SANTA CLARA -- More so than he is at most of his media sessions, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was in an expansive mood Monday. He even made a self-deprecating joke. A reporter wondered if Harbaugh knew that back in his NFL playing days, he had become the first sack victim of Ray Lewis, Baltimore's retiring All-Pro linebacker.

"Yeah, I did know that," Harbaugh said. "My dad told me."

Pause for comic timing.

"My legend grows," Harbaugh said.

This brought laughter and a follow-up question: Did he remember that historic sack?

"No," Harbaugh said, then grinned. "In 1996? I've forgotten half my life."

Which is definitely not true. Harbaugh remembers almost everything. And he always knows much more than he lets on. Yet because of his often-disobliging approach to news conferences, there's an impression that he is some sort of rockheaded and supercilious clod.

He isn't. All right, so he can be rockheaded about certain things. But mainly and plainly, Harbaugh is a guy who wants to win football games and fails to see the point in wasting time on anything that does not lead to winning football games.

That probably describes most NFL head coaches. Harbaugh is just more up front about it than most. And he definitely understands that this week, building to Saturday's playoff game with Green Bay, is a legacy-making week for him and his team.


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By the time the game ends, we will conclusively discover if Harbaugh's big choice to switch quarterbacks in midseason from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick truly was the right move. We will definitively learn if it was a smart roll of the dice for Harbaugh to sign aging wide receiver Randy Moss. We will see if the decision was correct to make no placekicking switch a month ago when David Akers was so obviously struggling, instead of delaying that potential risky move until now.

Harbaugh gets it, though. He knows that if the 49ers lose Saturday, fans will easily forget the good stuff that unfurled over the past four months, one of the more fascinating regular seasons in franchise memory. It definitely was not the joy ride of 2011, when Harbaugh swept in as a rookie NFL coach and surprised the entire league by reorienting the 49ers culture and rebooting the 49ers offense while producing a 13-3 record and a trip to the NFC title game.

This 2012 regular season, with its 11-4-1 record, was far more volatile, from an opening day adrenaline rush in Green Bay ... to a thud loss in Minnesota ... to the failure to win three straight games at any point ... to the bold quarterback switch ... to the strange tie with St. Louis ... to the epic Monday night trouncing of the Bears ... to the glory in New England followed by the ignominy in Seattle.

"I wouldn't really compare it to last year," Harbaugh acknowledged, "other than to say every week has felt like a football fight. That's been the same."

And, yes, it has had a physical effect on him. One day last week -- the 49ers' bye week -- Harbaugh was in a relatively relaxed mood, sitting on an equipment table in the locker room at the team's training facility. Someone remarked on his still-strong throwing arm, which he airs out in practice or pregame warm-ups, and then complimented Harbaugh for being in such good shape.

To the contrary, Harbaugh said. His body has never felt so nonrobust. He hates that he hasn't been able to maintain better overall fitness. He said the "stress" and the time-consuming nature of his job have made it more difficult to do so. It was a rare candid moment from someone who doesn't usually open the door about his inner thoughts.

Also, lest we forget, Harbaugh did have a medical hiccup with an irregular heartbeat less than two months ago. He returned to the job quickly after undergoing what was termed a "minor procedure." Harbaugh said he underwent a "cardiovert." You might want to do an Internet search on that term. The procedure's description does not sound minor. It involves strong drugs and electric shocks.

None of that has stopped Harbaugh from approaching this postseason with (you guessed it) enthusiasm unknown to mankind. And while it is difficult to imagine his outward self-confidence ever wobbling, Harbaugh has spoken several times after losses this season about going back and re-evaluating philosophies and strategies.

On some level, then, Harbaugh must be wondering along with the rest of us whether the critical choices he made from September through December will play out in the best possible way during January. As his heart issue proves, the man is human and vulnerable.

Not that he would ever own up to that publicly. Harbaugh's media sessions will continue to be Theatre Of The Opaque. Monday, he spoke about how Kaepernick has improved steadily throughout the season, although his worst game happened barely two weeks ago and he finished the season with a worse passer rating (98.3) than the man he replaced, Smith (104.1). On another matter, Harbaugh said it was possible both Akers and his potential kicking replacement, Billy Cundiff, could dress for Saturday's game. Uh, right.

Tony La Russa, the former A's and Cardinals manager, was interviewed recently about Harbaugh by staff writer Cam Inman. Harbaugh and La Russa are friends. And La Russa seems to get a kick out of Harbaugh's method of, ahem, public relations.

"I love the way he does press conferences," La Russa said. "He's not there for the fans to say, 'Oh, what a great personality.' He's there for his players to say, 'I trust that guy and he's there for us.' ... I really admire him.''

Followers of the 49ers generally do the same. However, for any NFL coach, admiration can be fleeting. Harbaugh's legend will grow again over the next few weeks. But which way?

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.