By Matthew Barrows, McClatchy Newspapers –
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jim Harbaugh is making good on his wish to follow in the footsteps of Bill Walsh.
Harbaugh on Saturday became the first 49ers coach since Walsh in 1981 to win the Coach of the Year award given by the Associated Press. Like Walsh three decades ago, Harbaugh took a team that finished 6-10 the previous year to a 13-3 record and the NFC Championship Game.
Upon being hired last year, Harbaugh said he long admired Walsh, who like Harbaugh coached at Stanford before being hired by the 49ers. Harbaugh spent six months learning from Walsh before Walsh’s death in 2007.
“Everything that came out of his mind, his heart, his mouth – I hung on every single word,” Harbaugh said upon being hired.
Walsh’s 1981 team won the NFC championship and Super Bowl XVI. Harbaugh’s 49ers fell short, losing to the New York Giants in overtime in the NFC title game.
Still, the turnaround in San Francisco was enough to convince voters he deserved the top honor among coaches. He received 45 of 50 possible votes. Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy, whose team went 15-1 in 2011, finished with three votes; Denver’s John Fox had two.
For the first time, the NFL announced the honors in an Oscars-like awards ceremony in Indianapolis, the site of today’s Super Bowl. Harbaugh did not attend, but several of his players did, including quarterback Alex Smith who accepted the award on Harbaugh’s behalf.
“He probably would say that he doesn’t deserve this,” Smith told the crowd. “That’s the type of guy he is. He’d give all the credit to the players, to the assistant coaches. From someone who’s had one or two coaches in my career, I’d just like to tell you this is well-deserved. Congratulations, coach.”
Smith, meanwhile, finished third (seven votes) for the Comeback Player of the Year award, which is given to the player who overcomes an obstacle – typically an injury – from the previous year.
The award went to Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford, who twice injured his throwing shoulder in 2010 but threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns this season.
Joining Smith in Indianapolis were his favorite target, tight end Vernon Davis, and linebackers NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis.
Aldon Smith finished the regular season with 14 sacks, one-half sack short of the season record for a rookie. Still, he trailed Denver linebacker Von Miller 39 votes to 11 for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Smith entered games in passing situations and didn’t start any contests. Miller, meanwhile, finished with 111/2 sacks. But he started 15 games and became one of the most visible players on the Broncos’ defense.
Defensive end Justin Smith finished with six votes for Defensive Player of the Year, an honor that went to Baltimore outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Willis and Bowman also received votes in that category.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was named the league’s MVP, beating New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees 48 votes to two.
Upon accepting the award, Rodgers, a Chico native who wore a Joe Montana T-shirt under his uniform at Cal, couldn’t resist a jab at the 49ers, who had the No. 1 draft pick in 2005 when Rodgers entered the NFL but took Alex Smith instead.
Rodgers said he grew up watching Montana and Steve Young, was a big fan of the 49ers, “and I’d like to thank them for drafting me.”
Brees, who set the season record for passing yards this year, won Offensive Player of the Year.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was named Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Baltimore center Matt Birk was chosen the Walter Payton Man of the Year for his work in the community.