Harbaugh’s Miracle Will Have To Wait

Aug 14, 2011 at 2:57 PM


Did you feel it?

It was quick, but it was there. There it was, just before kickoff. A sense of departure, but also a sense of arrival. We'd made it through the torture that preceded his hiring, seemingly a lifetime ago. We'd made it through the lockout that seemed to push us into infinity. We'd made it through the ups and downs (or, precisely, the downs and ups) of a free-agent frenzy that seemed to leave us who-knows-where.

And, at last, there we were. Out on a field, led by Walsh's final protégé. All the breathless debate about our ownership, our management, our stadium, our roster--indeed, all the damage done over a decade of disaster--all the noise just melted away.

There we were. Out on a field, led by Jim Harbaugh.

And, just for an instant, all was right in the Niners' world.

With that build-up, I couldn't help but raise my expectations. Sure, we'd had a skimpy dozen practices. And yeah, the Saints--entrenched among the league's elite--didn't even NEED to practice. But I had a feeling. With nothing to prove, the Saints would take it easy, just stay healthy and get off the field. The Niners, though--crackling with that same sense of renewal--would come out flying, eager to put the league on notice: the West Coast Offense is back, and so are we.

The feeling lived for exactly one play.

Alex Smith dropped back--all hail the pass-first WCO!--and the offensive line provided a pocket, which would become a most unusual perk. Yet Smith threw a pass--stop me if you've heard this one--right at the feet of an open receiver.

You may say, if you wish, that I'm overreacting. You may deem me unreasonable for demanding execution on the very first play. But that was all I needed to see. In that instant, after six years of this, I simply couldn't believe that Alex Smith was still our quarterback. Still our quarterback--at five million bucks--with no viable alternative.

Trent Baalke might've had a good week. But he's just got no excuse for this.

Much to Smith's benefit, however, the line went on to steal the show. Sure, the Saints DIDN'T take it easy; they sent the house on blitz after blitz. Schematically, we were understandably unprepared for such a breach of preseason ethics. But that doesn't explain why our starting linemen were so soundly beaten one-on-one, even by the Saints' reserves. Leaving aside the soon-to-be-demoted Adam Snyder, there was Joe Staley (or was it Mike Iupati?), nearly getting Smith killed. There was Anthony Davis, committing a false start and STILL getting beat. And there, as always, was Chilo Rachal, as generally awful as ever. Three very high picks--four if you count the increasingly stultifying trade-up for Davis--and still, it just never ends with these guys.

It thus must've been with some regret that Harbaugh sent in Colin Kaepernick. He showed us his drool-worthy physical skills, throwing a 20-yard rope and then later running for 30. But watching him suffer three straight sacks, I wanted him merely to get out alive.

Afterward, Harbaugh declared an open quarterback-competition. He also articulated the possibility--or maybe even the desperate hope--we still might add a seasoned vet to the mix. (If it's Daunte Culpepper, "desperate" is right.) But one thing seems abundantly clear: though of course the line will get better than this--at least a little--Kaepernick shouldn't get anywhere near it.

What makes the O's status quo so annoying is that the defense showed that it might be for real. We've been waiting years, for this D to go from good to great. And if this debut meant anything, its time could very well be now. The new additions in the secondary looked active and hawkish, and the OLB combo of Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith showed the potential for serious disruption.

But it won't be enough, not THIS year. Forget the lockout-lengthened learning curve. Forget the notion of the magical powers of an "offensive head coach," even one as gifted as Harbaugh. The essential issue is simply this: Harbaugh's got a pass-first O, but his line can't pass-block, and his QB can't pass. Not consistently, anyway.

These, my friends, are serious problems.

As hard as it was to watch our own illusions come crashing down, it was even harder to watch the collapse of Harbaugh's. Of course he didn't expect perfection, but, putting it mildly, he "thought we would be a little bit more effective on offense." His sideline demeanor spoke volumes more. As the game dragged on--with nearly every pass-play a mess--he looked increasingly out of his depth. Increasingly shocked, increasingly helpless.

Increasingly aware, of just how long this road will be.

Now lest you accuse me of "jumping the gun," please let me be clear. Naturally, this team will improve; by season's end, it might even be good. And I still can't wait to see Harbaugh at work. There isn't a shred of doubt in my mind: Harbaugh's the perfect coach for us, and I'm quite convinced he'll win us a Super Bowl.

But for a guy as optimistic as me--;)--Friday provided an unwelcome dose of reality. You see, in all the Harbaugh hysteria, I came to believe in a miracle. Baalke's performance was fun to debate, but really he was beside the point, a footnote to an inevitable revolution. We'd emerged from the darkness. We'd hired the savior. And right from the start, nothing would stop him.

Alas, though, it won't be that simple. Harbaugh's got a ways to go. Let's do our best to enjoy the ride, but understand that it won't be quick.

Make no mistake: the miracle is coming.

But, as any child knows, even miracles take a little time.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


31 Comments

  • Shane
    I agree Goldson has shown flashes of playmaking ability. I think for me personally, his attitude in FA for a guy that has never shown consistency put a bad taste in my mouth when i already felt like, hey we haven't won in 8 years, let's let some of these new fresh hungry legs play (ex: reggie smith). But the guy does have ability and you're right, you can't deny that it's a great price. Again i just want to see the best guys play and start getting some wins!!! i'm so excited about seeing Ray Mac, ICE, Rogers, Aldon, Brooks, Bowman, Whitner, Culliver, even Brock looks good. it's like we have a new-look D and an aggressive knowledgeable coord. I'm jacked! However, my concerns, Brown and Haralson still look the same to me (by look, i mean, what i have read) and more important, we still have all this talent on offense and HUGE question marks where it counts the most, QB and line. and that is enough right there to suck the life out of all the excitement. But I can't wait for the next game just to see if some of these "very good' practices are going to start translating to on-field play.
    Aug 18, 2011 at 8:51 AM
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  • Jeff
    So is anyone aware that it was Baalke who convinced Harbaugh to coach the 9ers, did you not hear that he was the deal maker. Did you not hear it was he arguing with Singletary not to take Mays in the second round last year, did anyone hear it was he arguing that moving up to take Davis last year in the first round was a joke. Get real.
    Aug 17, 2011 at 9:10 PM
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  • ruben
    Jim Harbaugh as the savior is a bunch of bull! A good case of the grass is greener on the other side. Mike Singletary was never the problem, it was T. Baalke. Dismantling your top 10 defense, resigning an average QB, and not resigning Baas shows his ineffectiveness as a GM. NO just proved to us that we still have two to three years left before we get to where we want to be.
    Aug 17, 2011 at 5:55 PM
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  • louie
    There's no miracle coming. Harbaugh may turn out to be a very good coach, but the odds are way against him (or anyone) being a great coach. That said, no coach can succeed with an owner who's not only a babe in the woods, he's afraid to hire a real GM. To look at this roster and know Baalke had a big part assembling it, it's hard to imagine that he'll be able to assemble a Super Bowl roster. And as far as being able to wheel and deal with the other NFL GMs, that's a joke to anyone who has experience in the corporate world. They'll eat him alive--they've already started.
    Aug 16, 2011 at 9:38 PM
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    Response: No doubt, Louie: to succeed, Harbaugh will have to be not only great, but great enough to compensate for Baalke's weaknesses. I don't blame you for being skeptical. But I think he'll get there, eventually.
  • Johnny
    Jeff, i agree. Ok blah blah about the lack of practice. Also, granted Alex had zero protection but that first pass play to VD was right there and Smith AGAIN proved his inability to make an accurate throw. You can't blame him for anything that happened after that but bottom line is an NFL QB should make that throw 99/100 times, alex is near 50/50 at best on those kinds of throws. That's not ok, i don't care how many OCs he has had or how small his hands are. You gotta make the throw, meat!
    Aug 16, 2011 at 3:11 PM
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  • overthemiddle
    Scott, sounds like you're a democrat - you actually read the article. Sure wish you were there when they passed the health care bulls**t. That being said, you're right, it's only a couple of weeks of training camp with new everything. Can't expect much from that. Maybe you should contact Nobama and maybe he can sign a bill that demands the niners get a QB.
    Aug 16, 2011 at 8:17 AM
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  • Scott
    Man what a drama queen. Your Mom would be proud. Seriously this was the first preseason game after just 2 weeks of practice under a new coach and new systems. You are acting like the teabaggers who expect Obama to fix the mess George created in just one term. Besides that I would like to see them play against teams that are showing them what the NFL is really like and not ones that just go through the motions. Look at the years when we looked so good in the preseason just to have it crash in on us when the regular season opens. That is JMO, but I don't think there is near as much drama to this as your article would lead us to believe.
    Aug 16, 2011 at 6:52 AM
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  • EVB
    Jeff, for once I generally agree. I'm on board with your comments on this one. I'm going to wait it out a bit more to see how the development goes but upon first look...Alex Smith is still a deer in the headlights. I needed him to give me at least a bullet or two of ammo to defend him and he provided me with a whole clip full of blanks! That's blank shots and blank stares...Is it sad that I am looking forward to acquiring Culpepper?? Yes it is...
    Aug 15, 2011 at 4:06 PM
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  • overthemiddle
    Alden - did you see Seattle play? Stats don't mean crap. I got to see when Jackson played. Not one time did he feel any pressure. Not one time did he have to throw on the run. I hear what you're saying but you can't fix the QB till the O-line is fixed. Right now it seems to me that really the whole team didn't look good except for a couple of spots. I am not defending Smith or CK or Harbaugh. I too am tired of the piss poor play. If you're gonna play the blame game start where it starts - the O-line. When that is fixed then we can go to the other probs that we seem to have a lot of.
    Aug 15, 2011 at 2:24 PM
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  • Alden Brown
    Where did I get the notion that Seattle got good QB play? From the stats. Jackson was barely in, but completed 60% of his passes. Whitehurst played most of the game and was 14 of 20 for a rating of 84.4, and Josh Portis had a rating of 117.4. I would have been thrilled if the SF QBs would have even sniffed those numbers. So my knee-jerk reaction is that Seattle got better QB play than we did.
    Aug 15, 2011 at 1:42 PM
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  • Dan
    I would rather go 0-4 in the preseason and win 9-16 games in the regular season than go 4-0 in the preseason and miss the playoffs because we are only good in practice games. I'm glad the Saints brought their A-game on our offensive line. It shows our coaches what to expect this season. Of course I'm happy about the game. It's preseason, and the coach showed he's not going to back down from the passing game. Kaepernick is a stud and if he gets to be a starter in the NFL he's going to be a great quarterback. He's fearless, that's what I got out of his debut. Nothing to be ashamed of here folks, this is a whole new team learning how to play football the right way. Let's wait until we play the Seahawks before we start counting our wins and losses.
    Aug 15, 2011 at 1:18 PM
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  • STL Niner Fan
    Alden - 1. From all accounts Tavaris Jackson looked awful in game one of their preseason, so not sure where you heard they got good QB play. 2. To say anyone played better or worse is a VERY hard thing to compare. Different teams have different approaches to the preseason, some teams...most teams...don't show much in the way of complex OFF and DEF schemes. NO apparently feels differently about this. They decided to bring the house, which is their right. From what I understand (and mind you I live in STL) the Colts severely limited the playing time of most starters or didn't start them at all. Plus their DEF scheme was very basic. Contrast that to the Saints throwing everything at us but the kitchen sink and the fact that STL's starters played well into the 2nd quarter. And my point was not that we hadn't had time to prepare or install a game plan, my point was simply that historically speaking preseason success or failure is rarely an indication of regular-season success or failure so why bother getting all bent out of shape? Boy, you guys would make great politicians, with your knee-jerk reactions to every little thing. Thank God you're not employed by the Niners....
    Aug 15, 2011 at 1:15 PM
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  • Alden Brown
    STL Niner Fan: Just to be clear, this weekend was GAME ONE for 31 other teams, right? And all of these teams haven't even had two weeks of practice, right? And we still stunk it up worse than almost all of these other teams who were in exactly the same boat, right? Let's compare our performance to another team in our division with which you should be familiar: St. Louis. Same QB returning--just like us. Hot new offensive-minded coach in town--just like us. Rams offense moves down the field with ease, unlike us. Rams blow out the Colts. Also, let's look at the rest of the division. Seattle gets good QB play, wins its game. Arizona gets damn good QB play, wins its game. So everyone's in the same boat--two weeks of practice and one preseason game, and we look substantially worse than the other teams in our divsion. But no reason to worry, right?
    Aug 15, 2011 at 12:50 PM
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  • Terry B.
    And here I was going to post that this was a game that even Dan couldn't like. I'm glad I didn't speak too soon.
    Aug 15, 2011 at 11:56 AM
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  • STL Niner Fan
    It's game one of the preseason folks. GAME ONE. I wouldn't get too worked up over the results of this game. We haven't even had two weeks of practice yet man. It astonishes me how the fan base of any team gets so worked up over preseason games. Couple points to emphasize: 1. If I remember correctly, Jeff you yourself got all giddy about our defense last year in one of your "jump to conclusions preseason editorials" about this same time last year. Contrast that to the mediocre play of our D last year and you can understand my point....of NOT jumping to conclusions based on preseason play. 2. NO is essentially the same team as last year - a team we should have beaten on Monday night last year hands down with essentially the same offensive players (and an asinine offensive game plan at that). Bottom line folks. It's PRESEASON. I believe our organization is headed in the right direction, by the right people. It may not result in a winning record this year or a division title but I believe that we are now being steered by the right captains. For now, that will have to do. So perhaps Jeff - to that end - we are in agreement.
    Aug 15, 2011 at 11:12 AM
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    Response: It WAS game one, STL, but you've gotta view it in the context of last year. Last year, the offensive line, with essentially the same personnel, was awful; Football Outsiders ranked it #30 in pass-blocking. And, of course, Alex Smith was Alex Smith. Though you're right to be cautious of preseason flukes, these performances (though perhaps extreme) were anything but.
  • Mike
    Ok, Jeff... Nice work! Glad to see you remain objective. I agree with everything you said. Alex Smith has got to go! The guy is absolutely terrible! Horrific! I really cannot believe he is still sucking up a roster space. And 5 million to boot! Harbaugh can polish a turd, but all you have is a shiny turd.
    Aug 15, 2011 at 11:11 AM
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  • Dan
    It sounds like you're on some kind of rollercoaster. I liked the game you are talking about here. I thought Frank Gore looked healthy, which is good news. I liked the new running back, Hunter. I thought Aldon Smith was exactly where we would've wanted him after a couple of weeks. Thank God we managed to sign Donte Whitner. The offensive linemen were clearly not on the same page with each other, I bet they play with a chip on their shoulder for the rest of the season. I don't think any unit of professional football players is going to take that kind of embarrassment lightly. Best case scenario, we play the Saints in the playoffs and our line gets an opportunity to redeem themselves. Clearly for that to happen our quarterback situation needs solving. We need a miracle at quarterback. We always did. The 49ers will get better Jeff, and it sounds like you know that. If your emotions are really this unbalanced then good job using them to enhance your writing. I do like the emotion you put into it, even if I don't agree with everything you say. It was an ugly and somewhat embarrassing game for the 49ers' offense, but they'll get better. At least there were some bright spots on the team.
    Aug 15, 2011 at 9:38 AM
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  • G.Houston
    Who writes this crap! The fans who pay to see the 49er games should want it now! not later! The West Division sucks, it's ripe for the taking! Harbaugh should get off his ass and lead this team and cut the bullshit! There are only two things he needs to do, win the big ones and stop the stupid mistakes on defense!
    Aug 15, 2011 at 9:32 AM
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  • overthemiddle
    real randy - Is your statement about someone milking the team, as he no longer cares, about Alex Smith? If so I have never seen a statement so wrong. Smith might be a lot of things and probably not a good NFL quarterback but to have you say that he doesn't care is so far off, so wrong. Tell me how he doesn't care. Don't confuse ability with desire. Smith has manned up and if most fans had gone thru at their job what he has gone thru they would have run away with their tails between their legs, calling some politician and saying how unfair it was. Smith may not be good but he has never quit caring.
    Aug 15, 2011 at 9:17 AM
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  • Darrell G
    Jeff, Too many of the microwave-popcorn types think this is like a Madden franchise. That you can just trade for the guys you want, when you want. That you can turn off the salary cap and sign any FA with whatever it takes. Sign the coach you want and all will be well. How well has that worked in Dallas and Washington? That you can just install a new offense, go play the game, and run up a ridiculous score. You're spot on, these things take time. Guys have to mesh. They have to learn the system, they have to UN-learn bad habits from previous coaches. Before people give up on Smith, I'd like to see him get more than 20 snaps and get "settled in". He's a notoriously slow starter. Point is, you can't microwave this popcorn, you have to slow-cook it in the kettle and some of the kernels might get burned.
    Aug 15, 2011 at 8:41 AM
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  • The_Real_Randy
    Look Jeff, I get the fact that you love Jim Harbaugh. You should. He's a coach with the offensive smarts it takes to win in today's NFL. But don't let your adoration of him give you tunnel vision of the reality around him. He has to deal with the worst front office in the league and if Trent Bowelmovement or whatever puppet GM the Yorks trot out was running the Packers in the 60's, Vince Lombardi would be a career .500 coach. The QB situation is desperate yes, but in this instance I actually think a washout like Culpepper is the best option. Remember, this season was lost before it began. Right now, the best we can do is have a scrub QB we could care less about take all the abuse from playing behind that godforsaken OL. In fact, it would have been smarter to go this route from the get-go than to waste $5 mil on a guy who has clearly stopped caring and is just trying to milk this team for every penny (does he have a running bet with a friend on how long he can make this gig last?). The D intrigues me, but I suspect that was more rust on the Aints' part than anything else.
    Aug 14, 2011 at 11:26 PM
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  • Ryan
    Well-written Jeffy K, I agree with you.
    Aug 14, 2011 at 10:54 PM
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  • Nick S.
    Great stuff Jeff. Save this article for your portfolio. This was one of your better editorial pieces (though prob lose the smiley towards the end).
    Aug 14, 2011 at 8:25 PM
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    Response: C'mon, Nick. Nothing says "serious journalist" like a well-placed emoticon. But thanks for the comment.
  • Lucky Phil
    Jeff, You keep writing articles at 49erswebzone, I promise you we will both keep smiling. With occasional bouts of deep and prolonged misery. "Pucker Up!"
    Aug 14, 2011 at 7:17 PM
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  • Ron Temple
    A case could be made that Harbaugh called Payton and asked them to throw the sink at us. I don't think that happened, but if this "practice" game doesn't send a message, then nothing will. Jeff, good article. I'm optimistic about various things that will happen for the 49ers this year, but that doesn't include competing for the superbowl or even beating great teams. I want to see improvements in all facets, solid offense, defense, and special teams and some surprise wins. Wins that come from execution in the 4th qtr...and enough brain/muscle memory gained to be able to repeat it. The 49ers have lacked the foundation to acheive that. Once there, a few tweaks and we're on the road to being a good/great team again.
    Aug 14, 2011 at 6:46 PM
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  • Jarrod
    Great article Jeff.
    Aug 14, 2011 at 6:28 PM
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    Response: Thanks, J.
  • Lucky Phil
    Back in my glory years, I played basketball on the varsity team. And back then we had a small point guard that occasionally got blindsided by a pick 5 or 6 times a game. Now after backpedaling, slide stepping, and running full speed into 6 ft guys that outweighed you by 75 lbs. it took its toll. Both mentally and physically. Now, occasionally our point guard, Mike the Bean, would get a little upset. The communication on our team wasn't great. It seems like the Bean would have liked to know when a 6'5", 220 lb. guy with his elbow Bean level was planted to the floor waiting for a collision. So, we came up with an idea. Every time Bean was running balls out into a tree stump, we would yell out "PICK" one second before impact. I also yelled "Dunk" on numerous occasions. Which brings me to my point. Since we all know Smith very rarely sees the blind-side rush, wouldn't it be nice if someone yelled "A$$HOLE". Just to give him a second to pucker up.
    Aug 14, 2011 at 6:11 PM
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    Response: Ah, Phil. Something about you just makes me smile.
  • Shane
    Nice piece Jeff, I'll admit that was a disaster!! i don't get to watch the pre-season games over here but i read every article that comes out and i was in shock. Now i'm not gonna sit here and say the season is lost over one exhibition game, but that was cause for concern! Did Alex Smith really look that bad? thank God i didn't see that opening pass. i heard he hits that pass 20 times out of 20 in practice, not good. i understand they brought pressure and our line was terrible, but after 7 seasons this guy doesn't know how to checkdown!!! he is captain checkdown, call a hot route, audible, run a screen. i mean those are the things that bother me the most. this guy just doesn't have it at this level. Kap looks really promising, but obviously not ready. My fear is, this (in the NFC West) is a 11-12 win football team but will win 8 games at MOST bcuz we don't have a QB. I also really believe we have the right coach this year but it's so difficult to be patient after 8 years! finally i was curious on your thoughts about Goldson. me, honestly i was ready to move on to reggie smith. i don't know what it is, Goldson rubs me the wrong way, but obviously i want the 2 best guys out there.
    Aug 14, 2011 at 6:00 PM
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    Response: Clearly Goldson has struggled in coverage, Shane. That's not great for a free safety, and I wouldn't have lost any sleep if he'd left. But he IS a talented athlete, so I was curious how he'd fare in the new regime. On the whole, I'm happy he's back, especially at THAT price. Like the rest of these one-year guys, he's virtually free of risk.
  • overthemiddle
    I am not going to get upset yeeeeeeeet. But Jeff I hear ya loud and clear. I just don't know what to say about that performance.
    Aug 14, 2011 at 5:23 PM
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  • Lucky Phil aka Team York.
    Nice article Jeff. Enjoyed the read as always. Loved the interview with York during the 2nd quarter. Loved how the guys in the booth were thinking, "What should we ask this guy? Does he really want to tell us all about that great new stadium while we are watching THIS?" If Mike Sing was still on the sidelines, by the second quarter he would have had his pants around his ankles, standing there with his belt secured to his neck. Watching A. Smith on the first series brought back a lot of bad bad memories. I might need therapy by Thanksgiving. What really makes me laugh is Alex just never seems to have any clue when he is about to get his head driven through his own rear end. Most QB's have pocket awareness, they know where that rush is coming from. These bay area QB's Smith & Campbell, WOW! No Clue.
    Aug 14, 2011 at 5:20 PM
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  • robert
    Well written.
    Aug 14, 2011 at 4:43 PM
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