Jim Harbaugh more driven than ever

PHOENIX -- It is all so natural now that Jim Harbaugh's navy Ford F150 pickup, the one with the "Proud to be an American" bumper sticker on the back, virtually drives itself from Palo Alto to the 49ers' headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif. Early mornings, with no traffic, the trip is a painless 20 minutes door to door, from one Harbaugh home to the other.

"It doesn't fight me when I try to make that turn into the parking lot," Harbaugh said Wednesday. "It knows how to get there. That's where it wants to be. So I don't know how to explain it, but the people I'm around with every day throughout the organization, they've got the same expectations. They've got the same talents. They want to be the best."

The best. That is the goal. Win. Become the champion. Set the standard. Lead by example. And do it all while not drawing an unnecessary amount of attention to yourself.

In his first two years as a head coach in the NFL, Harbaugh accomplished almost all of his goals. In February, he fell 5 yards shy of accomplishing the biggest, and that shortcoming, those 5 yards, sit in his stomach and haunt him at night. They have motivated him in ways he didn't think were possible before.

Harbaugh is a fiercely competitive man now inspired by defeat, and that will be a problem for the other teams in the NFC West, the rest of the conference and ultimately the entire league. It didn't seem possible, given the intensity with which he worked his first two seasons as head coach, but Harbaugh is more inspired, more hungry, more dedicated than ever, all because of those 5 short but significant yards.

Five yards and Jim, not his older brother John, would be the reigning Super Bowl champion, the top dog, the man walking around the NFL owners' meetings in Phoenix earlier this week with the one thing everyone else is chasing. Five yards, and Jim would be king and John would have to delicately answer the question of whether he was truly happy for his brother's success, given that it came at his great expense.

Five yards. Five yards from the most exclusive club in coaching. Five yards from football immortality. Five yards from it all.

Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, but if one thing seems certain, it is that Harbaugh will get his. He has it all: The football intelligence, the work ethic, the philosophy, the fearlessness, the coaching acumen and the ability to identify and cultivate talent. Harbaugh inherited a San Francisco team that had gone 6-10 in 2010 and a franchise that had not had a winning season since 2002. His results: A 24-7-1 regular-season record in two seasons, two NFC West titles, two first-round playoff byes, two NFC Championship Game appearances, a 3-2 playoff record and a Super Bowl appearance.

And yet Harbaugh is motivated by defeat.

"Yeah, probably that, and other things, you know," Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh didn't want to concede too much, but he clicked through a personal checklist of what it takes to be successful in the NFL: effort, desire to win, work ethic, a great attitude.

"You know, you have it or you don't have it," Harbaugh said. "It's good to assess at the beginning of every season, check to make sure you've still got that, and honestly, personally, I feel like I've got it more than when I first started this job two years ago. ...

"I feel more enthusiastic about it. I feel more energized, competitive. I feel more. I don't know why. I just do."

It's hard to imagine how the Niners could be better. Harbaugh got the most out of Alex Smith when most people thought Smith was beyond help, then made the risky but gutsy decision to go with Colin Kaepernick midway through last season. San Francisco's defense has been one of the best since Harbaugh arrived, and with 14 picks in next month's draft, the Niners will have an opportunity to package picks to move up and get even more impact players on both sides of the ball.

The draft, Harbaugh has told San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke, is Baalke's opportunity to have a Bill Polian or Ozzie Newsome moment, to be shrewd and effective and cement his own legacy as a talent evaluator.

And then the rest is up to Harbaugh.

Over a meal of flatbread pizza, Caesar salad and tortilla soup, Jim and John Harbaugh stole a few minutes for themselves Tuesday during the owners' meetings. The one-on-one alone time is rare now, which makes it all the more meaningful.

"I'm very, very proud of him, very happy for his success," Jim said. "And you know, that's my brother. I love him. ... He's the best. He's the best. They had the best team. They had the best year. They had the best coach, and I'm really pleased for my brother that that's him standing there."

The order was important. John is older. He had been an NFL head coach longer. He had had early success, and crushing playoff disappointments. And then he won the Super Bowl.

It is a career arc John's little brother seems destined to follow. If nothing else, Jim Harbaugh's pickup truck should be able to take him there.