Instinctively, the Niners Collapse

Sep 16, 2014 at 6:30 AM


Did I ever tell you about my first (and only) Niner game at Candlestick Park?

I lived 2,000 miles away, so seeing a game required a special trip. And though NorCal is one of this country's most worthy vacation spots, I was never quite willing to make the (mostly financial) commitment. Finally, I got the kick in the pants I needed. A family friend planned a Bay Area wedding for a fall Saturday, and the Niners would be playing at home the next day—September 22, 2002.

That did it.

After stopping at Santa Clara to see the trophies (and to park for a while in Bill Walsh's spot, much to the ire of some mugshottish security guys), I headed up to the 'Stick. I found my seat in the very top row of the ugly hulk, and under a typically perfect sky, I settled in to watch the Niners take on Washington—though I "watched" only technically, as I could barely see which team was which.

Of course I would've been excited anyway, but I felt particularly excited to be at this game, which was billed as an opportunity for revenge. During the preseason, Washington had pummeled the Niners, 38 to 7. In the first game of his ill-fated NFL coaching career, Steve Spurrier, as was his wont, ran up the score, playing first-stringers into the second half and throwing the ball all the way to the end. Niners coach Steve Mariucci reportedly stewed, telling Spurrier afterward, "We'll see you in six weeks." Mariucci insisted that he'd meant it literally, an honest-to-goodness see-you-later. Yet in the eyes of the assembled media, Mariucci had sworn that he'd have his vengeance, in this life or the next.

But Mariucci wasn't that kind of guy.

Ahead 20 to 10 with eight minutes left, the Niners took over at their own two-yard-line. With Kevan Barlow picking up yards in huge chunks, the Niners drove down the field while draining the clock, until they had a first down in the final minute, at Washington's 16. Mariucci's team urged him to exact the revenge that he'd (allegedly) promised, but Mariucci had other ideas. He told Tim Rattay, subbing for an ailing Jeff Garcia, to take a knee and run out the clock.

And Terrell Owens, the Niners' top receiver, had this to say, a line that will live in infamy: "We have no killer instinct, period."

Four months later, after Mariucci did the same thing again, in a playoff game in which he was trailing, he was out as coach of the Niners.

But anyway, that's what I remember about my first Niner game. (Plus I bought a hat.)

Now right up front, let's acknowledge that there are myriad reasons why the Niners blew a 17-point lead over the Bears, and thereby pooped on their brand-new field. The Niners were wildly undisciplined, getting slapped with an unbelievable 16 penalties, most of which they actually deserved; Colin Kaepernick committed four turnovers, though all were forced by surprisingly strong defensive plays; the Niners chose to "cover" Brandon Marshall with a rookie roughly half his size; and perhaps most embarrassingly, the Niners' vaunted offensive line was grossly outplayed by a Bears' line held together with tape.

Yup, that'll do it.

But Michael Crabtree, the Niners' (alleged) top receiver, had this to say: "We need that killer instinct." Or, as echoed by Anquan Boldin, the Niners' (actual) top receiver: "When you have a team down, you have to put your foot on their throat."

Perhaps because of my history, this was the part that struck me most.

No question, this indeed was part of the issue. It was most apparent, and appalling, on the drive that opened the second half. Having given up a soul-draining touchdown at the end of the first half, the Niners had a golden chance to do some timely throat-stepping. At their own 10, the Niners started a nine-minute march, culminating in a first-and-5 at the Bears' 6. Emotionally, a touchdown here might well have put the Bears away. But even though the Bears were stacked against the run, the Niners ran a running back on three straight downs, which netted exactly zero yards. That is to say, the Niners played for a deflating field-goal. They never scored again, and the Bears, energized, never stopped.

Again, this wasn't the whole story, but it's telling that Crabtree and Boldin went there. They didn't spout the usual twaddle about execution ("We've just gotta execute better") or turnovers ("You can't turn the ball over and expect to win"). Instead they chose to attack their coaches.

And make no mistake, that's what they did, just as surely as Owens did. A player would never suggest that he or a teammate lacks a "killer instinct," which players deem mandatory for mere survival in their violent world. So when a player says that his team lacks a "killer instinct," he's saying that his coaches lack a player's go-for-the-throat mentality. He's accusing them of lacking the necessary aggressiveness. He's accusing them, essentially, of Marty Ball.

We've had this discussion before, of course. Two years ago, after the Niners blew a 28-point lead (though they recovered to win), I pointed out that "Jim Harbaugh's aggressive competitive philosophy—knock your man down, kick him in the ribs, then crush his windpipe under your heel—doesn't seem to extend to his coordinators. Those two have shown that they tend to let up, and it almost produced an epic disaster."

Once again, this wasn't the whole story, but Sunday proved that not much has changed. What has changed, though, is that players are noticing, and speaking up.

Last week, in the aftermath of a happy victory, I pissed you off by giving credence to the reports that Harbaugh was "losing the locker room." So, I suppose, you won't think that the comments by Crabtree and Boldin—delivered, as they were, in the aftermath of a crushing defeat—are any sign of a growing rift. And, of course, maybe they're not.

But then again, we've seen this before. This is precisely how it starts. And Harbaugh ought to respond, strongly. His public response—"the 'foot on the accelerator' analogy, I'm not sure exactly what you're saying there"—will not suffice to impress his team.

In the wake of a nearly total collapse, Harbaugh's got plenty of work to do. But finally instilling his aggressiveness might be his most important task.

Steve Mariucci would surely agree.
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.


16 Comments

  • Lucky Phil
    Jeff, I'm a little concerned with Niner Nation. Please address the issue and make this losing stop. I'm not watching this crap every Sunday, I don't have the stomach for it. Will Baalke take my call? What the hell are we doing? What The Hell Are We Doing Here? That would be my first question. What The F#@k Are We Doing? Has a reporter asked that question yet. I'm getting worked up Jeff. I'm Getting Worked Up!
    Sep 22, 2014 at 5:42 PM
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  • Nick S.
    Yo Jeff. I agree with you regarding a majority of the article (though I don't think Crabs & Boldin are calling out the coaches as much as you do), but I find it a little funny that fans are so upset that the 49ers ran the ball three times on 1st & Goal from the 6ish. Weren't fans also upset when Harbs decided to throw the ball a bunch in a similar situation during the 49ers' final drive of Super Bowl XLVII? I mean, if those runs against the Bears work, we're praising the coaching staff's genius. But since they didn't, they're the goats. I get both sides of the argument, but I don't think it's a clear sign that the 49ers were playing it safe by running the ball there. I think Harbs/Roman often out-think themselves sometimes (especially in the red zone), but I don't think this was a clear "play for the FG situation." But again, a valid argument on both sides. Now I'm sure we'll see Harbs/Roman revert to run-run-run this Sunday, as they usually do when Roman has a pass-happy-let's-get-cute loss. In Roman's defense though, the Bears were playing single-high safety most of the game... that means you pretty much have to pass.
    Sep 18, 2014 at 3:03 PM
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  • Lucky Phil
    In a side note, Jim Harbaugh has added himself to the injury report. In JH's words, "Right Pinkie Contusion," in medical terminology a permanent disfigurement of the right pinkie dislocated at the second knuckle at a grotesque angle only Pythagoras would understand. Asked this week to explain the injury, JH responded "Just Testing The Waters". No further explanation was asked, or required.
    Sep 17, 2014 at 6:05 PM
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  • Lucky Phil
    This just in from the NFL league office.... After Coach Jim Harbaugh asked for clarification about what words were said by QB Colin Kaepernick to Chicago Bear player Lamar Houston, he was told by the NFL commissioner, "Go [email protected]#k Yourself!" Two minutes after this conversation Coach Harbaugh was fined 25 thousand... But in JH's words, "After expressing my displeasure with the NFL process as we know it today, I have made it abundantly clear, first and foremost, that my shoe has been forged into the shape of Roger Goodell's Ass through Steel Banging on Steel in the Hottest Fire".
    Sep 17, 2014 at 5:12 PM
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  • Lucky Phil
    This just in from the NFL league office. Colin Kaepernick will not be fined 11k for derogatory language towards an NFL player. He will be fined 10k for telling an NFL referee to go [email protected]#k Himself!
    Sep 17, 2014 at 4:50 PM
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  • Lucky Phil
    This just passed down from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. In place of singing the Star Spangled Banner, we have just one question we will be asking our players before every game. "Has anyone beat the s#@t out of their girlfriend or children this week?....Ok, Then Lets Play Some Ball!" Jeff, carry on with the good work. God Bless Niner Nation.
    Sep 17, 2014 at 4:42 PM
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  • MusicMan83
    This said it exactly. 1st and goal and all we can come up with is 3 points? I get that it's harder to score in the red zone because the field is compressed, but just like you wrote, the Bears were playing the Niners to run, and instead of running some kind of playaction or bootleg, instead the Niners proceed to run it up the gut 3 times in a row. I've seen this happen too often in the Harbaugh era.
    Sep 16, 2014 at 7:50 PM
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  • Mike S
    WTF the Coordinators let up on the gas?? Last I checked they work for the HC! The aggressive mentality is on Harbaugh 1000% He has the final say so, the buck stops with JH. If his OC & DC are letting up he has to straighten that out ASAP over the mic or with halftime adjustments. No way man, the ATTITUDE & Killer Instinct which yes we're dropping BIGTIME falls on Jimbo. And I can't believe he's playing not to lose after we get a good lead. WEAK! C'mon Harbaugh....go with the flow, let it loose, & go for the KNOCKOUT!
    Sep 16, 2014 at 6:55 PM
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  • Monsterniner
    Make no mistake, this is the same Harbaugh of the last 3 years. The difference is that in the other 3 years we could kill the clock in the second half because he had an elite defense that could stop every offense in this league again and again but now our defense is mediocre without a pass rush and with a new secondary. Right now we can´t trust our defense to stop an offense 3 or 4 times in a row which means that if we have a team that is falling apart like Chicago was we must play hard until the last play of the game. I expect that Harbaugh realizes that because this isn´t the same Niners team of the last few years. If Harbaugh doesn´t change his philosophy we´ll have a long season to go. Our team is about to fall apart and Harbaugh must understand it.
    Sep 16, 2014 at 6:53 PM
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  • Niner100
    Fire both of them weak Azz coordinators!...too soft!
    Sep 16, 2014 at 4:46 PM
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  • Paul
    I'm not certain we were "conservative enough". I think we do have to recognize that we attempted, from a playcalling standpoint, to have a "killer instinct". They were vulnerable in the pass game and we were taking advantage. 3 picks did not help. I think that ultimately Crabs and others were talking about the "team". I agree with assessments that the guys and the crowd and everyone really lost their focus. To be honest though you have to put this loss mostly on Kaep's back. Take care of the ball with a lead. He didn't trust his eyes all day, threw the ball late often, and held onto the ball too long expecting an unrealistic amount of time in the pocket.
    Sep 16, 2014 at 12:37 PM
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  • Roy
    lol. My very first 49ers game was the very week before, ironically, against the Broncos, losing when we had a halftime lead, in the home opener, on my birthday with my whole family. It was the same thing, Mariucci decided to go conservative as he had many times before, and once the Broncos had taken the lead it was too late. So frustrating. All in all it seems like a sound strategy, once you have the lead you wind down the game with clock-draining drives built on the run, but if you don't execute and/or call the right plays, it blows up in your face. What happens many times is instead of playing to win you play not to lose with this strategy, and you end up causing what you're trying to prevent. I hope Harbs and Roman figure this out soon or the niners could find themselves behind the 8 ball with another long road trip in the playoffs, if they even make it that far.
    Sep 16, 2014 at 9:51 AM
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  • Kezar Vet
    If I was Jed York, I would fire Greg Roman today and bring in Mike Shanahan, giving him complete control of the offense. He KNOWS how to direct a top-quality passing offense. He did it for us in 1994.
    Sep 16, 2014 at 8:25 AM
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  • Dallas Niner Fan
    Sunday Sept 20th 2009. In their first game at their new stadium now known as AT&T Park, after much celebration and fanfare the favored Dallas Cowboys blow a 24 to 20 lead in the 3rd quarter to lose to the New York Giants 33 to 31. Tony Romo throws 3 interceptions. Maybe what were seeing here with the Niners is simply a new stadium jinks?
    Sep 16, 2014 at 7:51 AM
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  • Tom
    That is what us old hippies call "RIGHT ON"!!! Maybe Jimmy doesn't like to throw inside the 10 because he tried that once a la Seattle in the playoffs. Problem is he tried it to Crabtree every play. Somebody (Roman) has no imagination.
    Sep 16, 2014 at 7:22 AM
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  • tony lombardo
    Harbs = Marty. love for FGs, FBs, and close games. try and list all the Harbs & Marty players with elite speed. you cant.
    Sep 16, 2014 at 6:54 AM
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