Five Days, Two Games, and One Big Question Finally Answered

Oct 20, 2012 at 9:39 AM41

It started, of course, with "unfinished business."

Against the Giants, said a dimwit predictor, the Niners had "virtually every advantage." After throttling the Jets and Bills, we seemed to have retaken our place atop the league. And though the Vikings had sprung a deflating trap, we'd had the Giants circled for months. No one needed any incentive, any reminder of what they'd done. With a big assist from one of our own, they'd ruined everything; and instead of thanking their lucky stars, they'd dared to think they were better than us.

The conditions were perfect for proving 'em wrong. We had all the confidence, all the momentum, all the purpose of "unfinished business."

But here's the thing about "unfinished business." Sometimes, it finishes you.

It should first be acknowledged, the Giants are good; and with a league like this, where good teams lose to bad every week, losing to good is not a big deal. So we needed to guard against overreaction. Oh, sure, our D again showed a tepid pass-rush, and now it was gashed with some serious runs; but just as they had in the title game, the Giants scored half their points by starting drives from the Niners' end. And yeah, our special teams again were loose—which forced us to question some offseason moves—but surely our coaches could tighten 'em up.

So there was no cause for overreaction. Yet just as much, underreaction would be a mistake. This was a team-wide, collective malaise, the second such malaise in a month. Given Jim Harbaugh's relentless intensity, and given the Niners' stakes for this game, this laying of egg was deeply unsettling. But naturally, the unsettlement focused on one man, from whom we simply can't escape.

Because it had been so long since Alex Smith had lost us a game—as his three interceptions certainly did—it was tempting to dismiss the Giants game as merely aberrational. But perhaps the Bills game was the true aberration. Indeed, leaving that game aside, Smith's rating had dropped in every single game this year, from 125 to 43. So the Giants game simply continued a trend, a trend of inexplicable regression.

Oh, did I say inexplicable? For the Smitheists, there's no such thing. Hence arose an all-new round of Alexcuses, the main one being the "disruptive" injections of Colin Kaepernick. Smith just couldn't get into a "flow," or so this newfound theory went, because of his backup's haphazard appearances. This theory, though, didn't make any sense. Even assuming that a lack of "flow" induces a quarterback to make dumb decisions, it's unclear why going to the bench for a play—as opposed to, say, handing off to a halfback, or even sitting between series—is so disruptive to the quarterback's "flow."

Nevertheless, Harbaugh went along with this theory, suggesting that Kaepernick would be kept largely on ice, against Seattle on Thursday night. In the wake of the Giants, this was now a huge game. A loss would be our second-straight (and second-straight at home, no less), but also would drop us to third in the West. As far as games in October go, this was about as must-win as they get. And though Harbaugh had his doubts about Smith—this was why he'd begun using Kaepernick in the first place—Smith would get the chance to win it.

Despite much talk of Seattle's supposedly stingy D, it hadn't much bothered Tom Brady, who'd racked up nearly 400 yards (though he'd thrown two picks to go with two scores). Yet during a first half that was as bad as anything we'd seen on Sunday—or ever, for that matter—Smith threw for 59 yards. It's not as if his receivers were open on every play, as Seattle's coverage was borderline-illegal, but Smith still had his chances and missed. (It goes without saying that Smith did nothing to "throw his receivers open," which he's utterly incapable of doing.) By halftime, after three straight three-and-outs, the Niners had gone six quarters without a touchdown.

At that point, Harbaugh had seen enough. He didn't go with Kaepernick, who truly must not be quite ready (though it's hard to see how he could've done worse). Instead, he just gave up on a big-boy O. New plan, he said, and Smith became like a rookie again; checking down was his only read. Perhaps shocked by the transparency of our meekness, Seattle was actually caught off-guard, and Smith dinked and dunked all the way to the end zone. But on our next drive, on third-and-goal, looking for the touchdown to put it away, Smith came back with his worst play ever: Randy Moss set up camp in the back of the end zone—so incredibly open that Frank Gore actually pointed to Moss—yet Smith didn't see him until it was too late.

Of course, that interception—which matched Smith's total for all of last year—happened only because, on the previous play, Kaepernick had disrupted Smith's "flow." Yeah, that's it.

Smith threw only one more pass the rest of the night, predictably a three-yard checkdown. On a red-zone third-and-seven, still needing a touchdown to ice the game, Harbaugh called a Smith keeper and took the field goal. And later, on a third-and-eight, now needing a first down to ice the game, Harbaugh did it again and punted away.

He trusted Smith to do nothing more. In other words, he trusted Smith to do nothing at all.

After our D put the game away—despite another spotty performance—Harbaugh joined the excuse parade, implying that Smith was struggling with the middle finger he'd sprained against the Bills. Yet against the Giants, he'd thrown a perfect 50-yard bomb; he didn't seem to be struggling then. Though Smith's accuracy will never win any awards, he's struggling with his decisions, not his hands. So enough already, with all the excuses. He's got his offensive head-coach. He's got his good receiving-corps. He's got his second year in one system. There aren't any excuses left. All that's left is Smith himself.

For years it was always the great unknown: how truly good is Alex Smith? Well, now, we finally know. We know his ceiling, and he's already there. He's certainly capable of great plays, great drives, even great games now and then. And it's still true, he seems to come back strongest when you're doubting him the most. (So we can safely predict that he'll go for 350 against Arizona.) But forget about that consistent explosiveness. The most we can ask is consistent efficiency, and lately even that's been too much.

Of course, this could still be enough, for a fine season, a division title. But we're talking about the Super Bowl, the only goal that matters here. And since the opening day of training camp, that goal has turned on a simple equation. If the defense regressed, Smith would need to make up the difference. Only then would we have a real shot, a genuine chance at winning it all.

Though it's still quite good, the D has regressed. But Alex Smith has regressed even more.

As much as it hurts, you do the math.
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.


  • one more time
    This is not Chicago. We have had professional Q.B. play in S.F. Give someone a chance to bring it back. J.H. is being unfair to the fans and the other Q.B.s. I am watching Green Bay and other games to watch professional Q.B. play, its getting bad. How many more years of excuses? 2018, is that long enough?
    Nov 4, 2012 at 5:31 PM
  • Shane
    Look out Jeff, the animals are getting ready to take over the zoo... interested in your next article but remember Alex Smith is the next coming of Montana... get ready to be smoked in the comments.
    Oct 30, 2012 at 6:36 PM
    Response: Ha! Thanks, Shane. Needless to say, I'm having trouble processing how this guy, or ANY guy, can swing so wildly between awful and great. (My early theory is that the level of competition might have something to do with it.) Is it any wonder that Smith is so polarizing? It'll take me another few days to come up with something coherent on this. Look for me during the bye week!
  • Chris P.
    Lol what?! You support the team win or lose but you don't like the players or coaches? How does that work? Secondly, how can you not like this group of guys that has persevered for several years before breaking through. Pat Willis, Bowman, VD? Nothing? You can call yourself whatever you want buddy but you're a hater, it's pretty simple. They're 19-6 under Harbaugh, they have the best defense in the league statistically, and they are legit Super Bowl contenders for the first time in years and you still don't like the team? What am I missing here? What more does the coaching staff have to do? Win a Super Bowl? Well duh, but that takes time. Homer my ass, it's called common sense.
    Oct 29, 2012 at 11:00 AM
  • Jason
    Terry B, It's real simple!!!! Instead of being negative and since you don't like the 49ers' players or coaches then why don't you go find another team to root for. You got to be exhausted voicing all your negative feelings towards Alex Smith and the rest of the team. Go find another team because the 49ers don't need you!
    Oct 29, 2012 at 9:30 AM
  • Terry B.
    I'm the best kind of 49er fan, Chris P. I support this team win or lose. I just don't like the 49ers' players or coaches. That's the difference between me and the rest of you homers.
    Oct 28, 2012 at 10:06 PM
  • Chris P.
    Terry B, you are a sad excuse for a Niner fan. You really are. You're also the very definition of a hater. Alex Smith finally is having success. The Niners are winning again after a decade of suffering and you can't stand it. Alex Smith has stayed with SF through all of it, all the bashing, all the hating, all the booing by guys like you that can barely play Madden much less QB in the National Football League. Smith has handled himself with nothing but class and he finally is finding some success with the Niners, and you still can't stand it! Why even call yourself a fan? You're a hater. I'm curious what you were doing when Smith led the Niners back to win the Saints game last year? You were cheering when he hit VD and if you weren't then take your jersey off and go hate on someone else cause you're not a Niners fan.
    Oct 27, 2012 at 8:03 PM
  • Terry B.
    Haha, Mike Singleberry. That's some funny stuff! These homers who thought Dingleberry was the answer are the same ones who think Harbaugh is the answer now. He proved them wrong immediately by sticking with A.S. Jeff Kaplan is a voice for the rest of us who know that the 49ers will just fail and fail as long as we are stuck with A.S. Way to make them all see the truth Jeff. Hopefully he will be gone soon.
    Oct 27, 2012 at 1:22 PM
  • Mike Singleberry
    Picture This! My pants are on the floor. I'm bent over holding my ankles and youre looking at the biggest ball sack you have ever dreamed of. Below these nuts is Mike (fucking) Singleberry! "Do I have your attention you worthless pile of shits! This is what a football player looks like. He's got these. When you grow a pair, Let me know! I want Winners, Winners! Now, who wants a piece of this?" Way to go Jeff! Lets get Niner Nation all fired up.
    Oct 26, 2012 at 9:35 PM
  • Alex Smith
    Haters gonna hate.
    Oct 25, 2012 at 12:05 PM
  • Terry B.
    Tim is such a smart guy, he thinks the 49ers have already won the Super Bowl. That's a pretty convincing argument there genius. "Someone has to win the division" so it must be the 49ers. The other teams in the NFC west are falling apart at the seams, eh? Well so are the 49ers, Dim. Even if the 49ers miraculously were to make it to the playoffs, how do you expect them to beat Drew Brees and the resurging Saints? Not with A.S.baugh leading the charge.
    Oct 24, 2012 at 9:04 PM
  • Chris P.
    Okay...I'm going to try to break something down for Kaplan and fans like Terry B. Key word is try. This is on behalf of fans like myself who support Alex Smith. The "Smitheists." Boy that's clever Kaplan. You see, we are the rationally minded, logic driven side of 49er nation. What does that mean? We realize that Alex Smith isn't Tom Brady or Drew Brees. The 49ers aren't built to put up numbers offensively that rival the Pats, Packers, or Saints so we don't expect Smith to mirror that. And yet, we can beat those teams with Alex Smith at QB. The win-loss column proves that point. Logical? We notice things like the win-loss column. We are 19-6 under Harbaugh so we trust the man knows what we are doing. Logical? And lastly, and perhaps the most painfully obvious one if you've watched any Niner football over the last year and a half is that we can win games different ways. I really believe that Harbaugh doesn't get enough credit for this. Last week against Seattle, we dinked and dunked it because why screw with Seattle's secondary when Gore is busting off huge runs left and right. No need. We also, btw, listen to Steve Young when he says Smith can lead SF to a Super Bowl.
    Oct 23, 2012 at 11:52 PM
  • Har-Ballin
    I hate to say it, but most of this article makes a lot of sense. Alex's play has been disappointing to say the least. At the same time, im not on the Kap bandwagon just yet. The guy was a VERY raw talent when he was drafted. If JH thinks he's not ready, he probably isn't. You can't compare him to Luck or RGIII, Jeff. Those guys were drafted 1, 2 because they're widely considered the future cream of the crop in the NFL.
    Oct 23, 2012 at 9:37 AM
    Response: Just to be clear, Har, I agree that Kaepernick isn't ready until Harbaugh says he is. In referencing Luck and Griffin, I was only trying to suggest that they're examples (two of many) of how QBs these days are ready far more quickly than they used to be. Granted, those guys are far more polished than Kaepernick, but in this era of accelerated development it would still seem to me that Kaepernick after one year should be roughly as ready as they are as rookies. (Not necessarily as GOOD, mind you, but as ready.) Again, though, it's a moot point. I trust Harbaugh, and until Harbaugh says he's ready, then for whatever reason he isn't.
  • Tim
    Wow. This Terry B guy is really something. Pay attention to the standings Terry. The Niners are in first place in a division that, aside from Seattle, is falling apart at the seams. Someone has to win the division. And you think it WON'T be the Niners? You're kind of an idiot aren't you? A little slow? Did you ride the short bus to school? Must have cause your comments are just absurd.
    Oct 23, 2012 at 2:52 AM
  • Adrian
    not a sharp game at all by the game manager. but... doesnt he deserve some credit for calling and killing the play at the line of scrimmage with those huge run gains? bounce back game the next 2 weeks for Alex and the Wideouts.
    Oct 22, 2012 at 4:46 PM
  • Chris K
    I agree on some of your premises, but I don't reach the same conclusions. Alex isn't any better this year, but from where I sit our chances are better than ever to win the SB. You completely miss that our running game is light years ahead of last year, and our defense is actually better too. Since you seem to disagree that the D is better here are some stats to show that the defense has not "regressed". We are #1 in the league in most stats that matter. Points allowed, yards per game, yards per play, total passing yards, passing yards per attempt. We haven't gotten the TOs or the sacks, but our D is even more suffocating. As much as you insist on the supremacy of passing attacks in this day and age, our D has had the answers for great passing offenses, and since our run game is so much better, we will be much harder to shut down this year than last, even without improvement from Alex.
    Oct 22, 2012 at 2:34 PM
  • Jeff D
    I'm a die hard fan of the Red and Gold and I'm with you here. This is starting to feel eerily like the Singletary teams with a better defense and better game management. A lot of points are being left on the field and that's not going to cut it in the end.
    Oct 22, 2012 at 1:55 PM
  • David Eicher
    You Alex-bashers really amaze me. You are simply misdirecting your frustration over the Nolan/Singletary years onto him because he seems like such an easy target. Under Harbaugh the Niners are 19-6 overall with Alex Smith as the quarterback. Forget the miserable preceding years; we are now in the Harbaugh Era. This is our new reality. Joe Montana and Steve Young are among the greatest quarterbacks to have ever played the game, and yet they "only" took us to the Super Bowl five times over 16 years. Nobody's perfect. Both threw interceptions, got sacked, and fumbled. That happens to every NFL quarterback. Kaep is a wonderful athlete and an exciting QB prospect, but I guarantee you that at this point in his career he would make a lot more poor decisions than Alex does. As Niner fans we've once again got a lot to be excited about. Let's savor the good times while we have them.
    Oct 22, 2012 at 1:34 PM
  • Terry B.
    The 49ers suck. You can't be a complete team without a quarterback, and the 49ers don't have one. Alex Smith isn't a quarterback and neither is Colin Kaepernick. Even the defense is showing its weaknesses. I'm happy to announce there will be no playoffs for the 49ers this season. Get ready for a gigantic downhill slide led by the incompetent Alex Smith and the perpetually disgruntled Jim Harbaugh, his biggest fan.
    Oct 22, 2012 at 12:38 PM
    Response: The "other" Terry B.
  • Shane
    Edd: I am not claiming to be some kind of expert or anything but i love talking 9er football and need a break from work, so Im going to give my opinion on your $100 question. I would roll with Smith the rest of the year and as you said go back to the basics. He is obviously very limited. The coaches gave him a chance to let loose this year, as they have been throwing the ball more. they have seen the results and know the truth (thus 2 QB keepers in big spots) Now I know the D was a bit more stiff and the TO rate was ridiculous but despite it all if the refs called that fumble a fumble we are in the SB. so as long as we are winning, lets hope to squueze all the juice thats left outta smith this year and Kap is a MUST start next yr, with another yr under his belt. If Kap doesnt start next yr Im officially hitting the panic button!
    Oct 22, 2012 at 12:30 PM
  • Edd
    Last year Alex had his best season running a vanilla offense. This was supported by an awesome defense, ST, and turnover ratio. Well, this season the ST and turnover ratio isnt so good. Front office went out and got some WR's and expanded the passing scheme. Unfortunately, Alex doesnt have the skills to operate a sophisticated passing offense. Its pretty obvious. Now, the $100 question. Go back to a vanilla offense and try to make the playoffs? Or risk everything by benching Smith and using an unproven Kaep? Tough decision. I have no right answer, but I know what Smith can do, and I dont think it is enough to make the Superbowl.
    Oct 22, 2012 at 8:27 AM
    Response: That IS the big question, Edd. I still have complete trust in Harbaugh, so I've gotta believe that the reason Kaepernick isn't starting is that he isn't ready to start (though why he isn't ready when Luck and RGIII were is a mystery to me). So I don't deny that Smith gives us our best chance to win the Super Bowl this year. After nearly half the season, though, I just don't think that "our best chance" is particularly good.
  • ninersush
    I think the play that was most telling for me was when alex called a timeout cause the play didnt get to him due to an equipment malfunction. i mean god damn just call a fucking play. any play. a damn handoff to frank. a kneel down even. shit man u've been in the league for almost a decade somehow and u can't improvise a play? with all the rookie qbs playing incredibly, i have no patience anymore. put in Kap or Tolzien. smith should ride pine in the 3rd qb spot and b cut in the offseason. he's made good money and i dont feel bad due to that. he's a really nice guy, i really like him and want him to succeed but i dont see it happening. u alex lovers can't continue to excuse this poor, no not poor, horrible play. no other qb can last this long w the crap throws he makes. misses wide open people. dont tell me about mug coverage or kap rhythm-breaking. its just untrue. jim needs to do his team and this fan base a MAJOR SOLID and just bench alex. the players r not playing as hard as they dont have confidence in alex. that is why the defense is regressing. vd and crabs pretty much held their tongue on it too. just do it Jim.
    Oct 22, 2012 at 8:01 AM
  • cNiner
    Love your writing! One thing, if it was not for our D, the score of the game vs the Gmen would have been 45-3! They stopped them for threes after the dumb ass throws. Everyone knows Alex is shit, so he had two to three games, Gore is the heart of the O. KAP is getting more reps and inserted in games cause the coaches know they are going to need him down the line! Love your article.
    Oct 21, 2012 at 7:59 PM
  • shane
    Losers?? All this talk of stats and "its ok because we are winning" is short sighted and in my opinion that is LOSER talk. i know it wasnt long ago when just winning games and making the playoffs was exciting but come on we are beyond that now. This is a SB team and if we wanna compete with the Gmen, Bears, GB (Please no one say we beat GB, thats weak. That was week one, im talking playoffs), Bal, NE, etc we need a QB that can move the chains and score TDs. We beat a Sea team with a rookie QB and minimal weapons at home on a short week, so we are just supposed to ignore that smith has looked like shit for 2 weeks? (or 8 years however you want to look at it) he is missing WIDE OPEN WRs, making bad reads, overthrowing open guys down the field, doesnt give anyone a chance to fight one on one, doesnt throw the ball to his best weapon. These wins, thanks mostly to our D, are the deodorant on the STINK thats been Smiths play. after that deodorant wears off all thats left is the stink. Its not about just winning or stats, its about the O progressing in a way that can win us a SB, and if you dont get that maybe youre the loser.
    Oct 21, 2012 at 4:25 PM
    Response: Beautiful, Shane.
  • shane
    Jeff, I thought you were going to get killed for this article for being a Smith "hater" (aka realistic) but aside from some ppl that would hate your article regardless it feels like the general 9er fan is coming around to the truth. This article is right on the money. I agree that we should have run the ball more against the Gmen but i would not call them a stiff D. they are the 22nd ranked pass D in the league and teams have been killing them in the air. their pass rush has struggled all season. Those picks were awful. Then the Hawks game, terrible! that Moss play was inexcusable. Also how the hell does your best offensive weapon not get a TARGET!?? that makes me sick. i refuse to believe there wasnt ONE play where he was open or had single coverage. Smith refuses to throw a ball up and give a guy a chance to make a play. at this point anyone who supports that QB play is blind to the fact this guy is holding a very good team back. other than that this article says it all.
    Oct 21, 2012 at 3:24 PM
  • mister nesbit
    you losers must be having a bad fantasy football year. I've never heard so much bullsh*t whining from people after the team has topped the nfc west. Kaplan is just a ring leader for you stat cheering turds. i wish you'd all find a different team to cry about when they're winning.
    Oct 21, 2012 at 3:13 PM
  • Greg
    So Smith threw 3 ints against a very stiff NYGs defense. Who gives a shit. Brett Favre used to consistently throw 3 or 4 picks a game, and he's a legend, so just what is your problem with Smith? Got news for you "Einstein", ya gotta throw passes to get any good at it and I don't see a better option on the bench than Smith. You don't think (Thursday Night) he was under any type of psychological pressure when Harbs put Kap in? For Christ's sake, he'd just driven the team down the field. I'm sorry but when they begin treating him like a starter "consistently", then maybe he will begin to play like a starter, "consistently". If you say you can do better, I'll call you out to be the liar you undoubtedly are because if you could do better you would be out there creating your own legacy instead of writing bullshit on better deserving athletes such as Alex Smith. No, he's no Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers, but he ain't no slouch either, I don't give a damn if he throws 3 picks a game (exaggerated)...It is a scientifically proven stat that you can't win them all.
    Oct 21, 2012 at 1:14 PM
    Kaplan - is there a manager of this site we can complain to? I can't stand reading another one of your articles. I've had enough. You're a broken record that tries to use fancy language to mask what seems to be an almost childish dislike of Alex Smith. HOW MANY TIMES do you feel like you have to make the point that Smith isn't elite? That he isn't one of the greats? That he isn't as good as a lot of the starting QBs in this league? ENOUGH. I hope you have another job and writing for this site is a hobby.
    Oct 21, 2012 at 12:41 PM
  • Ceadderman
    Well written article as always Jeff. One that I do not agree with but it's well written anyway. If you were paying attention to this game you noticed that Frank when he got the ball was gashing the Smurfs. Out of 17 carries he had more positive yards than negative. The problem was not that Smith threw the Interceptions (believe me, one was a real stinker) but that Roman didn't even try to call a balanced game. Smith didn't just come out of the gate throwing INTs. Nope they came in the 3rd and 4th Quarters. All because Akers missed FG after FG at the end of drives that with better play selection could have gotten us closer. Instead of Passing on 3rd down there were hardly any first down Passes once they got to the 50. Once they got to the 50 the Kappy show started. He's running designed plays. There is nothing new to see there. They were the same plays that were run in Preseason, and the first 4 weeks of the season. Coughlin just had his guys better prepared. THAT my friend was the aberration. When it was working (against the Jets and the Bills) nobody complained much. But it's twice now killed us. Almost a 3rd time thursday.
    Oct 20, 2012 at 11:00 PM
  • overthemiddle
    To me this is a reflection of the backup QBs, Kap and Tolzien. Too many fans say AS cant do this or cant do that, cant see open receivers, doesnt know how to keep a play alive, and many many more things. A lot of fans refer to Alex as Alice. What you are telling me is Kap or Tolzien cant beat out a QB - you know the one, a girl named Alice.
    Oct 20, 2012 at 8:19 PM
  • Steve
    Gee, thanks, Mike Nolan, for not choosing Aaron Rodgers. Things have worked out much better with Alex Smith. Who wants someone who can consistently throw accurate deep balls? It's much more fun watching a pass land five yards beyond the receiver time after time. And who wants a QB who senses when he is about to get flattened and gets out of the way. It's more fun to watch him stand there looking cluelessly downfield. Those are things that never improve with Alex Smith, regardless of who the coaches are. As for whether our HC has faith in him, did you see coaches with QBs like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, etc. going after Peyton Manning in the offseason? How come Harbaugh did, if Smith is so great? Yes, thank you Mike Nolan, it's been real.
    Oct 20, 2012 at 6:26 PM
    Response: Great comment, Steve.

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