Wins This Ugly Might Carry A Price

Sep 27, 2011 at 7:10 PM

Admit it.

Oh, sure, it isn't the usual feeling. You're a die-hard, after all, and watching the Niners is one of the highlights of your week. Maybe it's the ONLY highlight. Maybe it's the one thing that gets you through your daily grind: the thought that in a matter of days you'll be able to escape into another world. A world where all that matters is the Niners.

Admit it, though. There was a point, on Sunday, when you thought you would rather be anywhere else.

For me, that point was just before halftime. The Niners faced a third-and-2 at their own 47. We'd managed all of 93 yards. We hadn't ventured past midfield. And behind an abysmal offensive line, Jim Harbaugh sent Frank Gore up the middle, again. Predictably, Gore lost a yard. Andy Lee punted for the sixth time, and we went to the locker room trailing the Bengals, three to nothing.

It was right about then when I couldn't help thinking: you know, maybe I should be mowing my lawn.

I stuck it out, of course, and to some extent was rewarded. In the fourth quarter, down six to three, the Niners put together their one impressive drive, a game-winner thanks to our defense, which held the Bengals to field goals on their two trips inside the 10.

The Niners had won. We were two-and-one, alone atop the NFC West. Yet Harbaugh described the experience perfectly: "That football game, from an offensive perspective, ... was painful at times. Like going to the dentist."

All together now: rinse and spit.

I know, I know. A win is a win, right? Plus, as I've written myself: "When you've lost as many games as we've lost recently, you don't complain about ugly wins. You take ‘em however you can get ‘em."

So I won't complain. Instead, I'll ask a simple question: what exactly are we doing?

Let's start with the obvious: we're not gonna win the Super Bowl, not THIS year anyway. This offense, now ranked dead last, is stuck in an endless, miserable loop. Because of the limitations of our personnel--particularly on that embarrassing line--Harbaugh won't even attempt to install the actual West Coast Offense, and the limitations of our personnel are made even more limiting by the limitations of our schemes. To whatever extent you still had hopes for a miracle dark-horse Super Bowl push, Sunday's snoozer should've put ‘em to bed.

Now if you're not gonna win the Super Bowl, what you want is proof that you're getting there. Proof that you're building. Proof that you're putting the pieces in place.

After Sunday, it's fair to ask: are we even doing THAT?

Consider the case of Colin Kaepernick. He isn't playing; he's our purported QB of the future. Andy Dalton, though, whom the Bengals chose just before we took Kaepernick, is playing now. Our defense gave Dalton a pretty rough day. But he's getting precious experience, and he's playing well enough to show Bengals fans (if any exist) that their team just might be a team on the rise. Meanwhile, Kaepernick sits.

Now I'm not saying that Kaepernick's experience would be as productive as Dalton's; our offensive line is so atrocious, his experience would mostly consist of being knocked down. It's better, of course, that he watch and learn.

But then again, look at what he's watching and learning.

A veteran bridge is valuable only if he's running the system that the rookie himself will be running next. The rookie will watch the plays unfold; he'll learn which decisions work and which don't. But the system that Kaepernick's watching just can't be the system he'll ultimately run. On Sunday there were some modest wrinkles--the game-winning drive was nicely schemed--but if Kaepernick's given the real WCO, and please, PLEASE, tell me he will, what he's watching now will be virtually worthless. Essentially, he'll be starting from scratch.

Yet our crappy division continues to be both a blessing and a curse. The Rams, the popular preseason faves, are oh-and-three, though of course they've faced a tough early schedule. Seattle is truly awful, yet they just beat the Cardinals. So yeah, our offense is nearly unwatchable. But, once again, it might be enough.

If it weren't, Harbaugh might've been inspired to break the vicious circle, and truly start installing his offense. Naturally, it wouldn't be pretty, but at least we could see it. We could start to see what we would become. We could start to see how the future would look.

But my concern, for THIS week, is that Harbaugh is attempting to win a very small battle while slipping behind in a larger war. He's attempting to "grind" his way to a division title--which would be somewhat exciting but ultimately meaningless--at the price of a year of genuine development. A year closer to real contention.

I've been accused lately of being impatient, of unreasonably demanding immediate progress. I've been reminded to think once again of the lockout: how could Harbaugh possibly install the WCO in a month and a half? Well, to begin with, I think we've seen that the lockout hasn't been nearly the obstacle that it originally threatened to be, as offenses across the league--even those that are newly installed--are producing at almost ridiculous levels. But beyond that, I'm really not impatient at all. I don't demand perfection. I don't even demand WINS, at least not yet. All I want is proof that we're building toward something real. Proof, if you will, of true restoration.

Instead I got what I got on Sunday. A game that seemed to prove only inertia. A game that was like a head meeting a wall. A game that was almost a burden to watch.

We won it, of course, and a win is a win. Yet I can't help but think that we're losing more.
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.


  • jaxinsac
    Thus the problem with suggesting a win is a bad thing. Didn't look like it hindered things on Sunday. I'm still in shock on why this section of the webzone isn't yet deleted. It's an eyesore, like this article.
    Oct 3, 2011 at 6:39 PM
  • Michael Taylor
    Yes Jeff, I noticed, but we won because the team played tough in all phases of the game, especially at the end. Justin Smith's defensive play and smashing the Eagles in the mouth with the run for 2:15 sealed the game. Your favorite whipping boy, Mr. Smith, is ranked top ten in a number of categories (as noted by Peter King today) for playing the way Harbaugh wants him to: as mistake-free as possible. I think the offense will evolve when Harbaugh feels that everyone is on the same sheet of music. We saw flashes of that gel yesterday & I think we'll see more in the future. BTW, SI had a great breakdown of Smith in the Eagles game. You should check it out and we here in Ninerland can't wait for next great Kaplan article.
    Oct 3, 2011 at 4:33 PM
  • Michael Taylor
    Hey, Kaplan, I can't wait for another patented BS article from you. You are truly such a sourpatch kid. By the way, did you enjoy the 49ers-Eagles game or were you mowing your freaking lawn?
    Oct 3, 2011 at 4:50 AM
    Response: Oh, I enjoyed it, Michael. (I mowed my lawn afterward.) I'm sure you noticed, though: we won by actually throwing the ball. Now the question is whether we'll KEEP throwing, even BEFORE we're down 20 points.
  • Bill B.
    Thanks, Phil! No worries. This whole thing is not so much a difference of opinion as it is semantics and I'm just glad you guys are still Niner fans after the last 8 years of mid-seventies-like Niner performance. Like I said, this season actually seems more interesting and exciting to me than usual because I just know Harbaugh is going to try to bring new things every week. And, although they've been very frustrating to watch, I think we'll see better and better performance from the O-line as well. That 80's line didn't look too good as they were installing the offense in '79 and '80 either. These guys are learning to work together on the fly. Again, if this team manages to get through the first half at .500, they're going to the playoffs.
    Oct 1, 2011 at 8:28 AM
  • Lucky Phil
    Hey Bill B. I want to apologize for the crude tip I suggested about keeping yourself clean. I was alluding to the fact that I think you are an idiot and I'm assuming you figured that out based on your comments. For the record, I don't think you're an idiot but I want to explain why I was angry with your first comment and why I thought it was a dumb comment to make. I think I clearly said I was not happy with this team and I'm no longer a fan. I don't need anyone repeating what I have said. #2 Saying I'm a "bandwagoner", I'm doing the exact opposite. For the first time in years this team will make the playoffs. I'm the first idiot that is jumping off this bandwagon because this offense is unwatchable. And Bill before you make comments that myself, Jeff, and others are not true fans, you need to understand that true fans are passionate about their team. The "whining" on these boards is what I consider constructive criticism. Bill I admire your dedication, I hope you enjoy the season. Even though I have a lot of respect for Alex's hard work and toughness I need to see Kap out there for me to get excited about this WCO.
    Sep 30, 2011 at 8:05 PM
  • Bill B.
    Jeremy, I don't think you understand what I'm saying. Of course, I'd rather the Niners were winning. I'm just saying that whether I or any other fan "accepts" it is irrelevant. Apathy has nothing to do with it. I'm a passionate Niner fan - always have been. Terry, it simply does not follow that a person has no credibility because he is a homer. A homer can be very knowledgeable about NFL football. I'll put my understanding of the game next to anyone here. For example, I know enough about the game to understand that expecting a well-timed west-coast offense at this point in the season without off-season installations is unrealistic. As I've posted below, I expect to see new wrinkles every week and I think this is a special season that requires patience. In many ways, this is going to be more interesting than usual, because we'll continue to see new formations and plays every week.
    Sep 30, 2011 at 5:16 PM
  • John H.
    Here's an interesting column from ProFootballFocus, looking at the best and worst pass blocking lines in the league. Surprisingly, we are not in the bottom ten. Of course, these rankings are somewhat suspect given that the Bears aren't in the bottom ten either. We do have one thing of note, though, in that Jonathan Goodwin grades out as the worst pass blocking center in the league. Good signing, Trent!
    Sep 30, 2011 at 8:23 AM
  • Alden Brown
    Frank Gore up the middle again! Amazing!
    Sep 30, 2011 at 5:50 AM
  • Jeremy
    That's the second time you've made that argument Bill B., and I'll never understand it. Because you're old enough to remember the futility of the pre-Walsh days, you're perfectly willing to accept it now. Hey, enjoy yourself. That will never be me. The day I become that apathetic is the day I stop being a fan. So what if other teams are winning with our former coaches and the system we pioneered while we dither away year after year with this prehistoric offense? So what if we keep starting a QB who any other team would have cut years ago? So what if we keep failing at the draft year after year? We should just accept it! Never me, Bill. Never me.
    Sep 30, 2011 at 4:33 AM
  • Terry B.
    To answer your question, Bill B., no, I have absolutely no problem with you being a homer. It certainly is your right. I just think it's important to state it up front so everyone knows that you have zero credibility.
    Sep 30, 2011 at 4:26 AM
  • E.Coast Niner
    You have got to understand football to understand the way coach has been progressing the team. If anyone can say they have not seen the offense progress since week 1 preseason speak now. Play calling has been amazing so far, week 2 if Braylon doesn't go down 3-0. The defense looks hungry and Alex Smith, yes Alex Smith is growing confidence. I believe he throws a pick this week at the eagles, but has a big game, 300 yards passing. You heard it here 1st!
    Sep 29, 2011 at 7:39 PM
    Response: "Play calling has been amazing so far." And you mean in a GOOD way. Wow.
  • Bill B.
    It must be my age. It must be that I've been a Niner fan for over 50 years and watched them for decades before they became the big thing of the 80's and 90's. Honestly, Jeremy, when you talk about what fans used to demand, it's hard for me to take you seriously. The Niners had the longest stretch of excellence of any team in NFL history. In view of that, it's not hard to understand how Niner fans have become so ridiculous, demanding this, not accepting that, so filled with a sense of entitlement that they believe it is their right to watch a winner. I appreciate the fact that you guys all want a winner. I really do. But, please stop the whining and demanding like entitled little brats. The team will be back. Whether you know it or not, it's already on the way back. And, Terry, yes, I'm a homer. I'm a Niner fan and a homer. You got a problem with that?
    Sep 29, 2011 at 6:33 PM
  • Terry B.
    What if Harbaugh ALREADY KNOWS that Kaepernick isn't the QB of the future? Good God, did someone really write that? What the hell? No, seriously, what the hell?
    Sep 29, 2011 at 1:53 PM
  • M. Horner
    What the hell's the matter with you, Kaplan? Don't you know great football when you see it? Bill B. and Dan certainly do. Can't you find SOMETHING positive to say about this GM who drafts bench players, this coach who promised the West Coast Offense but gave us Jimmy Raye, this QB who's wasted seven years of our lives? Come on!
    Sep 29, 2011 at 12:04 PM
  • 49erLegacy
    Jeff, assuming I am correct on Kap not being the future (for argument's sake), it would not necessarily mean Harbaugh has no capabilities as a Qb evaluator. First of all, the whole "guru" thing is media created, he is entitled to mess up or make incorrect evaluations, Bill Walsh did, and that did not make him a bad coach or overall evaluator.
    Sep 29, 2011 at 11:50 AM
  • louie
    Jeremy, you said it all. Thank you.
    Sep 29, 2011 at 11:28 AM
  • Dan
    That's the winning spirit Jeff. You really think like a winner don't you? You know what, the sky is falling and we're all going to dieeee! I'd hate to be you, there is no joy to be had. You can't ever enjoy anything, and things are always going to fall short no matter how good it gets. I know the 49ers haven't put up the most points in the NFL, and they have the least productive offense, and they are just about leading the NFL in penalty yards, but you should put down the razor blade and the bottle of pills Jeff, the 49ers are 2-1 and there are still 13 games to play. Things could get better. You're killing yourself here...and it's killing me. I'm sure the dream offense you're waiting for is just around the corner. You can quote me on that. I'm sure the mighty fact-checker (or fact-twister) Terry B. will (mis-) quote me on it. There's some love for you here too Terry B., don't want you to get lonely.
    Sep 29, 2011 at 10:24 AM
  • 49erLegacy
    Jeff, I do agree with you that this team is not winning the SB THIS year, probably will not even make the playoffs. I disagree on the comments related to installing the offense, the WCO is not a simple system. I am willing to bet anything that Harbaugh is not happy running and gaining just 2 yards and then deciding to throw and have his Qb knocked around like a rag doll. I also wanted to add, what if Kap is not the Qb of the future? He was drafted with that in mind, but what if he is not and Harbaugh already knows it?
    Sep 29, 2011 at 6:42 AM
    Response: If Harbaugh has already deemed Kaepernick a bust, that would say awful things about his own abilities to choose and train a quarterback. And since Harbaugh is known as a QB guru, that would also say awful things about our future.
  • Terry B.
    Bill B., if you send that new Homers 'R Us membership card to Dan and AJ, they'll have it laminated for you.
    Sep 29, 2011 at 5:22 AM
  • Jeremy
    Welcome to Silly Season with Billy B! Is there anything worse than a fan who tries to tell other fans who have suffered through this crap for ten years that they aren't real fans? What would we be doing at 49erswebzone if we weren't real fans? Wouldn't we have left at some point in the last decade if we were just bandwagoners? Being a true fan does not mean bending over and spreading your cheeks for Jed York. Bill, I never said that the 49ers were great because of their fans. I said that their fans used to demand excellence. As for whether or not fans have power, they most certainly do. It's the power of the purse. If people like you just keep cheering the crap you're being served, then all you will be served in the future is a bigger pile of crap. Is a real QB, something resembling a modern NFL offense, and a GM who drafts players who play really too much to ask?
    Sep 29, 2011 at 5:21 AM
  • Dmack
    Jeff, are you saying you would rather the niners lose with direction than WIN!? I just took a couple of exams and I'm pretty tired but I could not help but to blink my eyes and scratch my head... I don't want direction for the future or to see my niners perfect the West Coast offense, we want WINS Jeff! I will take it any way I can! West coast, East coast, spread, no coast, just show us die hard fans that are paying every Sunday that you want to WIN. Scratch, claw, fake injuries, whatever it takes to get that win and I'm happy as hell! Let's worry about the present now and take care of the future when it comes. What's that saying Jeff, any team can WIN on any given day! GO NINERS! Where do I purchase my SB tickets Jeff?!
    Sep 29, 2011 at 12:15 AM
  • Bill B.
    I can agree with Lucky Phil on at least one issue. I find Kaepernick to be a very intriguing prospect. I'm not worried about the picks. College guys with rocket arms almost always go through that because they're just not used to the quickness of pro defensive backs and they still think they can squeeze passes into coverage with just the strength of their throws. Kaepernick has an incredible arm and he's very fast. I agree that he's Vick-like. He also reminds me of Randall Cunningham. But what I like most about him is his character. He's a great kid and a football fanatic. I'm hoping Alex Smith totally blossoms this season because he's also a great kid with great character and that by next season, Harbaugh has one of those great problems - having two good QB's.
    Sep 28, 2011 at 9:16 PM
  • Bill B.
    Hey Lucky Phil! That's just the kind of reasonable, intelligent response I'd expect from a faux-Niner fan who would rather be a Raider fan if he finds the Raider offense to be marginally more interesting this season. But evidently my remarks about you being a bandwagoner hit a little too close for comfort. You admit to it yourself: "But I can't say I'm a fan, not of this team." Earth to Phil! Urgent message! "This team" is the San Francisco Forty-Niners! If you're not a fan of "this team," you're not a Niner fan. I know the logic of that might escape someone of your intelligence, but there it is.
    Sep 28, 2011 at 8:21 PM
  • Ninerdawg
    I feel ya Jeff, I'm getting impatient too. I live in Texas, and I'm still getting ribbed by all these Dallas fans, and we had that game. I'm afraid that's just how we are going to look this year, with our current QB, and horrendous line, Harbaugh won't be able to do much this year. I hope, maybe he's thinking that since Josh Johnson, of Tampa Bay, his contract is coming up next year, he'll try and get him, and then install the WCO......I hope.
    Sep 28, 2011 at 8:09 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Thanks for the words of encouragement, Jeff. I'll still follow the Niners and I'll still be pulling for these guys. But I can't say I'm a fan, not of this team. When Kap gets his shot I'll watch. I'm a big fan of this kid. Great guy with Vick-type skills. I'm hoping Kap turns out to be our Aaron Rodgers. And for Billy B. I have a little tip for you that you might find useful. The next time you get up from the toilet, write crap on your left hand and no crap on your right hand. I don't want you to forget what hand you wipe your ass with.
    Sep 28, 2011 at 7:24 PM
  • Bill B.
    Jeff, I do appreciate your article, but I have to differ with you on this idea that Harbaugh is going to "grind." I think this season requires patience for the obvious reasons. In a normal year, there would have been countless off-season sessions installing the new offense. This year, Harbaugh will be installing as the season progresses. If you think about it, the last two games have both featured lots of new formations and at least a few interesting new plays. The Dallas game featured a double screen setup which would have gone for major yardage if not for a sack. The last game featured a tight end throwback that was such a new play that there was nobody within 15 yards of Davis when he caught the ball. I expect to see new plays and formations every week and by the time the team hits the second half of the season where most of our division games occur, I expect an interesting offense.
    Sep 28, 2011 at 7:22 PM
    Response: That's a reasonable theory, Bill. I truly hope you're right.
  • stef
    harbaugh is a smart enough coach to realize we won't be winning games until our passing game starts coming to. but he isn't stupid, he's not gonna throw our future investment kaepernick in just to try to accelerate getting more offense production, that would only make us worse now and even worse down the road. it's obvious the offense is being installed piece by piece and honestly i wouldn't have it any other way cause if he just threw it all in we'd be 0-3. idk if anyone's noticed a few of the new creative kind of plays they've run like gore's run right with the qb as a blocker and the early one at bengals with miller running left and catching a short pass, each one has gotten us substantial yards, more importantly on the first time we tried these plays. there may not be a lot more right now but this shows us that our playbook is no "nolantary" book. i think the players and coaches we are set up with now is proof enough, it isn't immediate, it doesn't even happen in months but once they've gotten that offense down and we can execute and move the ball the niners will be working on playoffs next.
    Sep 28, 2011 at 6:53 PM
  • RichS
    Romo went undrafted... He turned out pretty good...
    Sep 28, 2011 at 6:16 PM
  • Bill B.
    "Lucky Phil" is not a Niner fan. The most you could say about a guy like Phil is that he's a bandwagoner. Hey, the team's got to win or Phil won't root for it. What kind of a "fan" is that? No fan at all. Yes, Phil, by all means become a Raiders fan. Or, try the Packers - they win a lot of games these days. I like them a lot. But please don't pretend to be a Niner fan anymore. It's embarrassing.
    Sep 28, 2011 at 5:45 PM
  • The_Real_Randy
    Have you considered the possibility that Harbaugh is using Smith to teach Kap what NOT to do? I kid. I kid. Seriously though, given the fact that the 3rd QB on the roster is also a rookie I'm thinking maybe Harbaugh doesn't believe Kap is the answer either.
    Sep 28, 2011 at 5:37 PM

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