This was the moment. The moment that sealed it.
Fourth quarter. The Niners had simply dismantled the Bucs, beating ‘em every conceivable way. The score was 34 to 3. David Akers kicked a 46-yard field goal to put the game even more out of reach. Penalty, though. On the defense. Leverage.
Let's see here. What should we do?
Three weeks earlier, faced with an eerily similar decision, Jim Harbaugh had declined a first down that would've given him a chance to kill an opponent, and he had paid for it. Here the opponent was already dead. Yet THIS time--perhaps egged on by the Bucs' chippy play--Harbaugh showed us how much things had changed.
Harbaugh decided to kill ‘em again.
On the very next play, Alex Smith threw a touchdown pass, his third of the day. And the Niners, officially, were back.
After Dallas, the buzzword was "identity." Apparently unwilling to inflict his own--an identity of almost violent aggression--Harbaugh seemed to be groping around. Waiting, it seemed, for his players to pick an identity for themselves. So during the following game and a half, his players groped around as well, looking lost in a meandering murk.
Then they played that second half. Down big in Philly with nothing to lose, they threw caution to the wind, staging a comeback so focused in its energy, so inspired in its power, you could almost sense the collective discovery.
For Harbaugh in particular, the discovery was this: They're ready. Ready to reach out and CRUSH someone.
Against the Bucs, they didn't wait. Set up at the 50 by another excellent Ted Ginn return, the drive went as follows. A quick Smith pass to Frank Gore for six. The obligatory Gore-up-the-middle-for-one. Another quick pass to Gore for 12. And a deep, perfect pass to Delanie Walker for the score.
Passing first. It just works.
And just as you'd draw it up, this aggressiveness rubbed off on our defense, particularly the secondary. Torched last week by Michael Vick's aerial circus, the coverage was almost literally attached to the Bucs' receivers. Carlos Rogers and Chris Culliver picked off passes on consecutive drives; Rogers scored on the first, and Smith cashed in on the second when another deep pass drew a flag at the goal line. The Bucs' defense started to sag, and that's when Gore started sapping their will. Yet Smith continued to lead the way, hitting Vernon Davis for two more scores, proving you CAN take points off the board.
And Harbaugh didn't even stop there, passing on fourth-and-three to set up a touchdown whose sole purpose was to humiliate. He paid for this one, with Josh Morgan's ankle, but dare I say that he bought something more. As Harbaugh put it, his eyes blazing: "We're not taking a knee with four minutes left in the game."
These, at last, are Harbaugh's Niners.
Of course, an aggressive identity is one thing; executing it is another, and we've got no choice but to give some props to those main recipients of our abuse. Aided by Harbaugh's versatile schemes, as well as Smith's quick decisions and this general infusion of nasty, the offensive line was virtually perfect. A tougher test lies ahead next week, but, yeah, against the Bucs, these guys surely did not suck.
Which brings us, inevitably, to Smith himself.
It's pretty clear that Smith will never fill up a stat sheet. Even in THIS game, which he thoroughly dominated, he completed 11 passes for 170 yards. The touchdowns spiffed up the quarterback rating--where good God he's now third in the league--but Smith just isn't a numbers guy, and that's likely the way it'll always be.
But my word, the difference is real. Truly, unbelievably real. His reads, decisions, and accuracy, not to mention his command and confidence: everything exponentially better. In past years, things devolved to the point where there was a sense of doom every time he dropped back. Now that sense is upside down; an incompletion is met with surprise, and an interception would be downright shocking.
It's way too soon to say that Smith is once again our QB of the future. Something tells me that eventually we'll still need more than Smith can give. But we can't deny this simple truth, which once had seemed unthinkable:
We can run a pass-first O, and we can win with Alex Smith.
But the bigger story, of course, is Harbaugh, and his restoration of the Niners' identity. As you might know, for years now I've been agitating about getting back to our glorious roots. Not only winning, but winning the way the Niners SHOULD win. Winning the way that once was uniquely our own. Winning the way that once made us special.
You see, I'm a Niner fan, truly I am, but my fandom is somewhat complex. It's not any better or worse than yours; it's just complicated. Sure, like you, I love the Niners. But just as much, I love the Niners in the abstract. Not only what they are, but also what they should represent: a style, a vision. The ultimate melding of mind and muscle. Genius, which will kick your ass.
The Niners wasted years and years, trying on these strange identities that just didn't fit. Some of us feared that the real Niners, the true Niners, might've been lost forever. But on this glorious day, Jim Harbaugh delivered a stirring message. A message fueled by a primal rebirth. A message that said, beyond any doubt:
We are the Niners. And we will simply destroy you.
Date: October 17, 2011 at 11:11 PM
Comment: It feels great, after all these years, having the 49ers at 5-1 and playing like a team that has earned respect. However, although he has improved, Alex Smith has played a small part vis-a-vis quarterbacks on other successful teams. The Ravens won the Superbowl with Dilfer, and the Giants won with Hostetler, but the odds of Alex Smith taking the 49ers to a Superbowl are very slim. So, let's enjoy the ride (playoffs?) for as long as Gore stays healthy and Alex plays better than his past history (and better than he played against Detroit). And let's hope Kaepernick is, at least, a QB that will be considered among the more talented young QBs we see around the NFL.
By: Chris Platt
Date: October 17, 2011 at 12:25 AM
Comment: Lol, settle down Schwartz. All I'm saying is that guys like you (Terry B.) probably can't wait for Alex to do something wrong so can hop back on the hater train and say, "I told you so." Alex is far from a pro bowl QB but...lol geez man you're just so damn negative.
By: Terry B.
Date: October 15, 2011 at 11:08 AM
Comment: Yeah, you're right, Chris. Just because I'm not ready to call Alex Smith a great quarterback five games into the season after he's stunk up the field for six years means that I WANT our starting QB to fail. You've got me all figured out.
Date: October 15, 2011 at 10:59 AM
Comment: Terry B. I think it's rational to think of Alex not in terms of what he was, but what he has become. I have always seen Alex as a really young quarterback with less skills than his draft pick position indicated. It goes deeper than even that with Alex and I will skip the ugly complicated history. What it comes down to is that Alex has never completely been defeated. He has collapsed and imploded quite a few times in some really ugly games in equally ugly fashion. But he has always bounced back eventually before getting his butt kicked again somewhere else. No, he has never been a great quarterback and I don't think anyone who was defending him was looking at his past. Because looking at his past performance, he wasn't very good. If it was a lack of coaching support, lack of offensive line, lack of experience, whatever, he wasn't good enough to get beyond it. Some guys have always seen some potential in the guy, so they backed him up, they still back him up. My point is, I don't think it was irrational to say Alex could someday be a good quarterback given the right conditions, whatever those conditions might have to be. I think those conditions might just be having a coach like Jim Harbaugh. Maybe any guy with a halfway decent set of abilities can become a very good quarterback with Harbaugh's help. There really isn't any evidence to even refute that. So to answer the question is it rational to determine that Alex Smith is a good quarterback based on the five games he has played this season, my answer is it is rational to determine he is a good enough quarterback to win games in Harbaugh's offense. He's already been doing it, and it's likely he will continue to. The reason it is different is a combination of superior coaching he did not have access to in the past, and experience. It is reasonable to say that given enough experience and proper training a guy can become a good quarterback if he has a decent set of skills and abilities to begin with. I don't think it's unreasonable given past history to hold reservations about the future, if you are worried he may revert to past difficulties. But it's also not unreasonable to acknowledge that he has learned something in the past five games, but even more in the past five years that has helped his game tremendously. He is just as likely if not more likely to continue to get better as have something happen to reverse his fortune. Neither way of thinking is irrational, it's just a matter of how you think. Are you conservative, always expecting the worst of people until you see results? Or are you proactive, always seeing potential in what people can do if they are given the proper support? Neither way of thinking is 100% right or wrong 100% of the time. One way of thinking has a higher ceiling, and one of them has more potential for mediocrity. It's up to you to figure out which is which.
By: Chris Platt
Date: October 14, 2011 at 9:09 PM
Comment: If you ask a reasonable fan Greg if Sing was a good coach, their answer would be probably not. Lol, ok, we're not idiots here. My only issue is with the people like you and Kaplan who continue to beat a dead horse. There is no reason to constantly trash the guy. It's over, he's gone, we have a new coach. We're all excited about the Niners' start but it's a long season and Smitty, as we all know, is capable of returning to his old form much to the pleasure of guys like Terry B although I think he'll be fine.
Date: October 13, 2011 at 5:44 PM
Comment: I never thought Alex Smith was being coached by anyone with a clue. He may not be a great quarterback, but he has talent.
Harbaugh has unlocked Alex Smith, which has indirectly unlocked 12 young talented draft picks from the past 7 drafts. The unlocking of Smith has just touched the tip of the iceberg. No more defenses blitzing every down and playing the run every down. The defense will get better too as they will no longer be asked to defend with opponent drives starting in the red zone.
By: Terry B.
Date: October 13, 2011 at 9:28 AM
Comment: Wait a minute, it was irrational to determine that Smith was a bad QB based on six years, but it's rational to determine that Smith is a good QB based on five games?
By: M. Horner
Date: October 13, 2011 at 7:43 AM
Comment: One thing that's becoming abundantly clear is just how bad Mike Singletary sucked. I wonder if the Singletary homers will ever admit that. He had essentially this same team and look how bad he was. My God did that guy suck. Just total, complete, epic suck.
By: Pierce Baker
Date: October 12, 2011 at 3:44 PM
Comment: Face it.... let's be men here... Although your negativity was fit for the past years understandably... You were wrong about Smith... come on now... a couple months ago you wrote a whole article about how Smith was going to be gone next year... Granted Harbaugh is a genius... but admit that Smith is a good quarterback... that's all I ask.
By: Deborah Downer
Date: October 12, 2011 at 1:31 PM
Comment: I'm disappointed in this article. I wanted the "Doom-And-Gloom" Jeff. I wanted him to complain about something, even though the Niners won.
By: Dallas Niner Fan
Date: October 12, 2011 at 1:06 PM
Comment: "But on this glorious day, Jim Harbaugh delivered a stirring message. A message fueled by a primal rebirth. A message that said, beyond any doubt:
We are the Niners. And we will simply destroy you."
Great writing that is poetry to my ear. You deserve the nobel prize for sportswriting on this one. I got goosebumps, man. It's great to be a Niner fan right now. Great article my friend.
By: Alden Brown
Date: October 12, 2011 at 12:07 PM
Comment: Part of the style and vision that is part of the Niners in the abstract, though, is the class of Bill Walsh. Even when he put up 55 points on you, no one ever questioned that Walsh was a gentleman and a good sport. Harbaugh has a ways to go in this department. For all of his outstanding traits, he does carry the reputation of a punk who will go for two when he's up by 35 in the fourth quarter. I can't agree that we "gained something more" by passing on fourth and three with a 38-point lead. We had already established our identity by that point. Would you rather have 41-3 and Josh Morgan for the rest of the season, or 48-3 and Josh Morgan on injured reserve? I agree with Jeff wholeheartedly that you need to be as aggressive as all hell in building and maintaining a lead. But being as aggressive as all hell when you're blowing out the other team at the end of the fourth quarter? That's just dumb. Only bad can come of that. Jeff loves Harbaugh's quote that we aren't going to "take a knee" with four minutes left in the game. But no one is suggesting a knee. How about a handoff to the third-string running back instead of breaking the ankle of your top wideout? Doesn't that work? Also, what are you afraid of, Jim, that your defense will give up 45 points in 4 minutes? Is THAT what you think of your defense? Before anyone jumps down my throat, I'm not really faulting Harbaugh here. The blowout wins have been few and far between, so this playcalling was understandable. I just hope that these types of wins will become sufficiently commonplace that we can rest our stars at the end of games and become secure enough in ourselves to take a knee at the five-yard line in garbage time. Risking top players in garbage time is certainly not indicative of the "genius" that Jeff seeks, and hopefully it won't be necessary once we put the identity question to rest.
By: Lucky Phil
Date: October 12, 2011 at 12:05 PM
Comment: Holy $hit how about these Niners! Who knew we had a bad-a$$ football team like this? In just 5 weeks and a short pre-season Harbaugh did what the Snake Oil Salesman and Nuts Dingleberry couldn't do in 8 years. Which brings back some troubling memories of the seasons lost. Back on Oct 30th of 2008, Mike Singletary during halftime of his first game as interim coach dropped trou. Let's look back on that eventful day from the players' perspective. Eric Heitmann: "Is this another version of the nutcracker?... because I'm not going for this". Joe Nedney: "Does he want me to go for two?... because I'll kick those phuckers through the uprights". Alex Smith: "Ok, I'm lost. Can someone explain this?" Shaun Hill: "I think coach is looking for his keys... someone tell him it's only halftime". Joe Staley: "Let's give him a minute... I think he is demonstrating a new blocking scheme. The left testicle is the X and right the O... and he is blocking his left testicle with the O...". Frank Gore (front row): "I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel... here". Have a good week everybody!
Date: October 12, 2011 at 9:51 AM
Comment: I'm a bit mystified that it happened this quickly. If you look back, before the wheels came off, it was clear that the team needed to rebuild. Although it was still a good team, it had fallen from the '94 "championship quality" team. In case nobody noticed? We've rebuilt. Lots of young players on this squad. Young and VERY GOOD players. We've had seven years of high draft position to restock this team. It shows.
By: Bravo Jeff
Date: October 12, 2011 at 9:35 AM
Comment: Well Jeff, we are all glad to see you back from the abyss.
Date: October 12, 2011 at 8:57 AM
Comment: Why you gotta be so negative?...
By: AJ Dembroski
Date: October 12, 2011 at 8:13 AM
Comment: ...for the record, I'm not asking Kaplan to take back everything or to proclaim Alex Smith the best QB in the NFL by any means, but I get the sense he is qualifying every positive mostly because of his past criticism, especially his criticism of Harbaugh for bringing him back.
I've never seen a QB go an entire game without a mistake, and Alex Smith is no exception. The fact remains he's completing 66% of his passes for nearly 8 yards an attempt and is 2nd in the league in interception percentage. The only reason his overall numbers aren't that impressive is that he's ranked 29th in the league in attempts.
Had he the median number of attempts this season for a starter, his stats project to 111/169 (66%) for 1,301 yards (7.7 ypa, 260 ypg), 9 touchdowns and 1 interception.
By: AJ Dembroski
Date: October 12, 2011 at 8:03 AM
Comment: In the case of both potential interceptions, it seems very likely that what was supposed to be a stop-fade was run as a standard go or fade. Alex has been very accurate this year, I have a hard time believing he suddenly threw two immensely stupid passes after having done so little of that all season. In both cases, a stop-fade probably would have been complete... or at least on target.
Date: October 12, 2011 at 8:00 AM
Comment: Jeff...wow, great article. I watched this game...and as it wore on, I dared not leave the couch for a single minute, or I'd miss something remarkable. After that stirring comeback in Philly, this team could've gone high or low. By that I mean, after such an emotional comeback to literally snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, they could've let down. But, Harbaugh would have none of that...they were sky high going into the Tampa game and literally kicked their tails...all day. Love the fact Harbaugh never let off the accelerator...for he knew his team needed to destroy someone. Tampa just happened to be the unlucky opponent. It sets up what should be quite a contest in Detroit this Sunday. Two teams who've sucked for a long time are now two of the hottest teams in the NFL. How cool is that. There's no doubt...in Harbaugh we trust. This man is driven...and he's driving this long-time underachieving group toward something special. After 10 years of suffering, ain't it cool...
Date: October 12, 2011 at 7:45 AM
Comment: AJ, maybe he can't give credit without qualification because qualification is still called for. This isn't Aaron Rodgers we're talking about. The following is from the completely neutral site ProFootballFocus.com:
"San Francisco - Three things of note:
1) The curious case of Alex Smith:
I wondered aloud early in the game if it was really possible that Jim Harbaugh had fixed Alex Smith since becoming 49ers coach in the off-season. I asked this because Smith opened the game more or less perfectly, with some good reads, positive check-downs and then an extremely good touchdown throw to open the scoring as he hit Delanie Walker in between three Tampa Bay defenders in the end zone. At this point I was busy making a case for Harbaugh to be coach of the year based purely on that, but then of course the old Alex Smith reminded people he was still there. Smith wasn't bad, as he has been in the past, but he had a pair of interceptions dropped and seemed to have spotty accuracy at best on some throws. Maybe Harbaugh hasn't fixed Smith, but he might have him playing just well enough not to lose."
Date: October 12, 2011 at 6:18 AM
Comment: all alex needed was someone believing in him--thanks coach!!
By: AJ Dembroski
Date: October 12, 2011 at 5:10 AM
Comment: You STILL can't give Smith credit without qualification. Lost in the numbers talk, you failed to mention that had he as many ATTEMPTS as, say, Aaron Rodgers had, he'd have broken the 300 yard mark. He came out early from a dominating performance, and when he was playing, he was spectacular. Indeed, the best QB performance of the week... he simply had too few attempts to rack up huge yardage numbers. Give the man some credit WITHOUT a "but" for once.
By: Terry B.
Date: October 12, 2011 at 4:07 AM
Comment: For some reason, I keep hearing in my head Harvey Keitel's classic line from Pulp Fiction: "o.k., gentlemen, let's not all start suckin' each other's d**ks just yet."
Date: October 11, 2011 at 10:44 PM
Comment: Will get ready for a beatdown when you get to THE GREAT DETROIT LIONS
Date: October 11, 2011 at 10:13 PM
Comment: You wrote: "The ultimate melding of mind and muscle. Genius, which will kick your ass."
I agree. When things are tough for the 49ers, as they have been for years prior, I wish you were a bit more agreeable. Reading chicken scratch that is 'call-it-like-you-see-it' is unbearable and sickening. This is refreshing. You've earned one cool point, Kaplan. You have a lot to go.
One step in the right direction, which sold me on this team, was one small thing that happened against the Eagles. Not the comeback, but what happened during a second-half drive. One random play: Bruce Miller's catch in the flat hammering his way beyond the first-down marker.
It just looked right. It looked like a team to beat, and it reminded me of... RATHMAN!!!!!
Our team is playing like a team, and as a few of the faithful have said already, enjoy this, and 'join the party!'
Date: October 11, 2011 at 9:31 PM
Comment: I'm a longtime niner fan and very pleased by what I see..............but.........it's still early in the season and some of the comments are overzealous. Harbaugh is trying to let you know that by deflecting the heaping praise the 49ers are getting. Davis and Gore would be wise to cut the comments alluding to the other team quitting. We are ending a long run as one of the worst teams in the NFL...........let's show some class and not forget the humility we just suffered.
Date: October 11, 2011 at 9:27 PM
Comment: Now did it hurt? With so much negativity going on in this country, watching a football game is such a welcome escape. I've followed your articles the last two years and felt the same frustration from the ineptness of the past 8 years and oftentimes agreed with your criticism of our team, but reading a positive or constructive feedback "once in a while" is always a welcome respite from all the obvious deficiencies pointed out by writers like yourself. I honestly didn't think you had it in you, thank you.
Date: October 11, 2011 at 9:13 PM
Comment: Extremely eloquent. You perfectly articulated my sentiments about Sunday's game. I generally think that these are the best times to be fans of a team. We have suffered through a bleak decade, and to be on the cusp of relevancy again is extraordinary and rewarding. Our faith is paying off.
By: cliff green
Date: October 11, 2011 at 8:29 PM
Comment: Nice article! I've been a Niner fan since the mid 70's and have seen some pretty bad coaching (Clark, Meyers, Erickson, etc.) and one of the best, Coach Walsh. It's really good to finally get a coach that has a plan and a fire inside and that wants to be the best at what he is doing!!!!! I was talking to a former player before the season started and he said "Don't be surprised if the team does very well this year, maybe even the playoffs. Coach Harbaugh knows what he is doing, and pays attention to the details, and can explain why and how a play works." He evidently knew then what we are seeing now, that JH has a plan!!!!! And I am sure having fun watching OUR 49ers play again. LET'S GO NINERS...............WE'RE BACK!!!!!!!!
By: AJ Bolino
Date: October 11, 2011 at 7:48 PM
Comment: Good stuff amigo. It's a lot more fun dissecting a blowout win isn't it? :) Looks like Smith has turned a corner. He made throws that he just hasn't made in his career on Sunday.
By: STL Niner Fan
Date: October 11, 2011 at 7:39 PM
Comment: Dear God please let this be real, no cruel jokes this time, if the rug gets pulled out from underneath my feet again, I'm going to explode.
Time to send Stafford on his annual trip to the IR.....just kidding.....kind of.....well maybe not.
Date: October 11, 2011 at 7:16 PM
Comment: This writer is a tool. He has attention deficit disorder. Sign him up for the biggest loser. There's an opening.
Date: October 11, 2011 at 6:40 PM
Comment: Jeff hello, Jeff you out there? There is someone writing under your name. Thought you would like to know. Very well written I must say. Maybe your very best article and it's not because it's positive but because in its entirety it's true. But Jeff please don't lose your identity. It's like Al Davis once said - If we are all thinking the same then no one is thinking.
Date: October 11, 2011 at 6:29 PM
Comment: you're going over the edge, after 5 games? when we DESTROY a super-bowl contending team, then you can post stuff like this. Cmon breh.
Date: October 11, 2011 at 6:26 PM
Comment: A perfect example of having a plan and execution where everything worked. If this continues, then we're a contender. It's too early to tell. Detroit is another huge challenge...and then there's another game...and another, etc. I'm not ready to say we've arrived. TB was a statement that we are on the right track. And yes, Smith's stats didn't need to be higher, there was no need to play him or pad them. I'm fine with great execution and managing the offense within the plan...stats when needed according to the plan. If you can create holes like we did on Sunday, the QB shouldn't need more than a couple of hundred yards to ice the game.
Date: October 11, 2011 at 6:11 PM
What a read.
The very name of "Glorious Days" brings shivers... All this is so good to be true but yet I fear that it's fragile enough to fall apart at simple words. I am a believer in this team and in this new system, I just hope it's not a one-year wonder (like the seahawks) but the beginning of something special for years to come.
Niner fan forever.
Date: October 11, 2011 at 6:09 PM
Comment: Cool Jeff, I see maybe you are going to take the Niners' route also and build a new identity. Positive articles will get you a lot more love, brother : )
By: T DAWG
Date: October 11, 2011 at 6:05 PM
I gotta say, that was one of the best, "feel good" articles that I have read in a long time. I have been a 9er fan since they drafted this guy outta Notre Dame... Joe somebody...
You nailed it perfectly, and yes, we are seeing an incredible metamorphosis from this young 9er team.
We 49er fans know that we have a great nucleus of a team. Now we finally have a coach that can DO SOMETHING with this incredible talent!
Sunday at 10 am will be the biggest test in this young season. I'm concerned that the 9ers could get overconfident against this resurgent Lions team, then plummet back to earth.
Don't drink the "Kool Aid" but keep the faith.
Date: October 11, 2011 at 5:40 PM
Comment: Always read your articles Jeff, first time commenting. Nice Job! i will not lie, i was wondering how you could spin some negativity on this one. LOL
Date: October 11, 2011 at 5:27 PM
Comment: "You see, I'm a Niner fan, truly I am, but my fandom is somewhat complex. It's not any better or worse than yours; it's just complicated. Sure, like you, I love the Niners. But just as much, I love the Niners in the abstract. Not only what they are, but also what they should represent: a style, a vision. The ultimate melding of mind and muscle. Genius, which will kick your ass."
Amen. Years of losing and underachieving had many fans just happy with a 6-3 win. While I know blowouts like these may not happen again anytime soon I am glad that Harbaugh has found the identity he has been searching for: Complete destruction of the opposing team. Nice read.
Date: October 11, 2011 at 5:26 PM
Comment: Nice article, one thing to remember about Smith's #s, he played about 3 quarters of football. He probably still wouldn't have many more yards, but if we needed them he'd get em. It's actually a good thing he doesn't get more yards, it means we're running well.
Date: October 11, 2011 at 5:23 PM
Comment: Nice article. I'll admit I thought you were going to be your usual negative self. Let's all back our boys and enjoy the beginning of a new era.
Date: October 11, 2011 at 5:18 PM
Comment: love to be the first to say O NOWWW THEY'RE BACK? my niners are on their way back to the super bowl guys, BE READY!
Date: October 11, 2011 at 5:14 PM
Comment: I was always struck by Bill Walsh's analogies to boxing when coaching football. And there's some of that in Harbaugh, I think. Being tougher and stronger than your opponent is half the battle, but the winning ingredient is smarts. The team looks fast, tough, strong, smart, and ruthless.
Date: October 11, 2011 at 5:13 PM
Comment: Did you lose a bet or something?