Harbaugh Stuck with a Line in the Sand

Aug 30, 2011 at 7:37 AM

A couple of days before our preseason dress-rehearsal--the supposedly all-important game three--Trent Baalke was asked about our offensive line. According to reports, Baalke said that he was "very pleased with the depth the team has now." Indeed, he said, he'd been fielding offers from OTHER teams, so eager were they to trade for that depth. (Baalke, of course, just turned 'em away, opting to hoard this embarrassment of riches.) Our offensive line, to say the least, was certainly "a strength of the team."

And why shouldn't it be? Just look at what we've invested there. A first-round pick in Joe Staley (now signed, remember, through 2017). A first-round pick (plus, gulp, a fourth) in Anthony Davis. A first-round pick in Mike Iupati. A second-round pick in Chilo Rachal (who, though a second-rounder, was only a handful of spots behind Kentwan Balmer). And a third-round pick in Adam Snyder (not to mention the $11 million in Jonathan Goodwin, who's taking his sweet time showing he'll earn it).

A "strength of the team"? My God, with investments like these, it'd BETTER be.

Yet if there's one key difference between winning franchises and losing ones, it's that winning franchises HIT with their high draft-picks, while losing ones only THINK they do. And the Niners, for nearly a decade now, have been losers.

Against the Saints, the offensive line was unprepared--somewhat justifiably--for a blitz-crazy D right out of the gate. The Texans, by contrast, blitzed barely at all. Yet the line, this so-called "strength of the team," was simply overwhelmed.

Across the board, no one was spared. There was Staley, emasculated by Connor Barwin. There were Iupati, Snyder, and Rachal, each a turnstile for Antonio Smith. There was Davis, abused by Mario Williams. And there was Goodwin, the Pro Bowl center for the pass-happy Super Bowl Saints, letting THEIR Smith produce an almost-understandably panicked interception by OUR Smith, dropping his rating to 2.8.

Our defense, meanwhile, got a taste of what an NFL offense is supposed to be. Oh, sure, we were purely vanilla, showing none of Vic Fangio's tricks. And, no, Jim Harbaugh's strangely early insertion of back-ups didn't help. But 417 yards and 28 first downs? (Especially compared to our 105 and 6?)

Houston. We have a problem.

Actually, we've got SEVERAL problems, but none more pressing than that offensive line. Coaching might be an issue, of course--if Mike Solari has achieved anything, I'd love to know what it is--but you can't miss on so many guys without serious defects in scouting. Then again, when it came to pass-blocking, the red flags were out in the open; the scouting reports are still there today. Staley was a converted tight-end, at Central Michigan. Rachal "need[ed] some work in the pass blocking aspect of the game." Davis was "an adequate pass protector, but doesn't have great lateral movement, and that first drop step is a little slow meaning he can get beat by the speed rush." Iupati was "a mauling guard with inconsistent pass protection." (And the fact that Snyder is starting says more about Goodwin than it does about Snyder.) Taken together, is it really shocking that these guys looked like they did on Saturday?

In fairness, of course, we didn't necessarily ignore these warnings. In SOME cases, at least, we just didn't care. Need I remind you of our last head-coach's offensive philosophy? He wanted only to run the ball, so--sensibly enough--he wanted a line that could block for the run. Worked like a charm; with Davis and Iupati, even as rookies, the line last year ranked 13th in run-blocking. Pass-blocking, though, was a different story; there our ranking plunged to 30. Hence the coach's fatal predicament: he couldn't win running, because passing teams win; and he couldn't win passing, because his line couldn't block. (He might've had quarterback issues too, but let's just move on.)

Needless to say, the West Coast Offense is a passing offense. So why, you might ask, did the line get so little off-season attention? Simple: just look at all those costs we've sunk. Staley's got miles to go on his deal; it's way too early to cut and run. For Davis and Iupati, it's just their second year; what are we gonna do, send out an e-mail offering 'em to the highest bidder? (Insane!) And Rachal...well, okay; there's no excuse for keeping THAT guy. The only addition was Goodwin. We were excited to think that we might've nabbed a bargain upgrade over David Baas. At this point, though, he's not even an upgrade over Adam Snyder.

With so much invested, it's painful to think that we missed on these guys. But as painful as it is for us fans, it's doubly so for a personnel man who had a voice in their selection. And that's how all of us fooled ourselves, into thinking something so completely absurd.

This abysmal line is "a strength of the team." It is, for it simply MUST be.

Now, however, the truth is out, and much to his credit, Harbaugh didn't attempt to hide it. "It really was not real complicated what [the Texans] were doing up front," he said, exasperated. "But they were getting us. They were beating us." He also hinted at changes to come: "When that's happening, you have to look at all three phases of what you're doing: what you're doing schematically, how you're doing it, and who's doing it."

The "who," of course, is the phase that's most in need of review, and almost anything's worth a try. You've gotta leave Iupati alone, but put Alex Boone at left tackle and move Staley to right. Put Goodwin at center and Snyder at guard, or leave Snyder at center and put Daniel Kilgore at guard. Put Davis on the bench, and put Rachal on a plane.

Sure, this might disrupt the line's continuity. But if THIS is continuity, what's so wrong with a little change?

Seriously, though. Moving these offensive linemen around is like moving deck-chairs around the Titanic. Harbaugh's pass-first vision is stuck. Alex Smith, shaky under the BEST conditions, is utterly helpless. This offense, which has scored all of six first-half preseason points--exactly as many as Ahmad Brooks--has virtually no hope at all.

The season opener's almost here. Do what you can to stay out of the rush.
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.


  • Marc
    Jeff Kaplan = Chicken Little. The sky is always falling!
    Sep 7, 2011 at 12:02 PM
  • Larry
    Looks like Mr. Kaplan is yet again stuck looking like a fool. Something tells me that even though Harbaugh has no clue that your goofy little peanut gallery over here even exists, he'll continue to buffoonerize you all season long. Have fun with that. Bye bye now.
    Sep 3, 2011 at 12:28 AM
  • edmond
    I believe my greatest achievement in life was when (just now) I realized that this blog should be read as if you were a fat, bratty twelve year old with chocolate pudding smeared on his face, yelling at his mother in the middle of a grocery store. Sure, all I want is for the mother to smack the piss out of you, but everyone around knows (or should) that you are only doing it for attention and to show you are the tough little kid that you've imagined yourself to be. He only knows how to express himself by constantly showing his frustration and his attitude is horrible towards what he claims to love... I assume the Zombie apocalypse will happen before you have any positive words concerning the 49ers.
    Sep 1, 2011 at 5:20 PM
  • Whats Your Problem
    Little-known facts about Jim Harbaugh. 1) Known as the Comeback Kid when he played for Colts. 2) Punched Jim Kelly in the face. 3) Broke hand on Jim Kelly's face. 4) Has a size 12 foot. Well-known facts about Pete Carroll. 1) Best Cheerleader in College Football. 2) Best Cheerleader in Professional Football 3) Nice Hair. 4) Size 12 a$$hole.
    Aug 31, 2011 at 8:38 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    2nd-round pick in 2010 for 7th-round pick in 2013. You do the math, that's what we got for T. Mays. What did Baalke's e-mail say to 31 NFL teams for this guy? A bag of nuts, anyone? And how can a guy that runs a 4.3 40 at 230 lb. not be able to play football? Holy Turd! Maybe we should add the chew gum and walk forward to the combine. Maybe Baalke can show us how it's done.
    Aug 31, 2011 at 6:11 PM
    Response: We always knew that Mays would struggle in coverage--our last coach cared as much about defending the pass as he cared about passing--but it's still strange that we couldn't find a place for such athletic talent. That said, nothing drives down a guy's trade value like telling the entire league that you're about to cut him. Another Baalke move that's questionable, to put it nicely.
  • Jeremy
    Okay, people, let's not fret too much about using our first and fourth-round picks on Anthony Davis. At least we got Taylor Mays with our second-rounder.
    Aug 31, 2011 at 5:48 PM
  • R.C. aka Dan
    Alden Brown's comment this week resonates a chord with me. Harbaugh is stuck with "Singletary's square pegs in his round holes". I don't generally agree with anyone on this comment board. But I can empathize with Harbaugh, I too have this problem. It's not fun.
    Aug 31, 2011 at 5:26 PM
  • Marco
    Excellent Jeff! On EVERY point. Baalke should be fired JUST for trading up from the 13th pick to the 11th with both Anthony Davis and Bryan Bulaga (the better pick) still available and surrendering a fourth-round pick that was used to select pass-catching TE Aaron Hernandez from Florida by the Patriots. But seriously Jeff, does one blame a chimp if an idiot puts a gun in a chimp's hand, and the chimp shoots someone? In this analogy, the idiot is Jed "Lucky Sperm" York, and the chimp is Trent "Marty Funkhouser" Baalke. The fish stinks from the head down, and as long as the Yorks control the 49ers, 6-10 type seasons will be the rule and NOT the exception!
    Aug 31, 2011 at 2:56 PM
    Response: Hey, he DOES look like Marty Funkhouser!
  • Rearend Commander
    Kaplan, obviously you don't know anything about the West Coast offense. Back in the 1990 NFC championship game Joe Montana's back was broken by Leonard Marshall of the NY Giants. DESIGNED PLAY! Are you going to argue with the genius of Bill Walsh? I don't think so. The W.C. is designed for mobile QB's. If your QB isn't running around with a stampede of wild buffalo following him, you don't know what you're doing. If A. Smith doesn't have one or two friendly colonoscopies before the 2nd quarter, I'm going to be disappointed. You just don't get it Kaplan! When are you going to quit?
    Aug 31, 2011 at 1:56 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    I'll take "Harbaugh stuck with a line in the sand" rather than Sing stuck with a head in his a$$ any day. Good read Jeff. Keep them coming.
    Aug 31, 2011 at 12:51 PM
  • pablosh
    I saw an interview with Montana, and he said that fans need to be patient with implementing the west coast offense, and that the offensive line will be the unit that struggles the most at first, especially with the short offseason. Kaplan is always looking for something wrong to talk about. I think they will eventually be just fine.
    Aug 31, 2011 at 12:19 PM
  • Chris
    I don't normally agree with Kaplan but...in fact I never agree with Kaplan but the O-line makes me a bit queasy. He's right. However, I'd like to see a few regular-season games before we blow it all up. And to the clown that is predicting the Niners will go 2-14: Come on man, use your head. The Niners' defense will win at least a couple games by themselves this year. I'm not saying SF will go 10-6 but 2-14 is just a dumb comment man and the only reason I'm calling you out is because you seem serious. There is a lot of talent on this squad. You might as well not even watch this year if that's what you're thinking.
    Aug 31, 2011 at 10:41 AM
  • Rearend Commander aka Dan
    I think this article sucks. I love our offensive line. Jeff, how do you know the plays aren't designed to kill our QB? Who do think you are, a Head Coach?
    Aug 31, 2011 at 10:22 AM
    Response: ;)
  • Alden Brown
    I wouldn't say that the top picks are dysfunctional, 16280. They just are who they are. As Jeff points out, Singletary brought in Davis and Iupati for his run-oriented offense, and the knocks on them were that they were liabilities in the passing game. Now Harbaugh wants to run a pass-first offense, but he's stuck with Singletary's square pegs in his round holes. You're right, though, that Jed the weenie is to blame for hiring an incompetent GM. It was Baalke's job to know what types of players Harbaugh needed and to go out and get them. Anyway, good coaches play to their team's strenghts, and we may have to be more of a running team until we get the players who can play Harbaugh's system. Extending Gore was a step in the right direction, as all this team can do is run. The stench of Singletary (and the boob who hired him) will haunt this franchise for years.
    Aug 31, 2011 at 8:12 AM
  • Paul A.
    Jeff. I usually wait until the beginning of the season before commenting on the state of the team but this year is a little different. The line's make-up changed the day the Yorks hired Nolan and this team made a 180-degree turn away from being a passing team. So, they have the same guys running this team in the front office and until that changes blah blah blah.... Jeff, always enjoy your stuff and depressed that you're correct!
    Aug 31, 2011 at 7:48 AM
  • 16280
    I have to agree, the o line sucks and everyone gets the blame starting with Jed York for not hiring a real GM that can evaluate talent. Next is the coaching staff whose job it is to get the players to play as a unit effectively. And ultimately it is the players who are getting beat like a drum every game. No excuses, just get the job done. Unless we are sandbagging big time this will be a looooong season with Alex & Kap taking a beating and likely missing games due to the pounding they will take. It is hard to imagine how all those top picks can be so dysfunctional...go figure.
    Aug 31, 2011 at 12:05 AM
  • joey49er
    Aug 30, 2011 at 7:52 PM
  • 307nastyman
    It's preseason SMARTGUY, back off and give em a chance.......you sound like a neurotic pessimist.
    Aug 30, 2011 at 7:07 PM
  • BW
    The one thing about football that has not changed and never will change is that the game is won or lost in the trenches. After the 49ers finish 2-14 and draft Luck, they better find some pass blocking linemen immediately.
    Aug 30, 2011 at 6:39 PM
  • Hearstfan
    Well, the O-line thing has been hashed to death over the last few weeks. You touch on a key point, the debilitating part of this O-line fiasco is that with so much invested (high draft picks) in the O-line already, rebuilding the franchise is digging out of a big hole. This could cripple the franchise for years. Someone made an excellent point in the Forum -- one of the benefits of the Walsh/McKittrick years of not having to invest high draft picks in the O-line was that those picks could be dedicated to all the other key positions -- DBs, pass rushers, receivers, etc. Now we are stuck with the opposite effect.
    Aug 30, 2011 at 6:18 PM
  • Bill Bird
    So....I guess what you're saying is we're in for a dismal year? Dude, you're SURPRISED by this? Really? I'm not. I predicted 2-14. I'm sticking with it. This team isn't very good. The line is the least of our problems. It will jell with time. Our problems are much deeper than the line. We have no QB. Period, end of story. That will hurt us all season long, and perhaps a big part of next season as well.
    Aug 30, 2011 at 4:23 PM
  • mbniner
    Jeff, your line looks OK to me. But it may still not be enough. I don't know if Solari can do anything. He came out of the Bobb McKittrick school of training OL to be quick, fast, and mobile. I don't think any of the Singletary-era OL fit that description. We may have to sign some FA castoffs that fit the mold and go from there. That's what McKittrick made his reputation on, training guys no one else wanted. It will take a couple of years.
    Aug 30, 2011 at 2:03 PM
    Is Harbaugh really that good--are his coaches????? Looks like another long season!!
    Aug 30, 2011 at 10:29 AM
  • telecat
    Well, if nothing else, we're definitely in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. Good column Jeff and as usual, right on the money. I wish I had more to add but it has to be apparent to any thinking fan the 49ers are going to suck worse than most years in the past 10. Lowell Cohn made the point this is not a "rebuilding" year, this team has a core group of players, acquired through the draft. It's just that with the exception of Willis, Davis, and to a lesser extent, Gore, the core players are mostly lousy. At my age, I suspect I may never see another 49ers playoff appearance. I see this team as another 10 years away from being competitive. Minimum of 10 years.
    Aug 30, 2011 at 9:49 AM
  • ByeByeSolari
    Solari has Sucked Azzz from day 1 of year 1. Pass blocking schemes and techniques taught are horrendous and easily dominated. Get him and Rachal on the next flight out of town. Kaplan's line is the one i would go with. The insanity must stop!
    Aug 30, 2011 at 9:17 AM
  • lvtent
    Bravo.... great job.... what are you doing here?....
    Aug 30, 2011 at 9:11 AM
  • overthemiddle
    Jeff you shouldn't get too much grief about this article. It's right on the money. The game is won or lost at the line. I agree 100 percent with what you are saying Jeff. We have invested a lot in the O-line and we are not getting what we put in. This is turning out to be the biggest problem on the team and it should be the least of our problems. If this keeps up we will need 16 QBs to finish out the year. Will they get better? I am hoping. A little shakeup wouldn't be bad. From what I have seen of Kilgore I am thinking he can play.
    Aug 30, 2011 at 8:22 AM
  • Terry B.
    Let the countdown begin for how soon Dan posts a comment saying he likes our offensive line. Ready: 3...2....1....
    Aug 30, 2011 at 8:09 AM

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