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No Regression, Just Mean

Sep 11, 2012 at 11:30 AM21

After the preseason—so typical in its haziness—the same two questions were there.

The first was whether the defense could maintain its intensity (not to mention its health) and replicate last year's suffocating show. And the second, of course, was whether the offense could exploit its new weaponry and evolve into something consistently dangerous.

Those were the questions, and naturally they were interrelated. If the defense were to avoid its projected regression, we could try to make do with the same offensive training-wheels. Meanwhile, if the defense were to slip a bit—due to age, injury, luck, whatever—the offense would need to pick up the slack.

In other words, the more that the answer to one question was yes, the more that the answer to the other could be no. But if the answer to both of those questions was yes?

Watch out. Just watch the hell out.

Of all the places to look for conclusive answers, none could be better than Lambeau Field. Out of the gate—and in our personal house of horrors—our D would be tested by one of the greatest offenses ever; if we could hold up there, we could hold up anywhere. On the other hand, the Packers' secondary was one of the worst ever; if we couldn't show some offensive explosiveness...then, well, we probably don't have any.

And the early returns were decidedly mixed.

On offense, we began with a definitive no. We'd been waiting for this first series for months, and what did we get? Run, run, pass (or, more precisely, sack), punt. This is what's known as the Jimmy Raye Special; and by now, regardless of our particular offensive philosophies, I think we can all politely agree: it should never happen, not anymore.

After the defense held—despite the first of many baffling penalties—the offense fired up the passing game. Alex Smith looked sharp, hitting all three of his top wide-receivers. But then, on third-and-four, Smith threw high and wide, at Delanie Walker. On TV, Troy Aikman pointed out that Randy Moss had been facing one-on-one coverage, yet Smith "never considered going to Randy." (An interesting observation, I thought.) And out came David Akers, who hit the first of his three field-goals, which put him ahead of last year's record pace.

So, it seemed, here we go again. As we did last year, we'll kick our field goals, and no matter how high-powered our opponents, we'll ask our D for deliverance.

The D, though, was up to the task. Still impenetrable by the run, still unbreakable by the pass. But in a way, it was better than ever. In last year's playoffs, knowing that great passers usually can exploit any coverage when they've got enough time, we simply hit 'em again and again. On Sunday, though we did give Aaron Rodgers some pressure, mostly he just had nowhere to throw.

One particular play was illustrative. On a third down, in the waning seconds of the first half, Rodgers faced only a three-man rush. He scanned the field for nearly five seconds before running left and flicking the ball straight out of bounds. To frustrate a great passer with pure coverage is nearly unheard of in today's game, and it shows that this D, unbelievably, has gotten even better still.

But more importantly, so has the O.

Despite that rough start, Smith was good, very good. Visibly both confident and comfortable, he surgically spread the ball around to his new-and-improved receiving corps. He'll face much better Ds than the Packers', but still: 8 yards per pass, 2 touchdowns, and a rating of 125? Rodgers was right; Smith was no mere "manager," not on this day.

I'll admit it: when it comes to Smith, I'm certifiable. In a league with plenty of bad QBs, it seems crazy to have such dissonance about an indisputably good one. But my fear is merely the Niners' own, as evinced by their annual quest to replace him: if we need greatness, consistently, will Smith be able to rise to the challenge?

Smith didn't answer that question on Sunday; despite Aikman's pleas, he never took a downfield shot against single coverage, even if only "to test that out." But he might've done the next best thing. He might've rendered the question moot.

Without a doubt, the defense is ready; it just demolished the greatest O it'll face all year. So the regression argument, at least in the absence of a serious injury, is debunked. As a result, Smith and the O don't need to be great; very good will be more than enough.

And very good this offense will be. Smith knows how to use his new weapons, effectively if not to the utmost. The running game, now alternating thunder and lightning from at least a half-dozen exotic formations, is enough to quell any pass-first ideologue. (Well, almost.) And if we continue to score as many touchdowns as field goals?

Like I said, just watch the hell out.

And so, off the bat, a quick adjustment of expectations. I must confess, I bought the regression theory. It wasn't that I had lost faith in Superman (though I do worry, especially with these replacement refs, that Superman's head will spontaneously combust). And it wasn't even that I had lost faith in Smith (though, as you know, my faith in Smith does wax and wane). It was simply this: when the Football Fates hand you a golden ticket to the Super Bowl, and when you carelessly throw that ticket away, usually they make you pay.

But the Niners merely answered with their most convincing win in years. For the first time since the halcyon days of Montana and Rice, they went into Lambeau and crushed the Pack. Maybe they didn't bring the same O—Joe threw for 411, Jerry caught for 187—but between their very good O and spectacular D, they put those preseason questions to rest.

And the answers sound like the Super Bowl.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • CK
    Awesome headline. Funny and very appropriate. I love how mean our D is - not to mention our O-Line!
    Sep 17, 2012 at 11:28 AM
  • charles
    Enjoy reading your columns on the Webzone. I was thrilled w/ the way the Niners showed up the Packers. I feel the Niners will eventually unveil their "new" offense and spread the ball around. Let's give Alex some credit--he was great.
    Sep 15, 2012 at 7:06 PM
  • Jeremy T.
    I rarely comment on anything on the internet, but I absolutely LOVE the style in which you write Jeff. The content, which at times I agree and disagree with, is irrelevant. You are a fantastic writer, and your articles are a pleasure to read regardless of your point of view. Keep it up. Let's get a win this Sunday.
    Sep 13, 2012 at 11:17 PM
    Response: Thank you, Jeremy. I'm grateful for your support.
  • Nate
    When Trent Dilfer wins the SB, that proves to me we can win with ASmith. Manningham, Moss, and a 2nd yr under Harbaugh giving consistency and confidence translate to a better completion % overall and especially in the redzone where we needed it most. ASmith may never be elite because he won't (and I don't want him to) throw the ball 30-50 times per game. But he can be a SB winner who did more to earn the SB than many other QB's. Niner tradition is a strong running game complementing a surgical passing game...and that's what we're getting right now!!!
    Sep 13, 2012 at 12:02 PM
  • Jan
    My opinion, Harbaugh played the Green Bay game close to his vest. He didn't need to pull out the long ball, so he didn't. The fewer plays he has to show in a game, the less film other teams have to watch in order to prepare for us. I may be crediting Harbaugh with too much cleverness, but it seems to me like something he would do.
    Sep 12, 2012 at 7:09 PM
  • Nick S.
    As I wrote this week, your obsession with Randy Moss and the deep ball is kinda hilarious. You're a good writer, but like Dan stated below, you write as if you're waiting for the 49ers to fail, possibly so it validates your articles written during the preseason.
    Sep 12, 2012 at 5:16 PM
    Response: Actually, Nick, I think it was Aikman who validated the preseason article to which you refer. That's a Hall of Fame QB right there, and by the end of that game he was practically BEGGING Smith to go deep to Moss. But regardless, if you're suggesting that I'd rather see the Niners lose than see myself be proven wrong, then you truly don't get me at all.
  • Johnny
    Jeff, love the article as always. I comment often and I ALWAYS read your articles. I began writing myself, check it out here. Greatly appreciated my friend. Either way I'm still a loyal reader of yours.
    Sep 12, 2012 at 2:24 PM
    Response: Thanks so much, Johnny. And your blog looks great; best of luck with it!
  • Mike
    Coach Harbaugh has brought the Lombardi Trophy within reach for the first time in a long time, and for that I am thankful. His 'Hardwork and Teamwork' ethos is not only helping create a championship atmosphere, it's teaching those young men in that locker room about the type of work ethics that made players like Rice and Montana great. That's what the Forty-Niners franchise is about. Going out on the field, totally ready, putting up a tremendous TEAM performance, then humbly going back to work so you can do it again next week. This Harbaugh era feels like a true continuation of the Dynasty that The Great Bill Walsh fathered at the dawn of the eighties, and that is good news for those of us with gold along with crimson in our veins. As a potential-packed 2012 season proceeds I can hear Coach Harbaugh ask us all, "Who's Got It Better Than Us?" And the answer, my fellow Niner Fans, is NOBODY!!!!!
    Sep 12, 2012 at 10:51 AM
  • Adrian
    Onwards fellow Faithful! We must slay "the ghosts of destiny thwarted". Solid article Jeff. Just don't go all negative Nancy on us so much, ok? Keep writing. Go Niners.
    Sep 12, 2012 at 9:16 AM
  • Dan
    Quit waiting for things to fail. I have said it to you before. If you are anticipating failure rather than enjoying the great are going to blink and miss a wonderful season!!
    Sep 12, 2012 at 7:07 AM
  • DavidC
    First good article, I like the tone of reality, not buying into the hype. Everyone says Alex has answered all his critics with this game but it wasn't perfect and the Packers defense provided below average difficulty. Alex has never been elite. When i look at the handful of QBs that I would call elite, they all have unique and rare characteristics and abilities that drastically impact the team's success, stats aside. So again, Alex is not elite, but I think he's getting there and if he keeps improving he will be. BTW, it's been said already and I agree that by end of the season, barring injury, both offense and defense will be vastly improved from where they are now, maybe best in the league.
    Sep 12, 2012 at 3:52 AM
  • Anti-Kaplan
    Light-up Jeff. Alex has nothing to prove to you naroow minded.
    Sep 11, 2012 at 9:27 PM
  • Shane
    Jeff, You have always been my favorite writer on this site bc you added perspective and truth about the 9ers. You were deemed a hater bc when you offer truth about a team that has 8 straight losing seasons, well what else would you be called i guess. We joked about the days of positive writing and here we are brother. Im glad you stayed true to your style! my opinion, alex will nvr be elite. the word elite seems to be misdefined. Elite is the top tier of what you do. so maybe top 3-5, frankly he is not lets just be honest. but who cares. as long as he is good enough thats all that matters. the D looks amazing! my one concern, we very rarely rotate the D linemen. Smith and mcdonald play almost every snap. if we have so much good depth backing them up do you feel they shld get 10 snaps off?
    Sep 11, 2012 at 8:36 PM
    Response: You'd think so, Shane, but both those guys, especially Justin, don't seem to ever get tired! Until we see the D-line start to drop off late in games, more rotation seems unnecessary. But it does bear watching. Eventually age will catch up with Justin; let's just hope it's not this year.
  • niner559
    Great article. It is clear to me that the coaching staff held a lot out of the preseason. I'm almost inclined to say that they also held some out of this game as well. We did not go deep with the ball. We can, but we did not. Is it possible that we were doing so well with the short to medium that we really had no reason to risk a turnover with a deep pass. That could have been a momentum-turning play. Besides, it would also give your next opponent film that we did not need to give to win. As for "Elite"...alex carved the pack. Carved them. Yards are determined by long passes and more so, YAC. But make no mistake, I think alex is putting all this to rest...he is very good and a lot better than most of the league.
    Sep 11, 2012 at 7:48 PM
  • Matt
    If yards and TDs determine elite status, Smith will never be elite in the 49ers' current offensive system. SF runs the ball as much as they throw. He's never going to drop back and throw 50 times a game like other QBs do. Unfortunately, that gives small-minded fans license to nitpick Smith's game. As if Rogers and Brady never miss open receivers or take sacks.
    Sep 11, 2012 at 2:42 PM
  • overthemiddle
    Nice article Jeff. The defense got tested big time, 56 passes to 9 runs. Last 24 plays of the Pack were pass plays, completely abandoned the run. I suspect most of our opponents will pass a minimum of 40 times due to two reasons, first and foremost they can't run against us, and number 2 believe it or not they will have to play catchup. I don't think we have seen much of the offense as of yet. There is much more to come. The Niners can run and they can pass and they play defense and special teams. Can't ask for anything better then that.
    Sep 11, 2012 at 2:30 PM
  • LibertysDada
    A. Smith is Elite. All u so-called real niner fans don't give him enough credit! Seriously think about it. If Aaron Rodgers were to trade places with A.Smith or let's put it this way, if the niners were to draft Aaron over Smith and the packers took Smith would Aaron be in the same situation with the niners as well as Smith with the packers? Give Smith some time, he's still building confidence in throwing, remember he's been with a run-first team for years. I can see some Rodgers in Smith, almost identical QBs. Smith will be great and i know i have no credibility to say anything at all but i feel i'm right on the button, what do u think Jeff?
    Sep 11, 2012 at 2:09 PM
    Response: Hey, don't sell yourself short, Dada; as David below would be quick to point out, you've got no less credibility than I. We're all just exchanging opinions here; "credibility" is beside the point. As for your question, you've raised precisely the Great Unknown: what if Smith and Rodgers had changed places? No one denies that Rodgers got benefits that Smith didn't, but my view is that Rodgers would still be better. He seems to have that gunslinger quality that all the great ones seem to have, and Smith just doesn't seem to have it. (Don't forget: a main reason why Mike Nolan chose Smith was that Smith struck him as a good soldier, while Rodgers seemed too cocky.) But again, if both Smith and the D play as well every week as they did on Sunday, Smith will have just as many Super Bowl wins, and that'll be just fine with me.
  • 3rdGenNiner
    "Like I said, just watch the hell out." The notion that the best 49er football is yet to be played is a scary thought... Like you, I've questioned my faith in Smith. What's been most impressive is how he continues to compound his progress week-to-week since the "We want Carr" game. Resilient. Smith and this defense personify toughness and a desire to always improve. Here's to keeping that edge!
    Sep 11, 2012 at 1:37 PM
  • Christian
    It's becoming abundantly clear that the 49ers are scary good. They keep trending upward. If we're to look at video starting from week 1 2011 up to week 1 2012, one can clearly see how transformed this team has become. Regarding the offense, Alex Smith, by week, is showing improvement. If this upward trend continues for Alex Smith, can we be seeing an elite QB by week 14, 15, or 16? What do you think, Mr. Kaplan? This would have seemed ludicrous at any point last year, but statistics show that with each passing week (no pun intended) A. Smith is mastering the offense.
    Sep 11, 2012 at 1:28 PM
    Response: Ah, you've thrown down the "E" word. It all depends on how you define that. As you know, there were many (including Jim Harbaugh) who called him elite LAST year, using a definition based on wins. To me, though, an elite QB piles up gobs and gobs of yards and touchdowns. (Think Rodgers, Brady, Brees, et al.) It's hard for me to imagine Smith doing that; I just don't see, consistently, the necessary vision and guts. But again, as long as our D is playing like this, who cares? Smith just has to be as efficient as he was last year, but also convert a few of last year's field goals into this year's touchdowns. So far, so good.
  • Ninerdawg
    Good article Jeff. I think the sky is the limit this season. I thought Alex played very well, except for some of the sacks he took. On 1 sack, Aikman said that if Alex had stepped up in the pocket, he still could have delivered the football, and avoided the sack. After watching A. Rodgers escape numerous times, and then watching Alex step right into some of the sacks, I just wonder if that part of his game can be corrected? I know you can't coach instincts, but if Alex can ever buy more time in the pocket, he will be very dangerous. He has good speed, but sometimes, it seems like he doesn't know when to use it. But overall, I think he has vastly improved.
    Sep 11, 2012 at 1:18 PM
    Response: Yeah, Dawg, that seems like another "vision" thing with Smith; just as he sometimes fails to see the whole field--and thus fails to see opportunities for big plays--he sometimes fails to see (or otherwise sense) the rush and thus take steps to avoid it. But as you say, he's certainly improved, and with this D, he's improved enough.
  • David
    Jeff, You have no credibility but you do turn a nice phrase. Nobody is perfect. If you want credibility you can't be a prisoner of the moment like you so routinely are. You often use phrases that I hear the TV commentators use instead of basing your analysis on personal film study or observations. But still, I like your writing style so I may come back and read your next post. Go Niners.
    Sep 11, 2012 at 12:12 PM

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