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As Joe Staley lay on the turf, his screams filling a half-empty arena, he gave us what seemed like the answer.
During the week, the league's hottest topic was what to make of the 49ers. Were they simply enduring a sluggish start, thanks to a tough schedule and a spate of injuries? Or were they finally crashing to earth, having used up (and squandered) two years of good fortune?
After a week that started bad, got worse, threatened total catastrophe, but then seemed to offer a small ray of hope, Staley gave us what seemed like the answer. The truth about the Niners' season, screamed past the rafters and up to the heavens.
The week's first cracks appeared six days earlier, when Aldon Smith was busted—again—for DUI. Of course, driving drunk shows appalling judgment, no matter the circumstances. But Smith's case was stupefying. Smith was busted at 7 a.m., when most of his teammates were likely at work. He'd crashed into a tree and was so wasted that he was still gunning the engine, even while he slept at the wheel. The fact that no one was killed—including Smith—is more than a minor miracle.
Yet two days later, against the Colts, the Niners chose to play him.
Jim Harbaugh couldn't care less what you think. He knows what's right, and if you don't like it, then screw you. Unquestionably, this god complex is part of the reason he's such a great coach. But, of course, he's a human being. And here's the thing about human beings: when they think they're always right, eventually they're proven wrong.
In this case, Harbaugh was flagrantly wrong. He'd so often preached the gospel of discipline and accountability, yet when Smith showed a desperate need for both, he meekly passed the buck to the league. This wasn't Demarcus Dobbs, after all, the reserve whom Harbaugh had promptly suspended after a DUI last year. This was a star, and dammit, Harbaugh needed a win.
Harbaugh decided that a Week 3 game was more important than his own integrity. And almost justly, he lost both.
Though most expected an exorcism of the nightmare in Seattle, instead the Niners reprised it. With Vernon Davis sitting out, the receiving corps was at its nadir, no longer even professional-grade. Yet Greg Roman dialed up pass after pass, most of which naturally went incomplete. Meanwhile, though it was still a one-score game even as late as the fourth quarter, Frank Gore, who averaged nearly eight yards per rush, got all of three second-half carries. Then, at last, the D gave out, producing another blowout score.
And this time, there was no crowd-noise to blame.
Harbaugh had lost two games in a row, by a total score of 56 to 10. What once had been a Super Bowl favorite now looked like it couldn't beat anyone. Having failed to deliver the demanded win, Smith was sent away for rehab, which could keep him away for roughly a month. (At full salary, though; what a country.) Fellow all-world linebacker Patrick Willis joined the list of the walking wounded. And now, on a short week, off to St. Louis, to face a team we hadn't defeated in more than a year.
Things were bad and getting worse. And when the Rams were leading midway through the second quarter, having outgained the Niners by 80 yards, things were virtually catastrophic.
But Harbaugh is smart, if nothing else. And with the rest of the season slipping away, he finally accepted the ugly truth.
For more than four years, this page has featured a stirring debate on the topic of modern offensive philosophy. Many have argued the continued viability of an old-school run-first approach: using the run to set up the pass, trying to win by controlling the clock. It's a tough-guy style that appeals to our primal aggressiveness. The only thing wrong is it doesn't produce sustained success. Ever since Bill Walsh came around, the greatest teams have been pass-first teams: using the pass to get the lead, and then, having spread the field, using the run to keep the lead. There's no doubting the importance of balance and versatility, but that doesn't obscure the crucial fact: winning teams pass, and passing teams win.
Harbaugh knows this, of course. But he also knows that you can't waste time trying to pound square pegs. When he first arrived, his quarterback was Alex Smith, who could manage a game but couldn't go pass-heavy for long. So on went the run-first training wheels. The team won anyway, thanks to Harbaugh's singular genius. But as soon as Colin Kaepernick was ready, presenting the chance for a big-boy O, Harbaugh didn't hesitate. For the first time in more than a decade, the Niners had their pass-first QB.
But a pass-first O needs catching as much as passing. And by the second quarter in St. Louis, the truth was inescapable. The Niners had their pass-first QB, yet he didn't have enough weapons to throw to. So, with more than a touch of sadness I'd bet, Harbaugh did the sensible thing.
He put the training wheels back on.
Just like his prehistoric predecessor, Harbaugh made Gore his "bell cow," and Gore responded with 153 yards and a score. Meanwhile, Kaepernick did his best Alex Smith, taking checkdowns and only the occasional downfield shot. (His deep-throw percentage has plunged to 23%—down from last year's league-leading 30.) Our D strangled the Rams' hapless O, and the Niners notched a comfortable win that allowed us all to climb down from the ledge.
Afterward, Gore, who'd had it out with Harbaugh late against Indy, praised his coach for returning to what he felt was the Niners' true identity. "We had to get back on track and just be us," he said. "That's playing smash-mouth football ... That's what we do."
What Gore didn't say, though, is that we're doing it only with no other choice. Harbaugh didn't want to go back, to trying to grind out wins like this. He knows, long-term, he simply isn't playing the odds. But the mission now is not long-term. The mission now is to hold the fort. Pick up wins however we can, pray that they're enough for the playoffs, and hope, against hope, that by then we'll have the weapons we need, to take those training wheels back off, and hopefully put them away for good.
As this week of turmoil ended, it wasn't a plan that seemed likely to work. But as it turned out, Staley was wrong. It wasn't broken, not yet anyway. Despite having been literally bent over backward, Staley got up and soldiered on, limping into an uncertain future.
As a whole, the Niners are too.