NEW ORLEANS — In his first two seasons in San Francisco, Jim Harbaugh has taken the 49ers to two NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl.
Ron Rivera, hired by Carolina six days after Harbaugh was named the Niners’ coach in 2011, has kept the Panthers where they’ve hovered for most of their existence – below .500 and on the outside looking in at the playoffs.
But Rivera, who is 13-19 with the Panthers, believes he stepped into a more challenging situation than Harbaugh did when he moved from Stanford to San Francisco after guiding the Cardinal to an Orange Bowl victory in his final year at Stanford.
“I think everything is different. You look at that team they have and how it was built, a lot of those guys were there before he got there. All he did was take it to the next level,” Rivera said during a recent interview.
“I would have loved to have gone to a place where, hey, these (pieces) are in place. But I got to a team that wasn’t,” Rivera added. “And we’re trying to put those pieces in place. And I think we’ve done a pretty good job. I know the beginning this year didn’t look like that. But it feels like it at the end.”
Slow starts and an inability to win close games have plagued Rivera, who has a 2-12 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. The Panthers have played well down the stretch, with a 9-3 mark in games played after Thanksgiving.
Carolina won five of its final six games last season to finish 7-9 and in second place in the NFC South. Rivera waited a week before owner Jerry Richardson told him he would be retained.
The 49ers had not had a winning season since 2002 until Harbaugh arrived. And while the Niners struggled under Mike Singletary, Harbaugh’s predecessor, they were not devoid of talent, according to former San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci.
“Not to discredit the job that Jim’s doing, he’s doing a great job. But he began with a better team (than Rivera),” said Mariucci, an NFL Network analyst. “Mike Singletary had a pretty decent team there. I think they underachieved a little bit. They lost some close games. They had the talent for a better record, I would say.
“A lot of the building blocks were in place. A lot of these guys that are Pro Bowlers right now were inherited by Jim. He’s developed their skills and he’s getting their full potential out. So that team’s been building over the last five, six years.”
Fifteen of San Francisco’s 22 starters were acquired prior to Harbaugh’s tenure. By comparison, 10 of the Panthers’ starters this past season predated Rivera’s arrival.
Harbaugh and Denver coach John Fox, who spent nine years with the Panthers, have enjoyed the most success among the seven coaches hired before the 2011 season.
Two of the coaches – Pat Shurmur in Cleveland and Hue Jackson in Oakland – have been fired. Two more – Rivera and Dallas’ Jason Garrett – are on the hot seat. And besides Harbaugh and Fox, only Minnesota’s Leslie Frazier has made the postseason.
Harbaugh, who shuns any type of self-promotion, said the Niners’ success is due mostly to his players.
“The talent of our players, the character of our players, they’re the ones that are driving this from a blocking, tackling standpoint,” Harbaugh said. “But also from a leadership standpoint. I’ve never been around a team that is more focused on unity, more focused on winning than this group.”
But Harbaugh’s role in the Niners’ resurgence is unmistakable. His boldest move was replacing quarterback Alex Smith – who took the Niners to the NFC title game last season – with Colin Kaepernick after he played well when Smith was sidelined with a concussion in November.
San Francisco quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst said Harbaugh, an NFL quarterback for 14 seasons, has a great feel for the position.
“Not just on game day or during the week with the quarterbacks doing drills, but getting the right guy in the room,” said Chryst, a Panthers’ assistant under Fox. “As a result, we’ve got the right guys in the room to begin with, ultra-competitive but not in a scorch-the-earth policy that if things aren’t going their way they’re pouting.
“The team is still the most important thing, but they’re allowed to compete within that and then go shoulder to shoulder on game day,” Chryst said. “That’s a credit to Jim.”
Rivera was Harbaugh’s teammate for six seasons in Chicago, and worked with Baltimore coach John Harbaugh on Andy Reid’s staff in Philadelphia. When John was with the Eagles, Jack Harbaugh would visit his son in Philadelphia and take the Eagles’ defensive tapes back to Western Kentucky, where he was the head coach.
Rivera said the Harbaugh brothers have different personalities.
“John is a lot more steady and a little bit more reserved. And Jim puts it all out there. I think coach (Jack) Harbaugh is right in the middle,” Rivera said. “It’s amazing to see the dynamics when those guys get together, how competitive they are. It’s a neat thing. I think it’s a good thing for football and it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch the game.”