San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has frequently had his players' backs in public.
Harbaugh has strongly praised Alex Smith when others doubted the quarterback. He has singled out Michael Crabtree for having all-time great hands amid questions about the receiver living up to his draft status. He stood by receiver Kyle Williams at every turn where another coach might have released a role player for fumbling away a shot at the Super Bowl.
So, when New York Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride suggested a 49ers defensive lineman "gets away with murder" by holding opposing linemen to free up pass-rushers, Harbaugh couldn't have been too happy. The fact that Gilbride singled out Justin Smith, a player Harbaugh admires as much as any he has ever encountered, apparently set off the 49ers' head coach.
Harbaugh did not just address Gilbride's comments. He issued a statement through the team's public relations department. That statement turns a potential fringe storyline into the No. 1 angle as the 49ers and Giants prepare for their game Sunday at Candlestick Park.
"Kevin Gilbride's outrageous, irrational statement regarding Justin Smith’s play is, first, an absurd analogy," the statement from Harbaugh read. "Second, it is an incendiary comment targeting one of the truly exemplary players in this league. It's obvious that the Giants coaching staff’s sole purpose is to use their high visibility to both criticize and influence officiating."
This is a double-barreled response from Harbaugh to a single-barrel comment from Gilbride. Outrageous, irrational, absurd and incendiary? Those words used in this manner give the 49ers something to rally around emotionally, obliterating whatever edge Giants coach Tom Coughlin was seeking when he suggested no one was giving the Super Bowl champion Giants a chance to win this game.
It's not just gamesmanship, either. This is Harbaugh standing up for a universally respected player in the strongest terms possible. The postgame handshake between Harbaugh and Coughlin should be a good one. Here's hoping Gilbride comes along as well.
Also: Dan Graziano of the NFC East blog passes along this analysis from before Week 1 suggesting Smith does get away with holding.