Harbaugh’s Identity Is The Niners’ First Crisis

Sep 20, 2011 at 12:09 PM

I guess we should start with The Decision, eh?

For the record, even without the benefit of hindsight, I would've taken the points off the board. The worst thing that could've happened--absent a ludicrous disaster, of course--was that we'd have scored the same three points after killing off a few precious minutes. And who knows? Alex Smith had thrown for two touchdowns already; maybe he would've thrown for a third, putting the game completely away.

But the opposite view had some semblance of reason. There's the unwritten rule against giving back points, though we'd violated that rule in week one. There's the fact that our D had largely suppressed an offense ravaged by injuries; we'd even inflicted a few of our own. And there's the fact that Smith had RETURNED one of those touchdowns by tossing a particularly Smithy pick. Indeed, if you're looking to avoid a ludicrous disaster, taking the ball away from our offense is never a totally worthless idea.

So when Jim Harbaugh chose to keep the three points, he wasn't wrong for playing dumb. He was wrong, again, for playing safe.

How many times, lo these countless miserable years? How many times have we settled for field goals, asking our D, having given so much, to give just a little bit more? How many times have we forgone the chance to kill our opponents, opting instead to give our opponents that one last chance to kill us themselves?

Harbaugh, we thought, was supposed to end this. But once again, just more of the same.

Mind you, this wasn't just on the offensive side, though it was plenty tough to watch another week of Frank Gore's up-the-gut rushes (with an average gain of 2.4) and Smith's ubiquitous dinks and dunks (for an efficient but paltry 179). Though effective early, the defense too was strangely passive, scarcely blitzing even as Tony Romo was completing pass after pass during his furious rally.

Playing safe on O. Playing safe on D. And THIS time, no Ted Ginn heroics to save us.

This isn't what we were promised at all. As we've already discussed, this is merely a shell of the West Coast Offense; leaving aside their advantages in personnel, just look at the SCHEMES of the Packers and Eagles, with ex-Niners, naturally, in charge of the plays. But wasn't Vic Fangio a Dom Capers guy? Sending blitzers from who-knows-where, bringing the heat again and again?

Where's the damned aggressiveness?

There are two possibilities. The first, of course, is that Harbaugh really is this timid, this conservative, that he's more Mike Nolan than Bill Walsh. And since I can't even stomach this possibility, let's just move along, shall we?

The OTHER possibility, and the one I choose to accept, is that Harbaugh is waiting. Thanks in part to the lockout, he doesn't know what his players can do, he doesn't know how much they can handle. (And to the extent he knows, he isn't impressed.) So he'll go vanilla as he watches and learns, striking at last when the iron is hot. Harbaugh said it himself: "These guys are just getting to know me. We're getting to know them. We are still in the process of forming [our] identity."

This theory is supported, of course, by the go-for-the-throat mentality that Harbaugh has shown since the day he was born. (It's also the theory that allows me to avoid a nearly total emotional breakdown.) But even if it's true, it doesn't explain why the waiting is necessary. I'm sure that Harbaugh's playbook has plenty of real WCO schemes, and I'm sure that Fangio has sketched out plenty of exotic blitzes. And I'm equally sure that if they were called, the players could run ‘em; they might not run ‘em WELL, but they could run ‘em.

So for cryin' out loud, Coach. Just call ‘em. If you play aggressively, you might lose. But if you play safely, more often than not, you WILL lose.

The issue here is that Harbaugh is letting the tail wag the dog. A team's identity should be a function of the coach's vision, not a function of the players' talent. On day one, Harbaugh should've announced the identity not only of THIS team but of EVERY team he'll ever coach: My teams will dictate to their opponents, on both offense and defense. My teams will play aggressively, from start to finish. My teams will never, ever let up.

This is the identity that wins, and it should be automatic.

Of course, not every roster can execute that vision, and Harbaugh is showing that he knows this one can't. Smith is proving himself as an efficient game-manager, but he doesn't strike any fear in a defense. (In fairness, the absence of his two best receivers doesn't help.) And without any fear of a deep passing-game, the defense is perfectly able to load up the box to squelch the run. Add to the mix an offensive line that's inconsistent--to say the least--and a dictating offense is no easy task.

Likewise, on D, aggressive blitzing is extremely risky when your secondary is unreliable. OUR secondary, especially missing two should-be starters, certainly qualifies as such.

But again, these are questions of talent, which shouldn't bear on the question of identity. The fact that your team might struggle to execute a winning vision is not a reason to adopt a LOSING one. You stick with what wins, and if you discover that your players can't handle it, you don't get rid of the vision. On the contrary, you get rid of the players.

My point is, our identity should be clear, constant, and nonnegotiable. Yet Harbaugh seems like he's simply confused. He says that he wants to be aggressive, but not at the cost of doing anything "negative for our ball club." He says that he wants to be a passing team--which, as we've discussed for YEARS now, is a team that wins--yet he wants just as much to be a running team, "darn near 50/50." Most disturbingly, he says that identity depends on "what you're good at and what you believe you can be good at." And that it takes time: "It takes the time that it takes and the main thing is that we all trust in the plan, we believe in each other. ... So, we'll stick with it. We'll stick to our guns on that approach."

Harbaugh must get this straight, immediately. He isn't here to scrounge around for some vague identity that won't embarrass his average roster. He's here to announce a bold vision, to tell his players that they'll either keep up or they'll be on the street. He's here to relieve us of the play-not-to-lose (and thus losing) mentality that's been our bane for year after year.

Ultimately, he's here for one reason, one reason alone: to restore the identity that once made us the envy of every franchise in professional sports.

Harbaugh must do this, and do it quickly. Or Sunday's game won't be all he'll lose.
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.


  • Lucky Phil
    Jeff, Did this game against the Bengals seem like it was the hardest coached game you have ever witnessed? Holy Crap these are the Bengals! Why is this so difficult? And why after watching this game did I feel I watched cowturd baking in the sun for 3 hrs? And what was the deal taking the safety in the last 8 sec. and then still kicking the ball away? You have a 7 pt. lead Harbaugh, when you give up the safety you only have a 5 pt. lead. You potentially lose this game in regulation rather than OT only. Let's not overthink the game Capt. Comeback. Sometimes it is best to stand there like Dingleberry with your head up your a$$.
    Sep 26, 2011 at 3:33 PM
    Response: Suffice it to say, Phil, I truly can't recall a less interesting game. (And with the games we've played in recent years, that's really saying something.) Nice to get the win, of course, but we are clearly still MILES away.
  • Dan
    But Terry B., you prove me right every time you open your mouth.
    Sep 24, 2011 at 7:24 AM
  • AJ Bolino
    Terry: Now to third down conversion as my preferred performance metric: It better correlates to victories. Case in point: In 2010, the top ten teams in third down conversion ratio averaged 10.1 victories. By way of comparison, in 2010, the top ten teams in yards per pass attempt averaged 9.1 wins. Add 'em up for yourself and you'll see that the math jibes just fine. If you want to trade schoolyard insults, you'll have to bait someone else...I won't play that game with you, no matter how much you'd like me to. I've made my point. I'm out.
    Sep 23, 2011 at 9:42 PM
  • KezarMike
    Jeff, completely spot on article!!! I've been a 49er fan since 1967. Teams NEVER win consistently in the NFL without being aggressive. Of course, any ONE game might be won a certain way, but we're talking about building a team here that can contend. Belichick (and before him Parcells) were respected defensive coaches, and look at the way they play offense. Not enough time? Look at what the new Carolina coaches and the new Bengals OC are doing with ROOKIE QBs!! I loved the Harbaugh hire. No one else I would rather have hired. He might as well find out right now if Alex can really do it. Because if he can't, then it means he'll be gone next year and we're wasting time with him now. And I have never understood the thing in the NFL these past many years of only going with one RB. Why NOT give a guy like Hunter 5 - 10 carries a game? Gore can still get his 20 or so (IF his runs are doing the job).
    Sep 23, 2011 at 5:13 PM
  • Terry B.
    Fair point, Alden. I'll stop for now. I guess with all of A.J.'s columns and Dan's comments archived and available there's no need for me to point out the obvious: the next time either one of them is right about this team will be the first.
    Sep 23, 2011 at 11:44 AM
  • Alden Brown
    You're laying it on a bit thick, aren't you Terry? Don't Dan and A.J. do a good enough job embarrassing themselves without you piling on?
    Sep 23, 2011 at 11:23 AM
  • Terry B.
    Nice dodge, AJ. So, your point in that column was that preseason performance is NOT an accurate barometer of regular season performance. Then, it turned out that it WAS a frighteningly accurate barometer of regular season performance in this case, but that proves that it was YOU who was right. Where did you learn to reason like that? It must be nice to be you. If they had a winning season, AJ is right, and if they had a losing season, AJ is right. And third down conversion rate is a better measure of offensive efficiency? Source please? Being efficient means getting a desired result with the least amount of effort. If the desired result is winning and not converting third downs, then YPA is the best statistic. See coldhardfootballfacts.com, quality stats, yards per attempt. Also check out this article from the same site which perfectly demonstrates both why Alex Smith sucks and why our arrow is pointing straight down: http://www.coldhardfootballfacts.com/Articles/11_4096_Passing_With_Flying_Colors.html. It must be even nicer being Dan. Dan just gets to assert he's right but never has to give any evidence to support his point. But, when you've been proven 100% wrong for going on over a year now, what else are you going to do?
    Sep 23, 2011 at 7:30 AM
  • Dan
    Right Terry B., You would never cheap shot anyone. All you ever do here is take cheap shots at everyone who doesn't share your point of view. That's not discourse, it's friction. I think it's sad. You should stop responding to me. Your comebacks are always so weak. Calling people a homer doesn't make them a homer. As for the rest of your post, it's so obviously wrong that I feel embarrassed for you. You can pretend this isn't true and ignore it all you want, but it's a simple fact. I know what you're thinking: 'What the hell does this guy know?' Well, because I don't know how to put this delicately, I'll just get it out: you are wrong. I'll let you try to figure out how you are wrong. I already stated one glaring way. If you don't like my level of discourse, know this. I'm doing the same thing you attempt to do to half the people who comment here. I'm using your own words against you.
    Sep 22, 2011 at 11:24 PM
  • AJ Bolino
    Hi Terry: I refuse to get drawn into a school yard cut down contest with you...so I'll address your points with facts. Fact #1: The article you reached for from last season stated that pre-season football is not an accurate barometer of regular season performance. Since you got cute and selectively quoted my writing, I'll give you the conclusion (which you conveniently omitted): "There will be a time to panic about how the 49ers are playing. That time is Thursday, September 2nd at 7pm. The starters will see more playing time, there will be at least some semblance of a game plan in place, and our newly constructed O-line will have had three weeks to gel. So, ever vigilant denizens of 49erland, please un-press the panic button. Take a deep breath. Take a drink. Hell, take a valium if it will help you relax. What we saw on Sunday should not be cause for panic. Not yet, anyway." See? My point was that the time to panic was the first regular season game. Nice attempt at attacking my credibility, though. Golf clap, Terry. Fact #2: Zone blocking is, in fact, used in running AND passing the football. I'd delve deeper here, but since you conveniently changed the subject after you were proven incorrect, I'll refrain from rubbing it in. Fact #3: Third down conversion rate is a far better measure of offensive efficiency than yards per pass attempt. In week one, the 49ers converted a frighteningly paltry 8% (1 for 12) of their 3rd down attempts. In week 2, they converted 50% (8 for 16) of their 3rd down attempts. I think it's safe to say that we're "arrow up" week over week as it pertains to moving the sticks. Add to that the fact that Alex Smith has a 90 QB rating in the first 2 weeks of the season, and what you have is an efficient (but far from perfect) offense. Fact #4: At this time last season, the 49ers were 0-2. Right now, they are 1-1. So as it pertains to the ultimate metric, we're "arrow up" thus far as well. Even though this team will likely improve dramatically as the season progresses given what I've seen so far, I think that they will finish 9-7 at best (provided that most things break their way). Only time will tell. You may now go back to flinging insults.
    Sep 22, 2011 at 9:26 PM
  • Terry B.
    How is it a cheap shot to access his publicly available columns to point out that he's staggeringly wrong about this team, just as you always are? If he doesn't want us to read his stuff, he should take it down. But, that's the way it goes with homers like you and AJ: when you're a homer of a team that's sucked for a decade, you're probably going to end up being wrong most of the time. And now you've reached a new low in commentary: "you are wrong in so many ways...I just won't say how." What? If that is going to be your chosen level of debate, I will have no choice but to respond in kind: I know you are; what am I? I'm made of rubber, you're made of glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you. You look like a monkey, and you smell like one too.
    Sep 22, 2011 at 7:28 PM
  • Dan
    Wow Terry B. You actually went back through the archives to try and cheap shot A.J.? That's kinda pathetic. Well, because I don't know how to put this delicately, I'll just get it out: you are wrong. In so many ways...
    Sep 22, 2011 at 3:45 PM
  • Terry B.
    I remember you now, A.J. I just went back and looked at the archive. You're the one who claimed to be "sane" last preseason because only you realized that our pathetic performance was not a harbinger of things to come in the regular season. Remember this: "Take your hands off of the panic button, put the bottle down... In short, folks, things are what they are...and that isn't nearly as bad as resident doomsayers would have you believe. I know what you're thinking: 'What the hell does this guy know? The Niners have sucked for the better part of a decade, and what I saw on Sunday did nothing to convince me that things will be any different this year.' Well, because I don't know how to put this delicately, I'll just get it out: you are wrong. Nothing about Sunday's game has any bearing whatsoever on how this season will play out for the 49ers." And then we went 6-10. Boy was that some insightful commentary. About as insightful as your point that we needed to give the offensive line 3 weeks to gel, and here we are a year later still waiting.
    Sep 22, 2011 at 11:57 AM
  • Terry B.
    "Don't do it again." Ooohh, a threat from Alex Jacker Bolino. I'm shaking in my boots. I did not oversimplify your point. I just pointed out how inane it was. Completing a high percentage of passes does not make a QB efficient. Having a high YPA does, and Alex does not. You can pretend this isn't true and ignore it all you want, but it's simple fact. Dream on about our linemen becoming zone blockers all you want. I remember from your previous columns that you live in a perpetual fantasy world. I agree 100% with Kevin Lynch: "I meant to emphasize that the 49ers line isn't set up for zone blocking. The line might be too big and not athletic enough for a zone run scheme." Anyone with two eyes can see that Lynch is right.
    Sep 22, 2011 at 7:43 AM
  • Ruben
    I am so tired of people blaming Singletary for an overhyped season. It seems to me that Mr. Savior (Harbaugh) is dealing with what Sing had to (A. Smith). What needs to be said is the truth, we are another year or two from where we should be. Baalke is no GM, Harbaugh is overrated as a coach, and the team needs to know how to be winners. If Singletary had a GM to back him and give him what he needed, we would be praising him now. VY should have been our starting QB, J.Joseph our CB, and J.Houston our 1st pick. The fact is that the grass isn't greener on the other side. 5 mil a year for the same results, seems to me someone else doesn't know what they're doing!
    Sep 22, 2011 at 6:48 AM
  • Tomokie Burton
    GREAT article, these are my views exactly.
    Sep 22, 2011 at 6:39 AM
  • The_Real_Randy
    I keep saying this and no one wants to listen. Harbaugh figured out shortly after training camp started that he can't win with Smith. But Colin K is nowhere near ready so the gameplan is to run the ball and keep Smith upright. But thanks to poor personnel and decisions regarding the OL, even that's a tall order against a team that rushes the passer as well as Dallas.
    Sep 22, 2011 at 5:06 AM
  • AJ Bolino
    Terry, To be clear: I still am a columnist. Family concerns have kept me from writing of late. Next: Offensive efficiency = wins. This is a fundamental football truth, no matter how much you wish it wasn't. Oversimplifying my post to prove your point is silly. Don't do it anymore. Next: Zone blocking is only for running plays? Wow. You've confused the "stretch zone scheme" made popular by Denver in the 90's with zone blocking overall. Follow this link. You might learn something: http://static.espn.go.com/ncf/columns/davie/1440703.html. Zone blocking employs coordination, timing, and technique in both the run AND the pass, and is a critical component of the WCO. It requires a line to work together in a way that requires familiarity borne of repetition. (read: improvement over time) Given time, this line WILL get better. Just watch.
    Sep 21, 2011 at 9:56 PM
  • Terry B.
    AJ, are you even aware that zone blocking is a RUN blocking scheme, not a pass blocking scheme? How is it that you used to be a WebZone columnist and you didn't know that? Are you really defending Alex on the basis that his linemen are still learning how to zone block in the passing game? But, maybe you are onto something. Maybe the reason our pass blocking is so bad is that our linemen are trying to block zones instead of the pass rushers that are going right by them. (Oh, and by the way, Dingleberry drafted these behemoths to maul in a power blocking scheme. If we are going to wait for them to become zone blockers, we'll be waiting forever.) As for the rest of your post, it's so obviously wrong that I feel embarrassed for you. More completions = more first downs. More first downs = wins. What? So you'd rather have three three-yard completions than two incompletions and a 70-yard strike? You are correct that greater efficiency = more wins, but the best measure of offensive efficiency is a QB's yards per attempt, where Alex sucks.
    Sep 21, 2011 at 7:45 PM
  • Shane
    AJ, first i respect that everyone has an opinion and enjoy discussion, but i feel like you're missing the point. Your stance is we need to take time, well first i don't believe in the NFL there is time to waste, you must push the envelope. But i think everyone (including myself) is more upset with philosophy and decision making. This is obviously a passing league, and we want to run. We never put 4 WRs out there or 3 WRs with davis split wide. I understand you're thinking the line can't protect, look at the pats. They run a 3 step drop 4WR set. It's an extension of the running game. We decline first downs to take FGs, that doesn't work in 2011. TDs win. Do I think the offense can evolve, yes. But only if we unleash it and let it grow. I'm not saying you let your kids play in the road but you don't keep them locked in the basement right?
    Sep 21, 2011 at 7:26 PM
  • Tempt
    These panic articles are starting to border on novelty. Intelligent fans, stop responding so often to these POS articles and they will disappear.
    Sep 21, 2011 at 5:43 PM
  • K Rob
    Shane, Brett, Mike, You make excellent points! Why oh why is Harbaugh here? Singletary made those same calls and he had no idea what "offense" meant. Stop playing scared...If he's already afraid of losing his job, then he'll have lots of worries in the coming weeks. As a long-time fan (since '85), all I want is a coach who can make the players feel like they are worthy of wearing the red and gold!
    Sep 21, 2011 at 3:46 PM
  • K Rob
    Jeff, This is brilliant stuff. You said it right, Harbaugh should have identified his vision for this team before this team stepped on the field! You're either going to coach like you don't want to make mistakes OR you can coach like you have confidence in your team, which would breed confidence in your team. As a team, how can they gel with 3 and outs/one third-down conversion. Man this is sickening. Harbaugh and his staff lost that game!
    Sep 21, 2011 at 3:24 PM
  • AJ Bolino
    Terry...do you know why we lead the league in short pass attempts? It would be because our line is still getting used to its zone blocking scheme...with the run AND the pass. Why call a 7-step drop if it will likely lead to a sack? For now, shorter passes = more completions. More completions = more first downs. More first downs = greater offensive efficiency. Greater offensive efficiency generally = more wins. Simple math.
    Sep 21, 2011 at 3:00 PM
  • Terry B.
    What's your point, Kray? I thought that the "three yard pass" comment was obvious sarcasm. But how am I pulling numbers out of thin air? You are absolutely correct that Alex's YPA is 6.9, which is good for 22nd in the league, which is exactly what I said. It's the mark of a loser, and that's what Alex is. Source: NFL.com.
    Sep 21, 2011 at 2:24 PM
  • Ninerdawg
    I don't understand it either Jeff, but thanks for answering my question!
    Sep 21, 2011 at 1:35 PM
  • Ninerdawg
    Nice article Jeff. It looks like after all of your whining about getting rid of Singletary and bringing in a real coach, we now have Jim Harbaugh. New coach same ole 49ers, same ole conservative offence, our secondary is still getting torched. What I would like to know Jeff is, if we continue with our mediocrity, will you be screaming for Harbaugh's head?
    Sep 21, 2011 at 12:05 PM
    Response: I hate to even THINK about that, Dawg. I still think that Harbaugh will win here, that his offensive genius will emerge as he installs new offensive parts (including, yes, at quarterback). I just don't understand why he's waiting, though.
  • kray28
    Just because we're pulling numbers out of thin air: Alex Smith's Average yards per pass after two games is 6.9 yards/pass. Alex Smith's Average yards per completion after two games is 9.77 yards/completion. Source: NFL.com
    Sep 21, 2011 at 11:50 AM
  • Terry B.
    AJ, I have to respectfully disagree with your statement that Alex Smith has been "efficient as all hell." He throws for a high percentage, sure, because his average pass is about three yards. But in the all important YPA stat (the most accurate measure of a QB's effectivenss and the one most strongly correlated with winning), he's 22nd in the league. That's not a QB who is "efficient as all hell." It's a loser.
    Sep 21, 2011 at 8:22 AM
  • Frank
    Oh, please spare us all the drama, Jeff. Yes, it was a conservative call Sunday...tell you what, Jeff, take a look at the game stats. Dallas outgained the Niners well over 2-1. Why? They have an established passing attack...they're not on their umpteenth OC in 7 years. Romo had something to prove, and prove it he did. He's a gamer, and came through when his team needed it the most. There's a reason Harbaugh's being conservative...it's because he knows his guys aren't ready to be bold yet. Did you pay attention to Joe Montana a few weeks back...he said it plainly, that Niner fans (and I'll throw in the media, just my two cents) would have to be patient while Harbaugh's players learned the fine points of his WCO. He went through the same thing under Bill Walsh...methinks he knows a lot more about the intricacies of the WCO than you or any of us. So, pls do us a favor...can all the drama and come to an understanding of the enormity of the task at hand. In other words, get real.
    Sep 21, 2011 at 5:51 AM
  • JeuSF49
    I can see it clearly, Harbaugh opens it up, Smith throws for a ton of yards every game, and a ton of picks, we lose a bunch of games, the next day an article written by Jeff Kaplan appears, named "Harbaugh's downfall". Stating that his aggressiveness is not executable, because the players do not have full knowledge of the scheme. It was a unrealistic plan that was doomed from the start. He should have known that Smith will throw a lot of picks and that great numbers mean nothing without winning. He should have taken a more rational conservative approach. If anyone has expected that his presence alone will immediatley transform the niners, that the offence will be a well oiled unstoppable WCO machine, he should check his head. Montana himself pledged patience, and warned that until the players know the coaches and vice versa the offence will be dull and unproductive. Give the man time.
    Sep 20, 2011 at 11:09 PM

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