In the week leading up to the official return of the West Coast Offense--the most exciting event in ages--Greg Roman issued a curious warning: prepare yourselves for disappointment. "I don't think in the little bit over a month that we've been together that we've been able to ... strap anything together that's really going to surprise anybody," he said, preemptively invoking the lockout as an excuse for the absence of bells and whistles. In the end, he said, with something approaching a sad resignation: "You are what you are."
And what exactly are we?
For THIS week, at least, we're exactly the same.
Oh, don't get me wrong. The exotic formations and personnel-groupings were pleasant trappings of creativity. But they seemed to mask an archaic philosophy. That is to say, play it safe. Rely on a straight-ahead running game, no matter how ineffective it is; be content with kicking field goals, instead of taking the risks inherent in going for touchdowns; and let the defense (and, perhaps, the special teams) deliver the win.
Where, oh where, have we seen this before?
Indeed, this game felt just like those games that made us cringe in recent years. Our defense was heroic, putting relentless pressure on Tarvaris Jackson--with scarcely any blitzing, mind you--while ultimately forcing 3 turnovers and allowing only 219 yards, 3 per rush and 4 per pass. Yet our offense, despite starting drives at the Seahawks' 27 and 9, settled for field goals. We added a THIRD field goal when a longer drive stalled after four straight runs. At last, just before halftime, another drive beginning in Seattle territory ended in pay dirt. Still, if you'd watched this team the last few years, you knew that bad things happen when we don't maximize our opportunities. And here, with the same Frank Gore three-yard runs and the same Alex Smith checkdown passes (save for a couple of very nice deep ones), we were leaving points all over the field.
In the second half, you could feel it coming. Our offense opened with a three-and-out, running on first-and-10 and third-and-12. Seattle responded with a 56-yard touchdown drive, as our defense started to show its fatigue. Our O pitched in with two more three-and-outs, and Seattle drove 65 yards for a field goal. Our O at last sustained a drive, but settled for a field goal again when four straight runs left us stuck at the one. Seattle then went 80 yards in 6 plays, and all of a sudden, what should've been a humongous lead was down to only 2.
Don't tell me you didn't know what would happen next. Our O would play it safe, of course; we'd kick either a sixth punt or a fifth field goal; and we'd ask our D--exhausted now--to make a final stop. Our D might do it (see Cutler, Jay), but then again, maybe it wouldn't (see Favre, Brett). Either way, though, we'd let a blowout go down to the wire.
And that's when Ted Ginn let BOTH our O and our D off the hook.
Afterward, though Jim Harbaugh expressed no need to "look at the film," he otherwise sounded precisely like the man he'd replaced. He praised the O's "blue-collar" mode: "running the ball, not forcing the throw, playing field position." A day later, he bristled at suggestions that he was "playing safe"; running on third-and-long, he said, gave us "the best chance of success on the down and in the football game."
"I don't think we're [playing] safe," he said, fooling absolutely nobody. "I think we're attacking and I think we're playing to win."
What on earth is happening?
What's happening is that Harbaugh is changing HIS style more than he's changing ours. Asked what happened to his crucial promise, Harbaugh insisted that this IS the West Coast Offense, at least in terms of its "terminology and verbiage." But as he went on to point out, "the West Coast is a big, big system. It can encompass the talents of your players to be used in a variety of ways." So, since the talents of our current players are, shall we say, DIFFERENT from those of our dynasty days, "you're not going to see a replication of what the team did in the ?80s or ?90s."
Dang. I kind of LIKED the ?80s and ?90s.
I think we've had a misunderstanding. Of course, no one thought that the West Coast Offense would trigger an instant dynasty. But it was supposed to mean more than running the West Coast versions of the same lousy plays. If you run on seven third-downs, as we did--naturally, we converted none--you might be running WCO plays, but you're not really running the WCO. The WCO isn't just "terminology and verbiage." It's a PHILOSOPHY. It doesn't surrender its fate to the defense, and it certainly doesn't wait to be bailed out by kickoff and punt returns.
It attacks. It doesn't just say so; it DOES so.
This wasn't an issue for Harbaugh at Stanford. With Andrew Luck, Harbaugh crushed his opponents with an almost violent aggression. With Alex Smith, it's a different story. Oh, sure, Harbaugh showered him with outlandish praise, wrapped him up in a manly hug. But all this for completing mostly shorties for barely more than a hundred yards--for simply not giving the game away. Why such a pathetic standard? It's not the lockout, not when ROOKIES are throwing for more than 400. It's something else: clearly, despite Harbaugh's coachspeak, playing it safe is all that he trusts Smith to do.
Forget about Harbaugh turning Smith into Joe Montana. For now, at least, Smith has turned Harbaugh into Jimmy Raye. Incredibly, the nightmare goes on.
We won, though, you'll quickly point out, and ?round and ?round we'll go again. Four years ago, we won our first game, beating a division rival despite gaining only 194 yards. Two years ago, we won our first game, beating a division rival despite gaining only 203 yards. And now THIS year, we've won our first game, beating a division rival despite gaining only 209 yards.
But THIS year, you'll say, things'll be different. THIS year, we've got the West Coast Offense.
But we don't. Unfortunately, we really don't.