Trust me here, I hate to do this. Usually the question's absurd, unfairly detached from the moment's context. But as we begin this playoff season, it just might be the only wayto gain some crucial perspective, on what just might be the most scrutinized 12-win team of all time.
We're going to play "If I had told you."
Again, I really hate to do this. Even writing those words gives me the creeps. The question focuses on the big picture, which of course can be telling; but it's always a mistake to ignore the details, which usually can tell you more. Befitting the road we've traveled, though, we ought to start with the longer view.
So here goes. Recall where you were on May 21, when you learned that Michael Crabtree had torn his Achilles. And now I'll ask you.
If I had told you that we'd go 12-and-4; that those losses would be to four playoff teams (including three division-winners); and that the last of those losses would occur in Week 10...
If I had told you that Colin Kaepernick, despite his depleted receiving corps, would throw for 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns; that he'd run for another 500 and 4; and that he'd rank top-10 in both efficiency rating and deep-throw percentage...
If I had told you that our offense would feature both a thousand-yard rusher and a thousand-yard receiver, joining a 3,000-yard passer for the first time since 2001...
...what would you have said?
You'd have had no other choice. You'd have said that we'd have an elite offense, administered by an elite QB. And adding our perennially elite D, you'd have said that the Sixth would be ours for the taking.
Yet there's a very good chance you're not saying this now. And the question is, why not?
The answer's in those details, of course. And as I've said, usually they tell you more. In this case, though, I think they don't.
Let's start with the record. 12-and-4 was indeed a great season, under any circumstances but especially ours. (Never mind the upheaval at wideout; we had also to deal with the dreaded curse of the Super Bowl Hangover.) But the first issue is that it simply wasn't enough; Seattle won the division and the league's most daunting home-field advantage. Plus, there's a flip side to our "quality losses": of the five other teams in the NFC playoffs, we've already lost to three (and we'll play a fourth on a frozen tundra). Put it together, and our road to the Super Bowl has never been tougher.
My answer to this is it just doesn't matter. As we've discussed, the home field (even when it's Seattle's) doesn't matter anymore. What matters now is health and momentum, and the Niners lead the league in both. And as for our record against our likely playoff opponents, all those losses took place before Crabtree's return, when we were completely a different team. In other words, those losses are moot. Please note again, since Crabtree's return, we haven't lost. To anyone.
So let's move on to Kaepernick, where the weekly debate has been exhausting. Even his harshest critics wouldn't dare rely on his lowly rank in yards per game32ndsince that rank reflects only our coaches' commitment to offensive balance. (His rank in yards per attempt, obviously the better measure of his production, is eighth.) So instead they assail his component parts: his footwork is rough, he flees the pocket when he should climb it, he fails to consistently see the whole field. And they use the nitpicker's signature weapon: the all-22 screenshot, usually showing a receiver wide open, while the quarterback sets up to throw somewhere else. The QB had only fractions of seconds to process a staggering series of data, yet the critics stare at this frozen instant, captured from some overhead vantage, and they wave it around, like some smoking gun.
This isn't to say that Kaepernick always makes perfect decisions. (And amazingly, his play-clock issues still persist, though his coaches have a hand in those.) But all QBs have such nits to be picked; as I've noted, the screenshot police have made just as much hay about Russell Wilson, Eli Manning, and even Tom Brady. (I shudder to think what they would've come up with if Joe Montana were playing today.) So on this point at least, the big picture tells us much more than the details. Since perfection's impossible, Kaepernick's job is not to be perfect; his job is to be, in general and in the big moments, explosively efficient (or efficiently explosive). And he has done it, absolutely. Indeed, of the eight passers who've gone deep more often, only two have been more efficient.
And that's including the time B.C. In Crabtree's five games, despite taking on three top-15 Ds, Kaepernick's rating was 101, 10 points higher than his mark for the year. He also led six fourth-quarter scoring drives in one-score scenarios, thus showing excellent poise in the clutch.
Yet because he misses a guy now and then, we're supposed to think that he's average or worse? All I can do is say it again: Colin Kaepernick isn't the issue.
There's a flip side, though, to all those close games, which do evince one more detail, the one that does deserve serious mention.
Three years in, Jim Harbaugh remains a mystery. I still don't doubt his own philosophy of almost wildly violent aggression. But I don't understand why he doesn't insist on coordinators who share it. On Sunday, we did the same thing we did against New England, almost exactly a year before. We came out aggressively, we got a big lead, and then for some reason we simply stopped. Greg Roman wasted play after play, running into the teeth of the top rushing D; and on rush and coverage Vic Fangio went soft. And just like we did a year before, we gave up the lead and asked Kaepernick to save us. Once again, Kaepernick did. But with Aaron Rodgers waiting at home, this persistent tendencyto win close when we should win bigis a telling detail, and a troubling one.
In the end, though, even that detail is lost amid a big picture like this. A picture of nearly constant winning. A picture that demands your faith.
I won't begrudge you your share of doubt. Given how the last two years ended, you're entitled to think that we've wasted our chance, that only more heartbreak is waiting ahead. As recently as two weeks ago, when the Falcons recovered an onside kicka desperate play that works about twice out of every 10 triesI posed the same question I asked myself in the wreckage of those two playoff defeats: why on earth do I put myself through this? But right away, as NaVorro Bowman closed the Stick in perfect style, Harbaugh's Niners answered the question: This right here. This is why.
And that's just it. You can ask your questions, lay out all your reasons for doubt. (Heaven knows, I've done it myself.) Yet no matter what, Harbaugh seems to come up with the answers. Of course I understand he might lose. But I'll never, ever, believe that he will.
So another playoff season awaits. Another Super Bowl is at stake.
And I believe. I believe that we'll win it.
By Jeff Kaplan
By: Dallas Niner FanDate: Thursday, January 2, 2014 at 7:23 AMComment: Great article Jeff, I totally agree with you. One thing that needs to be pointed out on the Kap thing, not only was he missing his best receiver (Crabtree) but in 50% of our losses Vernon Davis was not in the game. So Kap had very limited weapons yet still had decent numbers. My concern is our pass defense. Do you have any thoughts on why our pass defense is so dismal lately? Keep up the good work.
By: Clay MulderDate: Wednesday, January 1, 2014 at 11:34 PMComment: Roman was co-offensive coordinator with Shaw at Stanford in 2009, the year of the "what's your deal game".
By: ShaneDate: Wednesday, January 1, 2014 at 8:33 PMComment: Great article Jeff. Great take on the year, great perspective. I really like this piece. Really not much left to say, you just about said it all. The only thing I would add (and I might have missed it) is that Kap has JUST finished his first full season of games. ppl act like what we see is what we are going to get forever. he is a developing QB. its his 3rd year. I know you feel the same, but I really like what we have in a guy who has started only 26 games.
By: PokerjohnDate: Wednesday, January 1, 2014 at 5:37 PMComment: Great article, Jeff. I like the theory that Harbaugh and Roman are calling a "vanilla" offense during the regular season. It makes sense, show nothing more than what's needed to win. When the playoffs come we will have numerous wrinkles to throw at them (I hope). I really don't want to believe that JH is stubborn and stupid enough to think that he has to change nothing for the post-season. If we go up on Green Bay early by 2 or 3 scores, we need to keep putting the pressure on. Rather than giving up for 2 1/2 quarters then showing up in the 4th. Unfortunately, only time will tell if there are adjustments being made. We will see on Sunday. Go niners!! #QuestForSix
By: VermonatorDate: Wednesday, January 1, 2014 at 4:53 PMComment: Good read... This season reminds me so much of the '88 season. There was so much controversy that year and a lot of really close games till the end. It wasn't until after the Superbowl that I could finally relax and enjoy what I had just bare-knuckled all year. As I look back, though, that was my favorite season and so can this, just have faith.
By: GonzolaDate: Wednesday, January 1, 2014 at 3:08 PMComment: This article is magnificent. Despite the woody it just gave me - it almost asks the essential question that no one wants to answer: Will the 49ers win another Super Bowl? Yes, we will and if I'm correct and the NFL is truly fixed like most professional sports, college football, etc. then we will win Super Bowl L at "home" in Santa Clara. Then, had the officials called a clean game and the 49ers not thrown things away last year we would be 7-0, but sadly I think we'll go to 6-1 or perhaps 6-2 as maybe we need to be taught yet another lesson in the big game... this year or next. Wish we could REpeat or THREEpeat, but those days are gone just like the days of bonecrushing hits and real MEAT football as the NFL transitions to the NPL - the Pussification of a Nation! GO NINERS!
By: Dan B.Date: Wednesday, January 1, 2014 at 12:17 PMComment: Whoooo. I just got tingles!!!!
By: LadaleDate: Wednesday, January 1, 2014 at 7:36 AMComment: You're right. The 9ers have the league's longest winning streak right now and since their bye week no other has faced stronger and more physical defenses (Arizona, Seattle, St. Louis, Carolina, New Orleans). And as you stated, the two L's were before Crabtree and Patton. They've also been prepped in the defensive backfield, taking on the likes of Roddy White & Larry Fitzgerald. No other team left in the playoffs presents those challenges both offensively and defensively. No other but the 49ers. I believe they get it.
By: Ron michaudDate: Wednesday, January 1, 2014 at 6:48 AMComment: Your analysis brought tears to this niner fanatic. I want to believe... Even in Seattle... But the road is long and everything has to go right. Patton, James, McDonald, Wright and all the other pieces have to step up in the spotlight and shine. GO NINERS!!!!!
By: MCNDate: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 9:26 PMComment: JH's offensive philosophy is guided by one simple principle: Do not turn the ball over. That's it. Teams that don't turn the ball over in the NFL win. How many picks did Kaep have this year? Exactly. Does he look hesitant at times? Yes. Because he is instructed to not throw the ball unless he's 100% sure it won't be intercepted. All this is thrown out the window when the niners have the rare opportunity to play from behind with moments left to win. Then the Kaep we all love comes out, and it's amazing. Enjoy those moments when you can.
By: Hearstfan (JRSanDiego)Date: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 5:52 PMComment: Great job - I totally agree with your Roman mystery issue. I still think that the fans can sense that despite the record and the stats, this is not a smoothly operating passing attack on par with top 10 offenses. That is where the fear comes in when playing playoff contenders. We've lost to all the elite playoff teams except GB.
By: Darrell GDate: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 3:52 PMComment: I've been frustrated by winning close games that shouldn't be close myself. It invites the shot getting past the goalie. I think part of that is that they didn't want to give too much game tape to the enemy so they kept it as vanilla as possible. The thing I am really still steaming about is that bogus roughing call in New Orleans. That call doesn't happen and the 9ers are the #1 seed. Aw well, go 9ers.
By: eastcoastfanDate: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 3:24 PMComment: This may be the best article I've ever read about the 49ers, so true and im even guilty if it. It seems like so long ago that we were playing with quarterbacks like rattay or dorsey.... that we expect perfection now is crazy given where we came from in the last decade.
By: PaulBDate: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 3:13 PMComment: Well done again, Jeff. I always look forward to your take and you seem to never disappoint.
By: CindyDate: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 2:59 PMComment: Have you considered that it is maybe Harbaugh telling Roman to go conservative with a lead? He has that tough-guy personality - smash-mouth football. Sometimes I think Roman gets too much blame.
By: Andy44Date: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 2:42 PMComment: Best writing I've read in a long while. I will re-read this as the naysayers continue their nonsense. We have as good a chance as the rest of these teams. Just hope Roman opens it up and stays aggressive.
By: grizzlyadamsDate: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 2:19 PMComment: Nice read, Jeff. I remember when everything you wrote was negative. Haha. Those were the days...crappy days, that is.