For those who were expecting some kind of improvement. For those who were waiting for some kind of change. For those who were seeking some offensive development, the Niners delivered a strong early message:


Indeed, the Niners picked up right where they'd left off. Oh, sure, Frank Gore went up the middle for 40, about 39 more than he usually gets, but on the whole the offense remained in dire need of an enema. By halftime, Alex Smith had completed 8 passes for a typically mundane 90 yards, and the Eagles had turned his fumble into a last-minute touchdown. The Eagles had scored only 20 points, thanks to our bent-but-not-broken defense and one of the stupidest things ever done on a football field. Still, down 17, what possible hope did we have?

The sight of Colin Kaepernick warming up, after a foot-wetting first-half cameo, provoked a tinge of desperate excitement; was this, at last, the end of Smith? Once again, no, but at least we changed our offensive approach. Now forced into catch-up mode, Smith threw deep, hitting Josh Morgan for 26 yards. Our blocked field-goal led to an Eagles field-goal, but clearly now we were passing the ball.

On our next drive, something clicked. On second-and-6 at his own 24, Smith dropped back, pulled the ball down, and rolled right. Surely that Smithian classic, the heave out of bounds, was to come. But instead, Smith kept his eyes down the field (!) and located Kendall Hunter, who dashed 44 yards. Two plays later, Smith hit Morgan on a very West-Coast-looking slant, and Morgan went 30 yards for a shockingly easy score.

Of course, we'd already seen this show, actually more than once. A stodgy first-half. A big deficit. An offense with no choice but to open things up. A furious comeback. And, the script says, an oh-so-close loss.

Across Niner Nation, we readied ourselves for another installment.

After a Philly three-and-out, Smith threw one of his best passes ever, hitting Michael Crabtree between two defenders for 38 yards. Four plays later, a strike to Vernon Davis for ANOTHER quick score, and just like that, the margin was six.

The Eagles, though, were racking up yards, and Michael Vick hit should've-been-Niner DeSean Jackson with a 60-yard bomb. Our defense stiffened, but a field goal would make it a two-score game. The kick was wide right, and after we punted and Philly again drove the length of the field, so was a SECOND kick.

It was then that you thought: maybe, this time, the end will be different.

With the pass having loosened the Eagles' D, Gore and Hunter (at last a worthy second punch) cut deep gashes. Gore for 25, Hunter for 14, and Gore for a dozen more and the go-ahead score. Once again the Eagles drove, once again needing only a field goal, but once again they self-destructed, fumbling away the game.

For years we'd been waiting, forced to settle for moral victories. Forced to take solace in merely playing contenders close. At last, though, we'd beaten one. In thrilling fashion, we'd beaten one.

That said, the big story here wasn't really the win. Indeed, aside from a healthy injection of luck, there wasn't much difference between this comeback and those earlier ones that had fallen just short. The big story here was the revelation that seems so obvious everywhere else but seems so tough for THIS franchise to comprehend: When you open the offense, you move the ball, and you score. When you don't, you don't, and you don't.

The question now is whether Jim Harbaugh will learn.

This game refuted the popular notion that our offense had been conservative only because Harbaugh hadn't installed anything fancy. It's not like the players hadn't seen these pass-plays until halftime in Philly; the plays were always in the book, but, as many of us had suspected, Harbaugh just didn't trust his players to execute. His run-first offense thus was borne not of necessity, but of timidity.

Through the first three games, he'd largely gotten away with this. We'd been in every game throughout, so there was no compulsion to open things up. Here, though, the halftime deficit did the trick. He had no choice but to fire away, and Smith, thank heavens, rewarded him.

Once again, though, we've been here before. Smith was magnificent in the second half: 13 of 17 for 201 yards and the two scores. But don't forget, two years ago, he was just as good in the second half of his comeback game in Houston: 15 of 22 for 206 and THREE scores. There we didn't win, of course--the Texans actually MADE a late field-goal--but we were excited for what seemed to be the dawn of a new offensive approach, and thus the dawn of an age of real hope. A certain writer put it like this:

"[T]his exciting new offense does not accord with [a certain coach's] boring offensive philosophy. He loves to run to set up the pass, but by now he must know that it can't work here; he simply lacks the offensive line. He must know that he can't keep his now-explosive passing game under wraps until it's 21-zip [or, say, 20 to 3]. He must use it early and use it often, and once he's stretched and loosened the defense, THAT'S when he'll be able to gash it with runs. [The coach has] proven he's willing to change. We'll really be onto something, Coach, if this means your philosophy's changing too."

As you know, the philosophy DIDN'T change. And now that certain coach is gone.

Harbaugh isn't a caveman, right? So, now that Smith has shown he can handle this, Harbaugh won't stubbornly stick with a stagnant run-first approach, right? On the contrary, Harbaugh will come out firing, right from the start, and we'll see, at least mostly, the offense we'd expected.


Smith wouldn't necessarily run it perfectly, of course; we've seen great halves before, and they've never amounted to much. But at least we'd be free of this face-palming paradox, the new coach running the old coach's offense. At least we'd really begin to build.

So, though I never thought I'd need to do this, I'll make the same plea to Harbaugh that I made to his predecessor. The passing game is what wins, Coach, whether you trust your players or not. You mustn't keep it under wraps. You must use it early and use it often.

If Harbaugh learns this, we'll get much more than a statement win.

At long last, we'll get on our way.