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Harbaugh’s Offense Seems Strangely Familiar

Sep 13, 2011 at 9:00 AM

In the week leading up to the official return of the West Coast Offense--the most exciting event in ages--Greg Roman issued a curious warning: prepare yourselves for disappointment. "I don't think in the little bit over a month that we've been together that we've been able to ... strap anything together that's really going to surprise anybody," he said, preemptively invoking the lockout as an excuse for the absence of bells and whistles. In the end, he said, with something approaching a sad resignation: "You are what you are."

And what exactly are we?

For THIS week, at least, we're exactly the same.

Oh, don't get me wrong. The exotic formations and personnel-groupings were pleasant trappings of creativity. But they seemed to mask an archaic philosophy. That is to say, play it safe. Rely on a straight-ahead running game, no matter how ineffective it is; be content with kicking field goals, instead of taking the risks inherent in going for touchdowns; and let the defense (and, perhaps, the special teams) deliver the win.

Where, oh where, have we seen this before?

Indeed, this game felt just like those games that made us cringe in recent years. Our defense was heroic, putting relentless pressure on Tarvaris Jackson--with scarcely any blitzing, mind you--while ultimately forcing 3 turnovers and allowing only 219 yards, 3 per rush and 4 per pass. Yet our offense, despite starting drives at the Seahawks' 27 and 9, settled for field goals. We added a THIRD field goal when a longer drive stalled after four straight runs. At last, just before halftime, another drive beginning in Seattle territory ended in pay dirt. Still, if you'd watched this team the last few years, you knew that bad things happen when we don't maximize our opportunities. And here, with the same Frank Gore three-yard runs and the same Alex Smith checkdown passes (save for a couple of very nice deep ones), we were leaving points all over the field.

In the second half, you could feel it coming. Our offense opened with a three-and-out, running on first-and-10 and third-and-12. Seattle responded with a 56-yard touchdown drive, as our defense started to show its fatigue. Our O pitched in with two more three-and-outs, and Seattle drove 65 yards for a field goal. Our O at last sustained a drive, but settled for a field goal again when four straight runs left us stuck at the one. Seattle then went 80 yards in 6 plays, and all of a sudden, what should've been a humongous lead was down to only 2.

Don't tell me you didn't know what would happen next. Our O would play it safe, of course; we'd kick either a sixth punt or a fifth field goal; and we'd ask our D--exhausted now--to make a final stop. Our D might do it (see Cutler, Jay), but then again, maybe it wouldn't (see Favre, Brett). Either way, though, we'd let a blowout go down to the wire.

And that's when Ted Ginn let BOTH our O and our D off the hook.

Afterward, though Jim Harbaugh expressed no need to "look at the film," he otherwise sounded precisely like the man he'd replaced. He praised the O's "blue-collar" mode: "running the ball, not forcing the throw, playing field position." A day later, he bristled at suggestions that he was "playing safe"; running on third-and-long, he said, gave us "the best chance of success on the down and in the football game."

"I don't think we're [playing] safe," he said, fooling absolutely nobody. "I think we're attacking and I think we're playing to win."

What on earth is happening?

What's happening is that Harbaugh is changing HIS style more than he's changing ours. Asked what happened to his crucial promise, Harbaugh insisted that this IS the West Coast Offense, at least in terms of its "terminology and verbiage." But as he went on to point out, "the West Coast is a big, big system. It can encompass the talents of your players to be used in a variety of ways." So, since the talents of our current players are, shall we say, DIFFERENT from those of our dynasty days, "you're not going to see a replication of what the team did in the '80s or '90s."

Dang. I kind of LIKED the '80s and '90s.

I think we've had a misunderstanding. Of course, no one thought that the West Coast Offense would trigger an instant dynasty. But it was supposed to mean more than running the West Coast versions of the same lousy plays. If you run on seven third-downs, as we did--naturally, we converted none--you might be running WCO plays, but you're not really running the WCO. The WCO isn't just "terminology and verbiage." It's a PHILOSOPHY. It doesn't surrender its fate to the defense, and it certainly doesn't wait to be bailed out by kickoff and punt returns.

It attacks. It doesn't just say so; it DOES so.

This wasn't an issue for Harbaugh at Stanford. With Andrew Luck, Harbaugh crushed his opponents with an almost violent aggression. With Alex Smith, it's a different story. Oh, sure, Harbaugh showered him with outlandish praise, wrapped him up in a manly hug. But all this for completing mostly shorties for barely more than a hundred yards--for simply not giving the game away. Why such a pathetic standard? It's not the lockout, not when ROOKIES are throwing for more than 400. It's something else: clearly, despite Harbaugh's coachspeak, playing it safe is all that he trusts Smith to do.

Forget about Harbaugh turning Smith into Joe Montana. For now, at least, Smith has turned Harbaugh into Jimmy Raye. Incredibly, the nightmare goes on.

We won, though, you'll quickly point out, and 'round and 'round we'll go again. Four years ago, we won our first game, beating a division rival despite gaining only 194 yards. Two years ago, we won our first game, beating a division rival despite gaining only 203 yards. And now THIS year, we've won our first game, beating a division rival despite gaining only 209 yards.

But THIS year, you'll say, things'll be different. THIS year, we've got the West Coast Offense.

But we don't. Unfortunately, we really don't.
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.


  • Scappman
    Jeff you've captured the essence of today's 49ers. New head coach, the same philosophy we've had since Nolan. I can't believe Harbaugh is calling the shots. I can't believe we paid A. Smith 5 mil. for mediocre, 100 yd. performances. Harbaugh is already protecting him. Harbs be a man, open up, take chances, attack on both sides of the ball. We were on the brink of letting the Seattle game slide away in the 4th qtr. only to be saved by two miracle returns from T. Ginn. Whenever the opposition decides to commit to the pass they have major success against a way-below-average 49er secondary. Couple that with the Nowin, Dingleberry, Harbnoballs brand of conservative run-it-up-the-gut-till-it-hurts football and we have a team that will have a worse record than last year. High hopes and admiration for a "bright new coach"? Bull, this is not even close to a "West Coast Offense"! Bill Walsh is turning over in his grave. Just keep coaching "Not to lose" like Mike and Mike before you and you'll be making excuses for your failures all year! Pass, attack, keep them off balance, no more FEAR Harbs! You can be mediocre with Smith if you want to write this season off already!
    Sep 19, 2011 at 2:19 PM
  • charles
    i think the niners offense will come around with time, i also feel they will do better against dallas...on that note warren sapp was saying that the niners are tanking the season to get a. luck. i think sapp is ignorant, all he does is laugh and get fatter--he does not belong on tv, ugly dude.
    Sep 18, 2011 at 9:21 AM
  • 49erLegacy
    I am not happy with last week's performance, but drawing all these conclusions based on one game is absurd.
    Sep 16, 2011 at 12:35 PM
    Response: I liked it more when you were "on the fence," Legacy.
  • Dan
    Well you never responded to my first post so I assume that you agree. Question for ya, what will you do if the Niners win on Sunday. What will you do if A Smith plays well. I figure that because the odds are in your favor you should be able to man up and accept some kind of challenge. What do you think ??? :P
    Sep 16, 2011 at 11:25 AM
    Response: Sorry I didn't respond to your earlier post, Dan; I thought it went without saying that I disagree with your view that our offense on Sunday was any different, in any substantive way, from the putrid offense of the last regime. No matter how "proficient" we are, prehistoric is prehistoric, and in the long run it's a loser. But sure, if we beat Dallas (and if we do so by opening up the offense, as I think you'd agree we'll have to), I'll happily admit that I might've overdone it here. Going out on limbs is one of the hazards of the opinion business, so your "challenge" doesn't faze me. If it turns out that I jumped the gun (again?), then good for all of us.
  • The_Real_Randy
    For all the mad love you give to Harbaugh, I'm surprised you're not defending him here. Yeah, the offense was vanilla and at-a-glance it doesn't seem much different from what Jimmy Raye was doing but there's clearly a method to his madness. The man rightfully does not trust Smith, yet his other options are two rookies who are nowhere near ready. Thus, his primary goal this season is to keep Alex upright. Pretty tall order given how the OL showed they are utterly incapable of pass protection in the preseason. Yet somehow he pulled it off. The blind-side sack resulting in a fumble that has typified Smith's career didn't happen. And remember, Harbaugh was a coach who ran the ball in college before he got his QB so his Gore-heavy attack isn't that surprising. The triumphant return of the WCO will come when Harbaugh finally has his QB. Until then, the gameplan is for Alex Smith to keep the seat warm and not get pummeled while doing so.
    Sep 15, 2011 at 10:10 PM
    Response: It's just so frustrating. The sole reason for bringing Smith back was to see whether he could become a winning quarterback with a winning offensive philosophy. Of course we had our doubts, but at least the winning philosophy would give us a chance (and restore our franchise identity as well). I realize that Harbaugh doesn't trust Smith (which makes it all the more stupefying that we never picked up a veteran alternative). But nevertheless, Harbaugh's immediate surrender of his offensive creativity--without even giving Smith the CHANCE to fail--is extremely disappointing.
  • Dan
    You have 4 OL that were 1st Round picks and one that was a 2nd Round pick. You have 2 receivers and 1 TE that were 1st Round picks. Then you have a BUST 1st overall pick QB. He has all the talent in the world around him to succeed but HE doesn't have the instincts to be an NFL QB. Baalke stated that last year. Said that the good and GREAT QBs in the NFL get rid of the ball on average 1-2 seconds FASTER than Alex Smith. Meaning drop back make their reads and BAM ball gone. Or step UP, to the left or to the right and then BAM ball gone. Alex Smith? Drop back...freak the heck out and roll up into the fetal position or run towards out of bounds. 6 years of that same thing over and over. ENOUGH SAID.
    Sep 15, 2011 at 10:21 AM
  • Gary
    Throw caution to the wind and the ball down the field. What do you really have to lose ... just another season if the Niners continue to 'Nip & Tuck' their way to the goal line. Last game against the Seahawks we must have had 6 or 7 plays within the 5 yard line, but no passes into the corner of the end zone, just plow ahead and eventually settle for a field goal again! Too many games lost in the past by taking field goals instead of going for the TD. The O-line needs to fend off rushers and the Qback (whoever) needs to 'Zip' the ball at least 10+ yards once in a while ... we have the horses to bring it in!
    Sep 15, 2011 at 9:15 AM
  • Dan
    Bottom line is Alex Smith is NOT an NFL starting QB. After 6 years look at his stats. Look at his W-L record. They DON'T lie. He doesn't have it plain and simple. Make all the excuses you want.
    Sep 15, 2011 at 8:23 AM
  • 49erLegacy
    Jeff, I am kind of on the fence on this one. I do not want to jump to a lot of conclusions based on one game, but then again why hold anything back? The answer is this team is far from ready and by that I mean system and personnel wise. This is definitely a transition year, hopefully we will start seeing progress as the season unfolds but I do not expect a lot, especially not playoffs.
    Sep 15, 2011 at 6:18 AM
  • Shaneo
    Jeff, I think if you looked out the window and saw drops of water falling from the sky and said look it's raining people would dispute it!... that game was terrible, i don't care what anyone says. great article. more important, i know you think next yr is the yr of the WCO but do you think that Kap can run it?? i'm not sold it's his style personally, not yet anyway. How real of a shot does Scotty T have? I would love to see them play this year but the problem (under my theory) is, based off the schedule, our D, and our ST, i actually have us at 8-9 wins... which keeps us in a playoff race all year. I don't think we see the rooks at all this year.
    Sep 14, 2011 at 8:07 PM
    Response: And that's fine, Shane. I still trust Harbaugh to develop Kaepernick, but there's no point in rushing him into action this year. As for Tolzien, I'd be pretty surprised if he amounted to much. We always knew that this would be a year with a veteran bridge. If it'd been Hasselbeck, we might've seen the WCO right off the bat. But it's Smith, so we'll take baby steps if any at all. If that gets us into the playoffs, fine. But we're just marking time until Smith is gone.
  • you are smarter than Harbaugh
    This knee-jerk kind of article belongs on fox news, this was Harbaugh's first game as an NFL coach yes he was aggressive in college but the NFL is not college football the niners have an incredible football legacy and maybe the guy got a little nervous and wanted to play it safe with a mediocre (at best) Qb and an offense that had 3 weeks to practice an entirely new scheme. Did you ever think that maybe this man who turned around shit college teams knows what he is doing? This man who is notoriously secretive and who could have gone to pretty much any team in the NFL? To think that maybe he knew that this is pretty much all we needed to do to beat the crap hawks especially when our front was getting so much pressure? Maybe he was thinking hey i'll hide some of the good plays for when we actually need them and not show the rest of the League our real offense. Or maybe this man who has developed Luck and so many other Qb's decided that he wanted to go to an NFL team that was a national joke and ruin his reputation and career by doing the same thing that has been done before... which one is more plausible? Try thinking before you make yourself look like an idiot.
    Sep 14, 2011 at 4:27 PM
  • blahblah
    To the writer... How sure are you that all of these conclusions that you are drawing from this one game are going to be valid after 9, 10, 11 games? It does not seem rational to make that assumption. This reminds me of the article that was written about Baalke screwing up the offseason that was written after the first few days of free agency.
    Sep 14, 2011 at 10:53 AM
    Response: Well, Blah, I did say that our offensive scheme was the same "[f]or THIS week, at least" and that Harbaugh was Raye "[f]or now, at least." So I allowed for the possibility that we'll see the WCO at some point later on this year. I do tend to doubt that we will, though. As Roman said, you are what you are, and I think it's fair to assume that on Sunday we saw what we'll be this season. The same stodgy O in a shinier wrapper.
  • STL Niner Fan
    While I'm not one to press the panic button after preseason or even early season results, I do believe Kaplan's points here are valid and worthy of serious consideration. I was shocked at the play calling during the game. Just shocked. It was like we hadn't changed anything from the prior regime. And when we got a fresh set of downs at the Seahawks' 9 and refused even then to throw a pass I was floored. Hell I think even Jimmy Raye would have called up at least one throw. Plus I thought Smith looked pretty good when given the chance to do something. The bottom line, we've seen this trend before...a couple early season wins by the skin of our teeth with no offensive production. Niner Nation proudly proclaims "hey we won didn't we?". Yet the season ends with at best a .500 record. I'm not ready to press the panic button yet but this is an all too familiar beginning to an NFL season....I guess I was just hoping for more signs of life than we showed. I can tell you this, unless the offensive philosophy changes, we will not contend with the better teams in this league and we will be LUCKY to post a .500 record.
    Sep 14, 2011 at 8:10 AM
  • Canadian Faithful
    You like the 80's and 90's........Montana and Young completed several passes for under 10 yards in the WCO and had receivers that ran 90 YDS TO PAYDIRT! Alex Smith was efficient and mistake free on Sunday. He completed 15 of 20 passes I believe? Several the same under 10 yard variety. The recipe against Seattle is to ground them and pound the ball. Then play defense. I saw a wishbone formation on Sunday! Something I have not seen in several years from the Niners. That is WCO...yes/no? I don't buy the doom and gloom. If this current coach and QB win a few games and quit being the Cleveland Indians of the Major League movies maybe all the yourself...will lay off and just enjoy the success. It has only been one game!! I hate to say it but there obviously is far too much opportunity for media to write something these days. I hope you have an opportunity next week to eat some crow regarding this "Black Sunday" article. You play to win. JH & AS played to win. Forget the style points of the 80's and 90's. Those days are gone. Just WIN!!! A recipe to win every week!
    Sep 14, 2011 at 7:39 AM
    Response: My point, CF, is that as our LAST coach proved, "ground them and pound the ball" and then "play defense" is NOT a "recipe to win every week." And it's the polar opposite of the WCO philosophy.
  • edmond
    kaplan, you are pathetic. so long.
    Sep 14, 2011 at 12:50 AM
  • Nick S.
    People call Kaplan hyperbolic, and this article is the perfect evidence. Three words can describe this article Jeff... knee-jerk reaction (or two words with a hyphen).
    Sep 13, 2011 at 11:19 PM
  • kev
    Item 1) Much easier to teach a single person (C. Newton) an established offence than to teach a whole team a new one. Item 2) Smith ain't (using ain't for effect) Newton. Item 3) Jesus Christ can we give Harbaugh ANY time before we expect miracles? Item 4) Alex sucks (I'm pretty sure). Item 5) Donovan, Vince, Kolb CHOSE NOT TO BE IN SF. Item 6) Anyone who thinks this team would be great this year knows NOTHING about football, and Jeff you're no exception.
    Sep 13, 2011 at 10:18 PM
    Response: I never thought this team would be great this year, Kev. I simply thought it would run the WCO.
  • Shane
    Jeff, first off thank you for telling it like it is! I'm sickened!! How anyone can be happy about that win is sad. this is what we have become? celebrating that dogsh*t game?? i live in NY and it reminds me of when yankees fans praise AJ Burnett just for going 5 innings! I make my friends watch SF on direct TV every sunday, they may not talk to me again all week!! everyone agreed (including myself) it was the worst game on sunday. you take those returns away and you have high school football, wait that's an insult to my alma mater! Jeff we are on the same page all the way, i said ten times did jimmy raye come back?? you know it's bad when you're rooting for your QB to throw a pick just to show some guts! lockout my ass, this weekend was PACKED with offense! bottom line, i'm still gonna believe, but if we don't make a change sunday feel safe to bet your house on the cowboys. this isn't gonna be jabbing the seachickens to death, we need to throw some punches to beat the boys. to anyone who says a win is a win... remember we don't play seattle 11 times this year!
    Sep 13, 2011 at 9:20 PM
    Response: I just think we'll have to wait 'til next year, Shane. We know that Harbaugh wants to destroy the opposition, but HE knows he doesn't have the horses (read: the quarterback) to do it. That's no surprise, of course, but I was still hoping he'd try. Instead it looks like we'll just Jimmy Raye our way through this year, and then, NEXT year, with a NEW quarterback, we'll see the WCO for real.
  • louie
    I thought the game plan was almost perfect. But the 49ers won. I must admit that while I can't help wanting the 49ers to win, I don't want to see another bad team, like say, the Seahawks, to end up with Andrew Luck in the '12 draft. The 49ers have won the last game of the season, and thus hurt their pick selection, in too many recent years--remember Patrick Peterson? I realize it seems crazy to hope we beat the good teams, and lose to the bad teams, but let's face it, this year's team ain't goin' anywhere near the Super Bowl, so why not just take out our frustration to win on the Cowboys, Giants, Steelers, etc. and play "blue collar" against the (bad) teams we're really competing against, and lose. But win.
    Sep 13, 2011 at 8:29 PM
  • Chris Platt
    Okay, believe it or not it has been one week. So let's not judge Harbaugh's system on one game in which we led by two scores the entire game. It was pretty obvious he kept it close to the vest and then when they had to open it up they did. Plus, given Harbaugh's propensity for playing things close to the vest, I'm not shocked to hear him kind of play down his system in a sense. Any relatively knowledgeable 49er fan can see that Harbaugh is introducing a pretty complicated and different WC scheme that is much different than Raye's. We can't forget that Harbaugh and Roman have had a lot less time than normal to introduce this system so why don't we stop complaining Kaplan and enjoy a 49er win.
    Sep 13, 2011 at 6:33 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    This game was all about trust. Coach says great things about Alex, but the OC and Harbaugh don't trust our QB not to lose the game. This wasn't about asking Alex to win the game, it was about do we have the confidence to let him throw on 3rd down. And Coach didn't. We can't run the WCO without confidence in the QB. I liked the 80's and 90's offense too, Jeff. But there will never be another Bill Walsh, Montana, Rice, J Taylor. Doesn't mean we can't run the WCO with what we have. A Smith, Davis, Edwards, and Gore can be very productive in that offense. But Coach needs to let Smith throw on 1st, 2nd, 3rd downs and trust that O-line to hold the rush. Smith will surprise people if you give him the time to throw, and you don't need much time throwing short passes in the WCO. The WCO is all about getting positive yards, a short quick passing attack to RB's, WR's and TE's spread the LB's. When CB's cannot tackle the WR's and RB's on the edge it opens the interior running game because the LB's have to play the pass. WCO has always been pass first to set up the run. Harbaugh's version of WC is establish the power run first and then pass. Not sure I understand the logic of it.
    Sep 13, 2011 at 3:53 PM
  • Don
    Give the team a few more games. I don't think they wanted to show much in this game, considering their next few opponents. Joe and Steve advised fans to be patient.
    Sep 13, 2011 at 3:44 PM
  • Steve
    Thanks for your insight Terry.
    Sep 13, 2011 at 2:34 PM
  • overthemiddle
    That for sure wasn't any WCO that I ever witnessed before. I was sure hoping we would run to the outside more than we did. I was hoping we would throw at least five to eight yards and let the YAC take care of more yardage. I think Alex did just fine but I could have done what was asked of him. The question I have about Alex still remains unanswered. When I see Newton, Sanchez, and even Henne throw the ball I start getting upset with our system. Now if we ran the ball good then I wouldn't mind but we didn't. If we win with what we have then okay great but I don't see that happening. I still think it's too early to be critical, I was hoping to do that at the bye week. If our offense plays this week like it did against the Hawks I can't see us winning. There was a lot of positives that came out of the game tho and I am not talking about special teams.
    Sep 13, 2011 at 2:21 PM
  • Terry B.
    Steve, there is nothing more tiresome than the argument that only those who coach or play the game are qualified to comment on it. You don't need to be a coach or player to offer an opinion on running the ball seven times on third down. That's cowardly, play-not-to-lose football. If the only valid opinons are from those who coach the team or create the game plan, then I don't know what you're doing at this site since no one who coaches the 49ers writes for this site. I totally disagree with your argument that this column offered personal frustration rather than good commentary. An example of bad commentary is what Dallas Niner Fan wrote below. The easy column to write would have been "we won, all is good." For anyone with two eyes and half a brain, it is clear that all is not good. That's what's refreshing about this article. I don't just want to read mindless, pointless cheerleading. Despite the win, there are a lot of reasons to be worried about this team.
    Sep 13, 2011 at 1:57 PM
  • Dallas Niner Fan
    In response to the above article I would like to quote the infamous Al Davis: "Just win baby!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" PS: they better beat Dallas. I don't care how ugly it is.
    Sep 13, 2011 at 1:10 PM
  • Steve
    Terry, I'm not trying to sway your opinion, or enlighten you in any way. I think if you read the majority of the comments made about the article, the feeling is shared about it. It is tiring to read material like this one, that is more of a personal rant than an objective article. It is easy to have a critical opinion about something when you're not the one that has to coach the team, or create the game plan. That is what I was alluding to with the cop-out comment. There is so much to the job of coaching a professional team that you and I as laymen do not see. I have been a fan from the sixties until now. I went through the bad times, the good times, and the bad times again. I heard and read all the articles about Bill Walsh in his first year of coaching. Many of them were on the order of this one. It is just impossible to foresee what is going to happen in a season, or with a coach and team. There are just too many variables that play into it, and writing personal rants do nothing but that...rant. For me, I like to see good analysis, whether it is positive for my position on the team or negative. I just feel this article is personal frustration, and not good commentary.
    Sep 13, 2011 at 1:03 PM
  • M. Horner
    These comments make me want to dump a bucket of urine on someone's head. I can't believe how pathetic 49er fans have become. Our wasted decade of Erickson, Nolan, and Singletary has lowered our expectations so much that we now think that THAT crappy performance was something to get excited about. God, we're in for a long season.
    Sep 13, 2011 at 12:36 PM
  • Jeremy
    Keff Japlan sarcastically writes: "we won, we won, but we still suck." So, in Keff's view, you don't suck if you won, but you do suck if you lost. So the Saints suck, but the 49ers don't? I see...
    Sep 13, 2011 at 12:28 PM
  • skybolt66
    Author writes marginal press maybe to provoke response. Recall that every team that has tried to implement the WCO took time to do it. In Walsh's original incarnation, it took two seasons and benching Steve DeBerg for Joe Montana to implement the WCO. In its original incarnation the WCO supplanted the run with short passes exploiting what the defense gave. Game 1 is way too early to say things are the same.
    Sep 13, 2011 at 12:27 PM

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