trash.'' Edmond had made the comment Saturday after the Longhorns wrapped up spring practice with their annual scrimmage. In a statement issued by … More »

    AP - Sports - 1 hour 26 minutes ago
  • Houston's Clemens ejected for plunking A's Lowrie

    HOUSTON (AP) -- Houston reliever Paul Clemens has been ejected in the seventh inning for hitting Oakland's Jed Lowrie with a pitch. … More »

    AP - Sports - 1 hour 28 minutes ago
  • Soderberg sets up Lucic in front of the net

    Soderberg sets up Lucic in front of the net

    Boston Bruins forward Carl Soderberg sends a quick centering pass to Milan Lucic who buries his shot past Detroit Red Wings goalie Jonas Gustavsson. … More »

    NHL Highlights - 1 hour 33 minutes ago