One more chance. To be, once more, the talk of the league, the 49ers had one more chance.
We'd taken the Lions' best punch. On our very first play, Kyle Vanden Bosch simply snatched the ball from Alex Smith. Our defense held despite first-and-goal at the three, but our second drive was scuttled by two consecutive false starts, our third drive was a three-and-out, and the Lions sliced through our D for a 10-nothing lead.
We couldn't expect a redux of Philly. If we were going to win this one--if we were going to make an irrefutable statement that we were truly one of the best--we needed to answer, immediately.
Frank Gore's 47-yard dash, straight through the heart of the Lions' D, did quite nicely. Add to that an Aldon Smith safety and a 55-yard field goal--all while our D simply stifled their O--and we managed to eke out a halftime lead.
In a hostile environment, against a very strong opponent, just hangin' in there was pretty impressive. But now that we'd done that, we couldn't be satisfied, not THIS year.
In the second half, we needed to win.
After an exchange of field goals, our D continued to impose its will, forcing a punt from the Lions' five. The punt was lousy, setting us up at Detroit's 43. This was our chance to really take control of this thing. Instead Alex Smith, whose tendency to throw high was disturbingly retrograde, airmailed Michael Crabtree, and the pick came 30 yards back. Predictably, the Lions awoke, scoring a touchdown to retake the lead and rejuvenate the crowd. Both Ds buckled down until late in the fourth, when Ted Ginn came to the rescue again, notching a huge punt-return to set us up, somewhat mysteriously, at Detroit's 35.
Five runs gained 25, and two throws gained 4 more. Fourth-and-goal, at the six.
One more chance.
At this instant, it didn't matter what you thought of Alex Smith. Whether he'd been a victim or a bust. Whether his resurgence was real or fake. Whether he was still the future or merely playing out the string. No matter what you thought of him, this was the most important moment of his career, and with every ounce of your energy, with every drop of your passion, with every fiber of your being...you were rooting for him.
And with a perfect strike to Delanie Walker, he delivered.
In the midst of euphoria, our D wrapped up not only the win, but also its own incredible show. 66 rushing yards. 10 quarterback hits, including 5 sacks and the safety. Megatron with plenty of yards but nary a single significant play.
The Niners were the NFL's biggest surprise, and Jim Harbaugh was simply on top of the world.
So yeah, maybe he shook hands a little too hard.
It's truly a sign of our baffling times: a clip of an exchange between football coaches, studied like it's the Zapruder film. The breathless reportage that's STILL going on--Who's right?! Who's wrong?! Who started it?!--is enough to drive you to drink. In actuality, the story is simple: when they met at midfield, Harbaugh was discourteous, and Jim Schwartz responded by becoming an infant. Both should strive to do better next time, and that should be the end of it. (It WON'T be, but it should.)
Though Harbaugh should be more respectful to his opponents--after he simply destroys them, that is--the bigger story should be what he's building here with his notorious intensity. Intense coaches are nothing new, of course, but the melding of that intensity with Harbaugh's obvious strategic brilliance...well, suffice it to say that this IS something new. Not just here, but anywhere. Most great tacticians lack the important ability to relate to their players emotionally. Likewise, most of the fire-and-brimstone types can't back up their bluster with the necessary smarts. (Know any of those?) Harbaugh's pure legitimacy on BOTH fronts--without a trace of pretension on either--makes him perhaps the most qualified coach who has ever lived. And who knows? Someday it just might make him the best.
But even those who had recognized Harbaugh's greatness couldn't have imagined that he'd turn it all around so fast. Don't forget: Though its coaching was much, much worse than its roster, last year's team went 6-and-10, and most of the new starters on this year's team were merely backups on last year's team (though it's looking a bit like they shouldn't have been). Throw in the lockout and our spotty preseason, and certain writers strapped themselves in for a long, hard slog:
"You see, in all the Harbaugh hysteria, I came to believe in a miracle. ... We'd emerged from the darkness. We'd hired the savior. And right from the start, nothing would stop him. Alas, though, it won't be that simple. Harbaugh's got a ways to go. Let's do our best to enjoy the ride, but understand that it won't be quick. Make no mistake: the miracle is coming. But, as any child knows, even miracles take a little time."
It's now only two months later. Tactically, to go with a defense that just doesn't break, Harbaugh's installed a real West Coast Offense--passing first, most of the time--but he's perfectly tailored those schemes to his players' talents and limitations. (In particular, his unreadable formations have been a mammoth boon to his offensive line.) Emotionally, he's got his players believing that they can truly accomplish anything; and with three fourth-quarter road comebacks over the last four weeks, they just might be right.
Put it together, and he's wiped out nearly a decade of misery, placing the Niners, at long last, once again among the elites. A Super Bowl season might still be a reach, but for now there's one, amazing conclusion:
The miracle is already here.
You can shake on it, as hard as you like.
Date: October 21, 2011 at 12:01 PM
Comment: Well, good, Jeff. I suppose that acknowledging that Baalke is well out in front of you in your self-imagined comparison in team management skills between you and him is as much of a step down as one could reasonably expect from you. And I applaud you for it, even though presuming to make THAT comparison in the first place was and remains the heart of the insult. What's done is done. Still, in future articles that might touch on Baalke's management skills, you might remind yourself that he is not managing a fantasy football league team. What he is doing is being done in real time against real paid professional competitors with real money. Hey, I agree with you that the team, particularly the O-line, might be somewhat better off if it had retained Baas. But at a cost of 2.5 to 3 million a year that might skew future negotiations with other players? Don't know about that. As for Carlos Rogers? I'll bet Baalke is more pleasantly surprised at how Harbaugh and company are doing than he is about Rogers. Onward!
Date: October 20, 2011 at 5:44 PM
Comment: Does anyone remember the last "miracle" we had around here? I do. Mike Singletary took over Mike Nolan's pathetic 2-5 squad and went 5-4 the rest of the way. Not only did he turn us from losers into winners, he changed the whole culture of the team. Finally, we played with passion and fire. The turnaround was so miraculous that we rewarded Singletary with a four-year contract. How did that miracle turn out? Suffice it to say, it's going to be a long time before I believe in miracles again.
By: Terry B.
Date: October 20, 2011 at 12:04 PM
Comment: Papa Stan, you don't necessarily have to take it from an Alex hater like me. Listen to NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell, who thinks Alex is a "great guy": "Here's what they're doing with Alex Smith, and he's a great guy, so none of this is ever personal, but they're playing the games to minimize his impact on the game. And they're able to win games doing that, so more power to Harbaugh and the coaching staff. They're doing absolutely the right thing. I'm reading a lot of people talk about how Alex Smith is proving.... Look. This is what they're doing. They're trying to hide him. They're trying to minimize his impact on the game. And that's great. Do you know what that's called? Coaching."
By: Alden Brown
Date: October 20, 2011 at 12:00 PM
Comment: I suspect that Aaron Rodgers might have something to say about those Super Bowl tickets.
Date: October 20, 2011 at 11:22 AM
Comment: Better at least start looking for Super Bowl tickets!
"Comment: This article PROVES that you have the knowledge of a noobie and the writing ability of a 3rd grader. You are nothing but a crybaby naysayer and your credibility just took a major hit. When I see the name Jeff Kaplan, I'll just pass on to the next article which may be by someone who knows what the hell they are writing about.
Response: For cryin' out loud, Baalke just signed a 32-year-old center, not Tom Brady. It's nice that he found a decent replacement for Baas, but you might wanna hold off on buying those Super Bowl tix, okay Jack?"
By: Terry B.
Date: October 20, 2011 at 10:03 AM
Comment: Papa Stan, I'm an Alex Smith hater. To answer your question, I want to see him, over the course of an entire season, go out and grab the QB job by the horns and put to rest any question that he should be this team's QB. He hasn't done that yet, and I'm not going to declare him a great QB until he does, especially when he's still throwing god awful picks like the one he threw last game. There are still plenty of red flags with Alex. The QB stat most closely associated with winning over the long term is YPA, and Alex ranks 22nd in the NFL in YPA. Alex lovers like AJ Bolino will tell you to look at how a QB performs on third down. Well, with Alex at the helm, the 49ers are 29th in the league at converting third downs. The jury is still out--way out--on Alex Smith. Far from making the 49ers great, he is what is keeping them from becoming elite.
Date: October 20, 2011 at 9:57 AM
Comment: Good article...our D seems better than ever, including 94 with primetime...but man, stats don't tell the whole story...alex was composed, peytonesque out there on the line of scrimmage...dude is tough!! He had some bad throws, but never rattled...also, his stats would've been a lot better, a few drops, including one in the endzone...i believe he is still our qb of the future...also, Goldson is a beast!! I mean, who hits harder than him? Anthony Davis, other than his ill advised tweets, played probably his best game yet, and i'm excited man.
By: Papa Stan
Date: October 19, 2011 at 10:42 PM
Comment: Hey guys Alex is ranked #8 in the NFL and 5th in the NFC and has the 2nd best rating in the 4th quarter in the NFL with a 105.5 rating. He has three 4th quarter comebacks this year. Montana is the only one with more in one season at 4. What more do you haters want from Alex. He's played in 56 games before this season. That's a little over 3 years. No other QB's besides Montana and Young won Super Bowls for the 9ers. Alex will be a very very good QB with JH teaching him. Let's enjoy the season and forget next year. This team reminds me so much of the 1981 team.
Date: October 19, 2011 at 4:47 PM
Comment: I was on the road and heard the lame Lions broadcasters call the last two minutes. I heard Alex hit Walker to put us ahead for good. It was clutch...4th and goal from the 6. His game stats weren't good...but he threw the winning TD. I'm sure Stafford was plenty sore on Monday from all the hits. Our pass rush is formidable now...the irrepressible Justin Smith...the guy's simply a stud. Ray Mac has revitalized the LDE position. Brooks is chipping in, too. Many panned Baalke's pick of Smith at #7, but I see a young Charles Haley in him...strong, quick, and relentless. The LB corps is a true strength of the D...Bowman's having what should be a Pro Bowl year. The revamped secondary has also made noise...Whitner, Rogers, & Co. have seemingly energized Tarell Brown, Goldson, et al, too. This team is running on Harbaugh's passion, commitment, and desire...they believe he's the one to get them back to the playoffs and eventually another Super Bowl ring. It's been a long time coming...and yeah, I'm still getting used to being electrified each week, but give me more!!!
Date: October 19, 2011 at 3:55 PM
Comment: I'm a 49ers fan! My favorite player is Aldon Smith. He's neat. I have an official Frank Gore jersey, an Alex Smith bobblehead, and posters of Joe Montana and Steve Young. I sure love the 49ers, but I sure hate you. You're mean! Oh sure, I like your columns now that you're all positive, but you don't know what a "columnist" really is. A columnist is not someone who gives an honest assessment of what he sees in front of him. A columnist is someone who says that everything about the 49ers is always great, no matter what. If you read some of the columns in the archives from true webzone columnists, you'll know what I mean. Mike Singletary was a good man, but you couldn't stop trashing him could you? Get over it! Couldn't you have been more creative and written some positive columns during the Singletary era? I have no respect for you. Why don't you hang up this "column" and find something better to do with all of your hate and venom. To quote Eric Cartman, you can "s**k my b**ls!"
Date: October 19, 2011 at 1:39 PM
Comment: I know Alex Smith has improved dramatically this year, but we are still a QB away from winning a Super Bowl.
Date: October 19, 2011 at 1:31 PM
Comment: Hi Jeff, just an observation about your articles...
WOW...what a turnaround you have made!
In one month you passed from "Harbaugh's Offense Seems Strangely Familiar" with so many "advices" to Baalke and Harbaugh and everybody, to this article where you are SO enthusiastic to even mention the Super Bowl...
I must tell you, with all respect, that I don't like at all when people go from all that negativity to an excitement as of right now...
That's too easy for me!
Where are all your points???
Did you realize that our coaching staff had only, what...three weeks?...to work with our guys????
Since you were so low on the decisions made by Baalke and Harbaugh...what did you expect then in barely three weeks of work with the team???
Instead of giving him the chance to prove it, you were so negative right from the first pre-season game....
It seems that both Baalke and Harbaugh at the end didn't need any kind of "advice" from you....luckily!
Sorry Jeff, nothing personal, but all this negativity, easily transformed into superpositivity, I just found it quite irritating.
End of rant.
Big things are shaping out in Ninerland!!!!
Big things are coming!!!!!
By: Terry B.
Date: October 19, 2011 at 1:19 PM
Comment: Dateline Denver, 2009: A "genius" young hotshot offensive coordinator from the New England Patriots is hired to bring the Broncos out of mediocrity. New HC has been in charge of record-setting offense in New England. Said coach brings in a respected veteran defensive coordinator to fix the defense. Things start out with a few small victories over average teams, but then the team wins a close one over Dallas. Could this be the start of something big? We'll see when they face the mighty Patriots, cream of the crop in the NFL. Broncos unbelievably topple the Patriots, which leads to a fist-pumping, exuberant celebration by the young head coach. Broncos fans love it, but the coach is criticized around the NFL for showing too much emotion after the win. Next week, the team topples the previous division champs--San Diego--to go to 6-0. This team is for real! This team will be no worse than a number two seed in the playoffs! McDaniels is a miracle worker! And then, Baltimore puts together the ultlimate blueprint for beating this team, and other teams soon follow. Their mediocre QB cannot overcome it, disaster ensues, and the coach is fired a year later. Perhaps six games into the season is too early to get pompous. What happens when the rest of the league has enough film to fully digest what we're doing on offense and defense? The two big Gore runs were the same exact play, which involved a little bit of trickery by the O-linemen. Now the rest of the league has seen it. On his other carries, Gore averaged 3.0 yards. Do I think the same thing will happen to us that happened to Denver? In a word, no. Denver had a bitch of a schedule that year, and our schedule is so easy we could make the playoffs with 10 men on the field on every play. Still, I think all of those people who spent the last year telling Jeff to calm down and let things play out a little bit need to follow their own advice.
By: Jim Mora
Date: October 19, 2011 at 1:13 PM
Comment: Handshake??????? Handshake???????
You want to talk about a handshake???????
Date: October 19, 2011 at 12:22 PM
Comment: Congratulations on being able to write a "positive" article WITHOUT your usual undercurrent of snide negativity directed at Trent Baalke. To "earn" any real respect from me, I'll have to see you take your ego down a notch and acknowledge that Trent Baalke does know a thing or two about how to run this football team - certainly more than you do - and Jim Harbaugh is not the only person responsible for the 49ers' stunning turnaround. You need to admit that Aldon Smith, Chris Culliver, Kendall Hunter, and even Bruce Miller are indicators of a carefully evaluated and well-executed draft strategy rather than a failed opportunity except for Colin Kaepernick. You need to acknowledge that investing money in Ray McDonald, understanding the potential of NaVorro Bowman, and waiting for the Jonathan Goodwins and Carlos Rogerses to become available were far wiser choices than panicking and throwing too much money at David Baas, Aubrayo Franklin, Takeo Spikes, and even Nnamdi Asomugha. I agree that Harbaugh has done a remarkable job but so has management.
Date: October 19, 2011 at 12:21 PM
Comment: Hey Jeff Kaplan, any comments on this article you wrote in August blasting the 49ers and Baalke:
Date: October 19, 2011 at 9:34 AM
Comment: I would just like to say that I am calling it right now. For those of you that still think that Kaepernick is our qb of the future...... He will lose an open competition next training camp to both Alex Smith and Scott Tolzien. After that the team "might" trade him for a WR or something like that. Or keep him as third string, either way the future he is not. I like him but he will not beat out the other guys. Great article. Whole hell of a lot better game!!!! Go NINERS!!!!!!!!!!
Date: October 19, 2011 at 7:59 AM
Comment: The current success is the perfect example of the difference a good coaching regime makes on a team. Although there were some key changes on the secondary, this team is essentially the same. The success magnifies how bad a coach (I feel uncomfortable calling him a coach) Mike Singletary was. Coaching is about teaching and motivating; Singletary was terrible at both.
By: M. Horner
Date: October 19, 2011 at 5:40 AM
Comment: Miracle? This isn't a miracle. Mike Singletary just sucked. Big, fat, classic, epic suck. My god was that guy bad. Just replacing a coach who pulls his pants down with one who pulls his shirt up is worth 5 wins.
By: Deborah Downer
Date: October 19, 2011 at 5:01 AM
Comment: Who are you and what did you do to the real Jeff Kaplan?
Date: October 19, 2011 at 12:10 AM
Comment: Nice article Jeff. Your pieces are much more fun to read when we're winning.
Date: October 18, 2011 at 11:12 PM
Comment: Hey Jeff, loved the article. Alex is still throwing too high, but you gotta love the way Crabtree snatches the ball out of the air. I think Anthony Davis "grew up" in this game. He showed a lot of nastiness going up against Suh. The O-line and D-line are playing so physical, I think we can compete with just about any team in the league. Man, the Niners are back!!!
Date: October 18, 2011 at 10:51 PM
Comment: Is Alex Smith limited to being only as good as he is right now? Can he improve by spending a whole season and then an offseason with this system, with Harbaugh? I don't see why not. Will he not see things more clearly than he does now. Or is this his limit?
By: F P Soft
Date: October 18, 2011 at 10:26 PM
Comment: Let's not start sucking each others' d!cks just yet. It's a long season. They haven't done anything until they get it done in the playoffs.
Date: October 18, 2011 at 9:11 PM
Comment: Great article Jeff. I couldn't agree more that we will see the west coast offense, pass first for the most part in the first half to open up the run and get a lead. Very similar to the way it used to be with one exception. Our run game back then tended to let teams get close in the second half. I think Coach Harbaugh has remedied that by adding the power run game element. Now we run for points in the second half. I think we are witnessing something REALLY special.
By: Lucky Phil
Date: October 18, 2011 at 9:07 PM
Comment: Jeff, What do think the Niners do with Alex Smith at the end of the season? With the way they're playing, if they win in the playoffs they will bring him back without question in my mind. I just wonder if we can win a super bowl with him. In the last ten years every SB won was won with an elite QB. The exceptions being Roethlisberger and Eli Manning but they're still top ten. I just don't believe we can win a SB with a QB that won't even throw for 3,000 yards this year. However, I'm not gonna dwell on it. These guys are playing better and better every week and I'm enjoying it. And Harbaugh can rip his shirt off and high five the losing coach after every win. I thought it was hilarious. This guy is crazy as hell, but fun to watch.
Date: October 18, 2011 at 7:39 PM
Comment: Nah, this is not a miracle. The last few years have shown that we had capable players that flashed occasional brilliance. It was always about the coaching or lack thereof, the nightmares that Nolan and Singletary brought are just now subsiding and hopefully will never rear their heads here again. After watching Alex sling a couple of high ones, I knew it was a matter of time before one was intercepted. I'm not overly concerned because I knew it would take some time to overcome certain bad habits and that he also finally has proper guidance in place to correct it. I'm glad to finally see consistency in all phases so that if one struggles the other 2 will pull it back up. It's finally feeling good again to watch Niner games and not get that here-we-go-again feeling, here's to continued progress and great coaching.....bring on the Browns!
Date: October 18, 2011 at 7:32 PM
Comment: I do believe Alex Smith played his best game ever at QB. Stats don't tell the story of his game. He was a QB for the first time ever as a pro. For the first time I do believe we can win with him. If you rewatch that game and focus on Alex you will see what I mean.
Date: October 18, 2011 at 6:37 PM
Comment: Jeff, the days are here, finally, where we can all be absolutely thrilled with where the 9ers not only are going but where we are!! This is incredible!! Forget about just a home playoff game, take a look at the schedule, a first-round bye is very realistic! I now truly believe Harbaugh is a QB whisperer. There is no doubt he is finally getting the most out of Smith. Obviously he has limitations, but Harbaugh is masterfully weaving around them to make this O tick! (I just don't understand why he always throws high to Crabtree, EVERY time) Of course one can't help but wonder what he will do with Kap, and what will happen at season's end, but all i know for now is i wanna enjoy the ride... one week at a time!
Date: October 18, 2011 at 6:06 PM
Comment: It truly is...it TRULY freaking is...
Date: October 18, 2011 at 6:01 PM
Comment: huh. I guess nothing beats overreaction in the hope-I-can-quit-my-real-job-and-write-for-the-internet-like-Simmons business.
Date: October 18, 2011 at 5:59 PM
Comment: How about a high-five? Imagine, being this excited about beating the Lions. We (almost) always beat the Lions. Yet it was still just as fun as ever. Nice to see you put your embellishing style into a cheerful piece. Can't wait until the playoffs. Yeah that's right, the playoffs. We're going there.