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Niners Finally Prepare To Take Flight

Nov 3, 2013 at 8:04 AM

When the Niners reached "the midway point," their official website posted "the 10 best plays of the season so far." Not surprisingly, each was a play from their winning streak, during which they've grounded-and-pounded five of the league's least-threatening teams. Each was perfectly fine to be sure, but none was the play that best encapsulates the streak, that best sums up the season so far.

It happened in week six, against the Cardinals. About halfway through the second quarter.

That's when Greg Roman finally cracked.

The game was tight, due to the Niners' offensive sluggishness. Certainly their D had done its part. One pick had gone back to the Cardinals' 7; another had set us up at the 11. From there we'd gained three total yards, settling for six pathetic points. Thankfully, Colin Kaepernick had added a deep touchdown pass to Vernon Davis, but still, in essence, our D had outscored our O, eight-seven.

Kaepernick hadn't completed a single pass to a wide receiver. So Roman figured, screw it. And he split out wide our backup center, Daniel Kilgore.

Never mind that Kilgore served merely as a decoy for Davis, who caught another deep pass on his way to one of his best days ever. You could almost see Roman throw up his hands. Sure, he could've used Kyle Williams, Jon Baldwin, or Marlon Moore. But Roman knew, he could just as well have used Sourdough Sam. So screw it, he said. I'll just use Kilgore.

That, right there, was the season so far.

As the Niners' passing-game drifted nearly into oblivion, there was some suggestion that Kaepernick might be part of the problem. Certainly he didn't seem as confident or aggressive. But though stats are often deceptive—worse than lies, both damned and not—here they told the story in full. When throwing to Davis (and Anquan Boldin), Kaepernick's rating was 111. When throwing to the "Sams," it was 31.

This wasn't any secret, of course. You saw this comparison week after week. But if you thought that Kaepernick was part of the problem, you needed a simple lesson in science. When one variable stays the same, it's the other that causes the different result.

Once those receivers proved their worth—their lack thereof, in other words—Roman did what he had to do: he turned his offense upside-down. After passing on two-thirds of his plays during weeks one through three, his O from there was precisely reversed. At the midway point, in rushing attempts and rushing yards, the Niners rank a clear #1. In passing attempts and passing yards, their rank is #31.

In other words, it's Singletarian nirvana.

Roman could get away with this, because he was facing the dregs of the league. But despite the predictable nonsense about the Niners' run-first identity, Roman had already tipped his hand. In those first three weeks, he'd shown us that he knows the truth. To compete with good teams, he needs to pass.

But, to pass, he needs receivers.

With an obvious need and a wealth of draft-picks, the Niners were rumored to be exploring a trade for Josh Gordon or Hakeem Nicks. A deal for either would've been risky, Gordon because of his off-field issues, Nicks because of his expiring contract. And in any event, their availability, as well as their price, was never confirmed to the public at large.

That said, the rumor-mill had Gordon for a second and Nicks for a third, and I would've happily paid either one. Having already earned an extra second for Alex Smith, we certainly could've afforded it. And though a deal would've come with some risk, there'd be much more risk in standing pat. The deal would cost a valuable pick, but it would guarantee a chance at the title. Going all-in with two guys from the PUP list? We might not get that chance at all.

Predictably, though, the Niners stood pat, and now we're starting to understand why. Stunningly, those guys from the PUP list look like they're gonna come all the way back.

Mario Manningham's knee injury was horrific. Back in September, it wasn't certain that he'd be able to play at all this year, much less that he'd play effectively. But by now we should know that ligament tears are nothing today, barely more serious than Kaepernick's "hangnails." With Manningham's knee now "stronger than [his] other one," he seems ready to open the Niners' world.

And Michael Crabtree's story is even more implausible. When Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas tore his Achilles in February 2011, it took him seven months to feel totally healthy, and another three months to start making an impact. The Niners are going to expect that impact roughly six months after Crabtree's injury. Yet he seems on pace to do just that.

Jeez, pass me some of that deer-antler spray, will ya?

Throw in the timely (and, one hopes, sober) return of Aldon Smith—to shore up the pass-rush, the one remaining trouble-spot—and something might be brewing here. A month ago, it was tough to envision us winning a game; now it's tough to envision a loss—in November, December, or even beyond.

We all make plans, of course. Some are good, some are bad, and some—as they say—are just so crazy, they just might work.

After the Rams game, I laid out the Niners' plan:

"The mission now is not long-term. The mission now is to hold the fort. Pick up wins however we can, pray that they're enough for the playoffs, and hope, against hope, that by then we'll have the weapons we need, to take those training wheels back off, and hopefully put them away for good."

As I said then, it wasn't a plan that seemed likely to work. It just had too many moving parts. But maybe it was just crazy enough. Amazingly, we did hold the fort. We did pick up wins, how we needed to. We're obviously on pace for the playoffs. And it seems like we will have the weapons we need. It seems like we're ready, at last, to take flight.

In the second half, we'll need to prove it. Tough tests await, and the plan still rests on a measure of faith.

But suddenly, the plan sounds good. It sounds, in fact, 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
    I think you are slightly misreading Harbaugh and Roman's intentions. They don't want a team with a pass-first identity (or a run-first identity for that matter). They want a team that can do either to exploit the weaknesses of the team they are playing. I expect to see some games going forward with 40 pass attempts and others with under 20. They definitely want to pass more than they have, but I don't think it's the radical philosophical shift that you are hoping for.
    Nov 8, 2013 at 9:41 AM
  • Paul A.
    Jeff, A long time between posts... Would be fantastic if one or both wrs came back even at 95%, but with Crabtree just having him be able to get on the practice field is a superhuman feat. For both guys, big-time injury. They may get on the field, but to expect significant contributions ... I'm hoping!
    Nov 6, 2013 at 3:15 PM
  • Patrick Mooney
    I could not agree more with you. I was looking at the injury reports around the NFL and to my surprise the 49ers have one of if not the healthiest roster on paper. I was shocked as at the start of the season we had to look real hard to start 11 fully healthy players at one time. We are coming together very very well at the midway point looking into the postseason. As most if not all teams are beginning to show the pains of wearing down due to injuries, we are picking up steam. Go Niners, Quest for 6!
    Nov 6, 2013 at 9:37 AM
  • Lucky Phil
    I think the Texans game summed this season up for me so far. We were up by over 20 pts (first half) and I was thoroughly bored and disappointed. We have one of the best young QB's in the NFL and there looks to be no long-term plan at WR. The Pats went down that road and have not won a Superbowl since 2004. This is a passing league, if you have the QB, you get the WR's to make the offense work. We got lucky last yr. to get by the Falcons. We will lose to the Cowboys or Seahawks this yr. #1 We need to incorporate V. McDonald in the offense. His strength is as a rec not a blocker. #2 We need to get a #1 receiver, the trade deadline has passed, but next yr. we need to start thinking about the team after Crabtree. Baalke won't be paying 10 mil for Crabs nor should he. He shows no leadership and we should replace him with younger cheaper talent. (Watkins & Lee are upgrades, D. Moncrief or R. Greene would equal production.) Overall, I'm afraid that unless we get some production from young players like V. McD this team will not get to the SB this year. I hope I'm wrong but I'm impatient, I don't like waiting for Crabs, Manningham, Carradine, Patton, and Lattimore to possibly come back 100%.
    Nov 5, 2013 at 7:16 PM
  • shane
    Nice to have you back Jeff, I was also curious what happened. Welcome back. I will admit, I have been torn on this issue. Ive said many times I felt like the guys we had at WR are overvalued. Boldin as a 1, Williams, Moore, Patton in his rookie year. Not very intimidating. However, at times I found myself wondering, how good is Kaep? If we had Brees, Manning(s), Brady, Rodgers, etc, would these guys look better? Wld Williams be a very good quick slot guy. Wld Baldwin start to look like a Marshall (size n speed) type or even Jeffery for Gods sake. Wld Patton have looked more promising, does Moore have a 50-catch season. There were times it felt like Kaep was missing a lot of reads and throwing some bad balls. He is looking a lot better now but lets be honest, its against lesser teams in an Alex Smith-type role. So to me, the jury is still out. The great news is, we are going to be getting better WRs back and facing better teams. The truth will begin to surface b/c one thing is true: at some point we will have to throw to win, and win it all.
    Nov 5, 2013 at 8:43 AM
  • Dan B.
    Nov 4, 2013 at 10:33 AM
  • Terry B.
    Matt and VA49er, if this offense is Harbaugh's wet dream, why did he employ an explosive passing offense when he switched from Smith to Kaepernick? Remember what this offense looked like when we had a full complement of healthy, talented receivers for Kaepernick to throw to? Why did he switch to this offense only when no one stepped up at WR to replace Crabtree and Manningham? Yes, power running has always been an integral part of Harbaugh's offense, but if you think the current incarnation of the offense is what Harbaugh's going to run when he gets his WRs back, you're kidding yourselves.
    Nov 4, 2013 at 8:55 AM
  • Terry B.
    Jeff, where have you been? It used to be that the only things you could count on were death, taxes, and a Jeff Kaplan column every Tuesday. I thought maybe you had become a Seahawks fan or something.
    Nov 4, 2013 at 8:37 AM
    Response: Thanks for missing me, Terry. But I just couldn't muster much reaction to these grind-it-out wins over crummy opponents. The Niners were staying true to the plan, and that was pretty much the extent of the story. But now that things are picking back up, you should be hearing more from me.
  • VA49er
    Ultimately the issue with our offense was trying to be a pass-first team. We are and will be run-first. We should be run-first even with manningham and crabs back. Look at the bucs vs. Seattle yesterday. Their run game was the key to beating them. The bucs abandoned the run late in the game and it bit them in the butt.
    Nov 4, 2013 at 5:56 AM
    Response: No way, VA. The issue with our offense wasn't that we went pass-first; it was that we went pass-first without a competent receiving corps. As long as you've got the personnel, going pass-first is the best way to win--at least when you're facing quality opponents--and Roman and Harbaugh are smart enough to know it.
  • Matt
    You are fooling yourself if you think Roman and Harbaugh secretly wish for a pass-first offense. SF under Harbaugh has always been a run-first team (just like Stanford) and always will be.
    Nov 3, 2013 at 5:18 PM
  • Kyle
    Great article. I agree with everything you said in it. Once Manningham and eventually Crabtree return, I think we will be passing the ball more. We have gotten away with the almost 3:1 run-pass ratio because we have had the easiest part of our schedule. That ratio must change when we start playing the back end of the schedule, which is a lot tougher. We will have to be able to move the ball through the air. They've been protecting Kaepernick a lot during this 5-game win streak, barely letting him throw it at all. I understand why they did that though, with only Boldin and Vernon as reliable targets.
    Nov 3, 2013 at 9:13 AM

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