Entering his third appearance in a conference championship game (second as a head coach), Jim Harbaugh understands how rare of an opportunity it is to be one of four teams left in professional football’s postseason tournament.
The same can be said for the San Francisco 49ers players who’ve continuously talked about the importance of winning now.
Pro Bowl defensive tackle
It certainly struck a chord.
“Really it’s just the experience, just knowing that this opportunity is rare, it doesn’t come around often,” fellow defensive co-captain
“Although we were here last year, the prior, four years before that we were at home those other times, we didn’t make the playoffs,” Willis added. “So just to have this opportunity again and to be here, it’s one of those things we don’t take for granted. We know that window for chances like this is slim and we have to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Smith stressed the importance of seizing the moment again this week.
“I think everybody feels it,” Smith said. “The majority of the guys that are in that locker room were here last year and felt the disappointment. We were so excited after winning the Saints game. I didn’t feel the same, ‘oh we did it,’ this and that after the Packers game and we beat a heck of a team in the Packers.”
Smith felt like the 49ers moved on from the Green Bay win in the Divisional Playoff round without being too caught up from the glow of it.
“I feel like the whole team kind of got a sense of there’s more to this thing than just getting to this game,” Smith added. “As a whole team top to bottom, coaching staff, we’re better prepared to handle it and know what’s in front of us.”
The magnitude of Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons comes into greater focus thanks to a motivational tool crafted by Harbaugh and the team’s football staff. Last year, it was all about blue-collar work shirts. This year, Harbaugh went back in time.
The 49ers coach initiated the idea of placing high school football photos of each player above their lockers, along with the player’s national position ranking, state ranking and overall star ranking.
Reserve defensive tackle
“It started with last week when we looked at the Under Armour All-American game,” Jean Francois began. “We were trying to figure out which guys were 3-stars, 4-stars and things like that.”
When asked about the inspiration for the high school photos, Harbaugh explained that it didn’t need to be looked at for a deeper meaning. But said it started while watching the game along with Jean Francois, Smith,
Once McDonald pulled up his high school rankings and photo on his cell phone, Harbaugh thought it would be great to do that for everyone on the roster.
As soon as the photos were put up before the Green Bay game, players started doing laps around the locker room to check out their teammates from high school.
Jean Francois couldn’t help but see the symbolism in it, especially after seeing Moss’ No. 1 national ranking.
“In high school we prided ourselves on rankings, a lot of the guys on the team are 2-star, 3-star, but look where you are now, you’re in the NFL and you’ve been drafted by probably one of the most successful organizations,” the 49ers defensive lineman added. “That shows how much you worked from high school to get into the league.”
Asked about his own high school rankings, Harbaugh, the former 15-year NFL veteran quarterback, downplayed his glory days on the grid iron.
“They didn’t have the internet back in 1982 that I’m aware of,” the 49ers coach said.
He did, however, explain what he liked most about the photos of his players.
“To me, as I look through every single picture of every single guy, I was moved by the eyes,” Harbaugh explained. “It’s always in the eyes. They’re cheerful and undefeated. And it was nice to put those photos up.”
Besides the look of the player, you see the grades given by high school recruiting services. You can also see the ones who had to work their way up from 2, 3-star rankings to contributors on a professional football team now one win away from reaching San Francisco’s sixth Super Bowl.
But no matter the ranking back then, Harbaugh doesn’t make too much of it. Now, he sees 53 men (plus eight practice squad players) eager to reach a common goal.
“I notice that with all our players,” Harbaugh began, “that they have something to prove. And we feel that way as a team. I’m not making any chip on any shoulder analogy. Just a desire to improve, desire to get better and be the best possible player you can be. Or the best possible team you can be. That’s what I notice.”
Jean Francois, like many of his teammates, appreciated the photos, even the one of himself depicting a 230-pound lineman with short hair.
“I think that’s what Coach Harbaugh was trying to do, he was trying to show how far you’ve come,” Jean Francois added. “He is trying to show you how far you’ve come from day 1 until now. You’ve got to keep that same drive from that same day in high school into the NFL.”
There’s no doubt leaders in San Francisco’s locker room have kept that drive with them.
Willis, one of the most accomplished players in the league today (six Pro Bowls in six seasons), is always striving to play a perfect game.
But even more importantly, Willis aims to produce his best performance on the big stage, his second appearance in the NFC title game.
“It’s not good enough just to make the playoffs,” Willis said. “It’s not good enough just to make it to the NFC Championship. We want to win it all. That’s what we’ll be remembered by the most, is being able to go to that Super Bowl and win it. But it starts this Sunday, winning this game to have the opportunity to go there. Just winning, winning it all.”