The proverbial "they" - that mystical group of expert NFL observers with everlasting wisdom and insight, but without a tangible identity or identities - say that football teams take on the personality of their head coach. Perhaps that's why, shortly before they hired Chan Gailey in 2010, the Buffalo Bills (reportedly) offered their head coaching job to Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh turned the Bills down, coaching at Stanford for another year while Gailey got the job in Buffalo two days after the Harbaugh report became public knowledge. Gailey is now in his third year on the job and has 12 wins in 36 tries. Harbaugh, in his second season in San Francisco, has 16 wins in 20 tries (17 in 22 if you want to count the post-season).
When the Bills take on the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, the matchup will pit the coaching styles of Gailey and Harbaugh against each other. The big difference is obvious.
"Mental toughness" - Gailey's buzz-worthy phrase of the week following a catastrophic meltdown against the New England Patriots - is something that the 49ers have not had an issue with under Harbaugh at virtually any point in time. Gailey extended the concept of mental toughness beyond in-game focus and solidarity on Wednesday when he talked about traveling across the country for this weekend's game.
"I think that when you come off of a loss, you have to travel all the way across the country and you have to go against a good football team, you are going to be challenged mentally," Gailey told reporters. "Your toughness mentally and physically is going to be challenged. That is what we have to get ready for - and we know that. Everybody on our team understands that."
It's fairly well-known at this point that after the Bills play the 49ers on Sunday, they'll be staying out west for a full week to prepare for their next game, a road date with the Arizona Cardinals. That's an idea that Harbaugh has used before; heck, he did it just last week, spending the week in Ohio to bridge the gap between road visits to Minnesota and New Jersey. Gailey ran his plan by Harbaugh.
"San Francisco has done it the last couple of years," Gailey explained. "I talked with Harbaugh and he thought there were some real positives of not making your team fly back-and-forth, putting them on a plane for five to six hours both ways and adjusting to the time change twice during the course of a year. That was the decision. I have never done this, to be honest with you. It made a little bit of sense to me not to put your players through that. It is a little bit of a pain for everybody else involved: for the coaches, for the video people, for equipment and trainers. But it is better for the players. That is why you are doing it."
When Mike Singletary coached the 49ers, the team was properly motivated by their fiery head coach; they just didn't play the game particularly well. Harbaugh has maintained that mental toughness - in fact, he's refined and improved it - while better preparing his team for each game from a tactical standpoint.
I asked David Fucillo of NinersNation.com what the biggest factor in the team's quick turnaround last season was. You likely know where this is headed.
"Although it is difficult to measure, it really comes down to the coaching staff," said Fucillo. "They generally have the 49ers completely prepared each week, whereas Singletary struggled in getting the team ready. While Singletary could deliver a fire and brimstone speech with the best of them, he was not an X's and O's guy, and his coaching staff left a lot to be desired."
Harbaugh has been the best of both worlds - a motivational, passionate (and to some, bordering on arrogant and brash) leader, as well as a coach that employed ideal offensive and defensive systems to maximize the talent on hand. At his best, Gailey is very adept at the latter; did you know that Ryan Fitzpatrick currently leads the NFL in touchdown passes? But he'll never be accused of being fiery, or arrogant, or brash, or anything else that Harbaugh is, despite his unquestioned knowledge of the game. His is a more measured approach, and it has yet to stack up favorably against the league's elite teams.
That's the difference between these two coaches: one is a good coach; the other has been a great head coach. Where Harbaugh's team plays like it's hell-bent on being the most dominant group in the game, Gailey's projects the image of a team taking its time and picking its spots in trying to get where it wants to be. Where Gailey apparently has to instill mental toughness in his players, Harbaugh's get theirs seemingly by osmosis. Harbaugh coaches with confidence and attitude; Gailey's style in Buffalo has been more along the lines of constantly having a trick up his sleeve. Gailey's team can exploit a weakness; Harbaugh's can dominate a strength.
Gailey picked the right week to begin harping on mental toughness with his team. They'll need every ounce of it they can muster against Harbaugh's mentally and physically tougher 49ers on Sunday.