The Niners Are Back, and They’ll Blow You Away

Oct 11, 2011 at 5:00 PM45

This was the moment. The moment that sealed it.

Fourth quarter. The Niners had simply dismantled the Bucs, beating ‘em every conceivable way. The score was 34 to 3. David Akers kicked a 46-yard field goal to put the game even more out of reach. Penalty, though. On the defense. Leverage.

Let's see here. What should we do?

Three weeks earlier, faced with an eerily similar decision, Jim Harbaugh had declined a first down that would've given him a chance to kill an opponent, and he had paid for it. Here the opponent was already dead. Yet THIS time--perhaps egged on by the Bucs' chippy play--Harbaugh showed us how much things had changed.

Harbaugh decided to kill ‘em again.

On the very next play, Alex Smith threw a touchdown pass, his third of the day. And the Niners, officially, were back.

After Dallas, the buzzword was "identity." Apparently unwilling to inflict his own--an identity of almost violent aggression--Harbaugh seemed to be groping around. Waiting, it seemed, for his players to pick an identity for themselves. So during the following game and a half, his players groped around as well, looking lost in a meandering murk.

Then they played that second half. Down big in Philly with nothing to lose, they threw caution to the wind, staging a comeback so focused in its energy, so inspired in its power, you could almost sense the collective discovery.

For Harbaugh in particular, the discovery was this: They're ready. Ready to reach out and CRUSH someone.

Against the Bucs, they didn't wait. Set up at the 50 by another excellent Ted Ginn return, the drive went as follows. A quick Smith pass to Frank Gore for six. The obligatory Gore-up-the-middle-for-one. Another quick pass to Gore for 12. And a deep, perfect pass to Delanie Walker for the score.

Passing first. It just works.

And just as you'd draw it up, this aggressiveness rubbed off on our defense, particularly the secondary. Torched last week by Michael Vick's aerial circus, the coverage was almost literally attached to the Bucs' receivers. Carlos Rogers and Chris Culliver picked off passes on consecutive drives; Rogers scored on the first, and Smith cashed in on the second when another deep pass drew a flag at the goal line. The Bucs' defense started to sag, and that's when Gore started sapping their will. Yet Smith continued to lead the way, hitting Vernon Davis for two more scores, proving you CAN take points off the board.

And Harbaugh didn't even stop there, passing on fourth-and-three to set up a touchdown whose sole purpose was to humiliate. He paid for this one, with Josh Morgan's ankle, but dare I say that he bought something more. As Harbaugh put it, his eyes blazing: "We're not taking a knee with four minutes left in the game."

These, at last, are Harbaugh's Niners.

Of course, an aggressive identity is one thing; executing it is another, and we've got no choice but to give some props to those main recipients of our abuse. Aided by Harbaugh's versatile schemes, as well as Smith's quick decisions and this general infusion of nasty, the offensive line was virtually perfect. A tougher test lies ahead next week, but, yeah, against the Bucs, these guys surely did not suck.

Which brings us, inevitably, to Smith himself.

It's pretty clear that Smith will never fill up a stat sheet. Even in THIS game, which he thoroughly dominated, he completed 11 passes for 170 yards. The touchdowns spiffed up the quarterback rating--where good God he's now third in the league--but Smith just isn't a numbers guy, and that's likely the way it'll always be.

But my word, the difference is real. Truly, unbelievably real. His reads, decisions, and accuracy, not to mention his command and confidence: everything exponentially better. In past years, things devolved to the point where there was a sense of doom every time he dropped back. Now that sense is upside down; an incompletion is met with surprise, and an interception would be downright shocking.

It's way too soon to say that Smith is once again our QB of the future. Something tells me that eventually we'll still need more than Smith can give. But we can't deny this simple truth, which once had seemed unthinkable:

We can run a pass-first O, and we can win with Alex Smith.

But the bigger story, of course, is Harbaugh, and his restoration of the Niners' identity. As you might know, for years now I've been agitating about getting back to our glorious roots. Not only winning, but winning the way the Niners SHOULD win. Winning the way that once was uniquely our own. Winning the way that once made us special.

You see, I'm a Niner fan, truly I am, but my fandom is somewhat complex. It's not any better or worse than yours; it's just complicated. Sure, like you, I love the Niners. But just as much, I love the Niners in the abstract. Not only what they are, but also what they should represent: a style, a vision. The ultimate melding of mind and muscle. Genius, which will kick your ass.

The Niners wasted years and years, trying on these strange identities that just didn't fit. Some of us feared that the real Niners, the true Niners, might've been lost forever. But on this glorious day, Jim Harbaugh delivered a stirring message. A message fueled by a primal rebirth. A message that said, beyond any doubt:

We are the Niners. And we will simply destroy you.
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.


  • louie
    It feels great, after all these years, having the 49ers at 5-1 and playing like a team that has earned respect. However, although he has improved, Alex Smith has played a small part vis-a-vis quarterbacks on other successful teams. The Ravens won the Superbowl with Dilfer, and the Giants won with Hostetler, but the odds of Alex Smith taking the 49ers to a Superbowl are very slim. So, let's enjoy the ride (playoffs?) for as long as Gore stays healthy and Alex plays better than his past history (and better than he played against Detroit). And let's hope Kaepernick is, at least, a QB that will be considered among the more talented young QBs we see around the NFL.
    Oct 17, 2011 at 11:11 PM
  • Chris Platt
    Lol, settle down Schwartz. All I'm saying is that guys like you (Terry B.) probably can't wait for Alex to do something wrong so can hop back on the hater train and say, "I told you so." Alex is far from a pro bowl QB geez man you're just so damn negative.
    Oct 17, 2011 at 12:25 AM
  • Terry B.
    Yeah, you're right, Chris. Just because I'm not ready to call Alex Smith a great quarterback five games into the season after he's stunk up the field for six years means that I WANT our starting QB to fail. You've got me all figured out.
    Oct 15, 2011 at 11:08 AM
  • Dan
    Terry B. I think it's rational to think of Alex not in terms of what he was, but what he has become. I have always seen Alex as a really young quarterback with less skills than his draft pick position indicated. It goes deeper than even that with Alex and I will skip the ugly complicated history. What it comes down to is that Alex has never completely been defeated. He has collapsed and imploded quite a few times in some really ugly games in equally ugly fashion. But he has always bounced back eventually before getting his butt kicked again somewhere else. No, he has never been a great quarterback and I don't think anyone who was defending him was looking at his past. Because looking at his past performance, he wasn't very good. If it was a lack of coaching support, lack of offensive line, lack of experience, whatever, he wasn't good enough to get beyond it. Some guys have always seen some potential in the guy, so they backed him up, they still back him up. My point is, I don't think it was irrational to say Alex could someday be a good quarterback given the right conditions, whatever those conditions might have to be. I think those conditions might just be having a coach like Jim Harbaugh. Maybe any guy with a halfway decent set of abilities can become a very good quarterback with Harbaugh's help. There really isn't any evidence to even refute that. So to answer the question is it rational to determine that Alex Smith is a good quarterback based on the five games he has played this season, my answer is it is rational to determine he is a good enough quarterback to win games in Harbaugh's offense. He's already been doing it, and it's likely he will continue to. The reason it is different is a combination of superior coaching he did not have access to in the past, and experience. It is reasonable to say that given enough experience and proper training a guy can become a good quarterback if he has a decent set of skills and abilities to begin with. I don't think it's unreasonable given past history to hold reservations about the future, if you are worried he may revert to past difficulties. But it's also not unreasonable to acknowledge that he has learned something in the past five games, but even more in the past five years that has helped his game tremendously. He is just as likely if not more likely to continue to get better as have something happen to reverse his fortune. Neither way of thinking is irrational, it's just a matter of how you think. Are you conservative, always expecting the worst of people until you see results? Or are you proactive, always seeing potential in what people can do if they are given the proper support? Neither way of thinking is 100% right or wrong 100% of the time. One way of thinking has a higher ceiling, and one of them has more potential for mediocrity. It's up to you to figure out which is which.
    Oct 15, 2011 at 10:59 AM
  • Chris Platt
    If you ask a reasonable fan Greg if Sing was a good coach, their answer would be probably not. Lol, ok, we're not idiots here. My only issue is with the people like you and Kaplan who continue to beat a dead horse. There is no reason to constantly trash the guy. It's over, he's gone, we have a new coach. We're all excited about the Niners' start but it's a long season and Smitty, as we all know, is capable of returning to his old form much to the pleasure of guys like Terry B although I think he'll be fine.
    Oct 14, 2011 at 9:09 PM
  • Greg
    I never thought Alex Smith was being coached by anyone with a clue. He may not be a great quarterback, but he has talent. Harbaugh has unlocked Alex Smith, which has indirectly unlocked 12 young talented draft picks from the past 7 drafts. The unlocking of Smith has just touched the tip of the iceberg. No more defenses blitzing every down and playing the run every down. The defense will get better too as they will no longer be asked to defend with opponent drives starting in the red zone.
    Oct 13, 2011 at 5:44 PM
  • Terry B.
    Wait a minute, it was irrational to determine that Smith was a bad QB based on six years, but it's rational to determine that Smith is a good QB based on five games?
    Oct 13, 2011 at 9:28 AM
  • M. Horner
    One thing that's becoming abundantly clear is just how bad Mike Singletary sucked. I wonder if the Singletary homers will ever admit that. He had essentially this same team and look how bad he was. My God did that guy suck. Just total, complete, epic suck.
    Oct 13, 2011 at 7:43 AM
  • Pierce Baker
    Face it.... let's be men here... Although your negativity was fit for the past years understandably... You were wrong about Smith... come on now... a couple months ago you wrote a whole article about how Smith was going to be gone next year... Granted Harbaugh is a genius... but admit that Smith is a good quarterback... that's all I ask.
    Oct 12, 2011 at 3:44 PM
    Response: Don't get greedy, Pierce. Smith is playing very, very well, much better than I ever thought he'd play. That should be enough of an admission for you. For now, anyway.
  • Deborah Downer
    I'm disappointed in this article. I wanted the "Doom-And-Gloom" Jeff. I wanted him to complain about something, even though the Niners won.
    Oct 12, 2011 at 1:31 PM
    Response: Sorry to disappoint, Ms. Downer.
  • Dallas Niner Fan
    "But on this glorious day, Jim Harbaugh delivered a stirring message. A message fueled by a primal rebirth. A message that said, beyond any doubt: We are the Niners. And we will simply destroy you." Great writing that is poetry to my ear. You deserve the nobel prize for sportswriting on this one. I got goosebumps, man. It's great to be a Niner fan right now. Great article my friend.
    Oct 12, 2011 at 1:06 PM
    Response: Thanks, Dallas.
  • Alden Brown
    Part of the style and vision that is part of the Niners in the abstract, though, is the class of Bill Walsh. Even when he put up 55 points on you, no one ever questioned that Walsh was a gentleman and a good sport. Harbaugh has a ways to go in this department. For all of his outstanding traits, he does carry the reputation of a punk who will go for two when he's up by 35 in the fourth quarter. I can't agree that we "gained something more" by passing on fourth and three with a 38-point lead. We had already established our identity by that point. Would you rather have 41-3 and Josh Morgan for the rest of the season, or 48-3 and Josh Morgan on injured reserve? I agree with Jeff wholeheartedly that you need to be as aggressive as all hell in building and maintaining a lead. But being as aggressive as all hell when you're blowing out the other team at the end of the fourth quarter? That's just dumb. Only bad can come of that. Jeff loves Harbaugh's quote that we aren't going to "take a knee" with four minutes left in the game. But no one is suggesting a knee. How about a handoff to the third-string running back instead of breaking the ankle of your top wideout? Doesn't that work? Also, what are you afraid of, Jim, that your defense will give up 45 points in 4 minutes? Is THAT what you think of your defense? Before anyone jumps down my throat, I'm not really faulting Harbaugh here. The blowout wins have been few and far between, so this playcalling was understandable. I just hope that these types of wins will become sufficiently commonplace that we can rest our stars at the end of games and become secure enough in ourselves to take a knee at the five-yard line in garbage time. Risking top players in garbage time is certainly not indicative of the "genius" that Jeff seeks, and hopefully it won't be necessary once we put the identity question to rest.
    Oct 12, 2011 at 12:07 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Holy $hit how about these Niners! Who knew we had a bad-a$$ football team like this? In just 5 weeks and a short pre-season Harbaugh did what the Snake Oil Salesman and Nuts Dingleberry couldn't do in 8 years. Which brings back some troubling memories of the seasons lost. Back on Oct 30th of 2008, Mike Singletary during halftime of his first game as interim coach dropped trou. Let's look back on that eventful day from the players' perspective. Eric Heitmann: "Is this another version of the nutcracker?... because I'm not going for this". Joe Nedney: "Does he want me to go for two?... because I'll kick those phuckers through the uprights". Alex Smith: "Ok, I'm lost. Can someone explain this?" Shaun Hill: "I think coach is looking for his keys... someone tell him it's only halftime". Joe Staley: "Let's give him a minute... I think he is demonstrating a new blocking scheme. The left testicle is the X and right the O... and he is blocking his left testicle with the O...". Frank Gore (front row): "I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel... here". Have a good week everybody!
    Oct 12, 2011 at 12:05 PM
  • Bill
    I'm a bit mystified that it happened this quickly. If you look back, before the wheels came off, it was clear that the team needed to rebuild. Although it was still a good team, it had fallen from the '94 "championship quality" team. In case nobody noticed? We've rebuilt. Lots of young players on this squad. Young and VERY GOOD players. We've had seven years of high draft position to restock this team. It shows.
    Oct 12, 2011 at 9:51 AM
  • Bravo Jeff
    Well Jeff, we are all glad to see you back from the abyss.
    Oct 12, 2011 at 9:35 AM
  • Dan
    Why you gotta be so negative?...
    Oct 12, 2011 at 8:57 AM
    Response: Har har.
  • AJ Dembroski
    ...for the record, I'm not asking Kaplan to take back everything or to proclaim Alex Smith the best QB in the NFL by any means, but I get the sense he is qualifying every positive mostly because of his past criticism, especially his criticism of Harbaugh for bringing him back. I've never seen a QB go an entire game without a mistake, and Alex Smith is no exception. The fact remains he's completing 66% of his passes for nearly 8 yards an attempt and is 2nd in the league in interception percentage. The only reason his overall numbers aren't that impressive is that he's ranked 29th in the league in attempts. Had he the median number of attempts this season for a starter, his stats project to 111/169 (66%) for 1,301 yards (7.7 ypa, 260 ypg), 9 touchdowns and 1 interception.
    Oct 12, 2011 at 8:13 AM
    Response: ...and for the record, self-preservation isn't why I provided the qualification. Trust me, I'm as happy as I am amazed that Smith is playing so much better. I'm just not ready to extend his contract, that's all. If indeed he does maintain this level of play across a more typical number of attempts, well, then, we might have to get very serious.
  • AJ Dembroski
    In the case of both potential interceptions, it seems very likely that what was supposed to be a stop-fade was run as a standard go or fade. Alex has been very accurate this year, I have a hard time believing he suddenly threw two immensely stupid passes after having done so little of that all season. In both cases, a stop-fade probably would have been complete... or at least on target.
    Oct 12, 2011 at 8:03 AM
    Response: More importantly, he rebounded from those throws (which were both on the same drive) and finished with another perfect scoring pass. Maybe not a perfect game, but really, really good, by any standard but especially Smith's.
  • Frank, great article. I watched this game...and as it wore on, I dared not leave the couch for a single minute, or I'd miss something remarkable. After that stirring comeback in Philly, this team could've gone high or low. By that I mean, after such an emotional comeback to literally snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, they could've let down. But, Harbaugh would have none of that...they were sky high going into the Tampa game and literally kicked their tails...all day. Love the fact Harbaugh never let off the accelerator...for he knew his team needed to destroy someone. Tampa just happened to be the unlucky opponent. It sets up what should be quite a contest in Detroit this Sunday. Two teams who've sucked for a long time are now two of the hottest teams in the NFL. How cool is that. There's no Harbaugh we trust. This man is driven...and he's driving this long-time underachieving group toward something special. After 10 years of suffering, ain't it cool...
    Oct 12, 2011 at 8:00 AM
  • Jeremy
    AJ, maybe he can't give credit without qualification because qualification is still called for. This isn't Aaron Rodgers we're talking about. The following is from the completely neutral site "San Francisco - Three things of note: 1) The curious case of Alex Smith: I wondered aloud early in the game if it was really possible that Jim Harbaugh had fixed Alex Smith since becoming 49ers coach in the off-season. I asked this because Smith opened the game more or less perfectly, with some good reads, positive check-downs and then an extremely good touchdown throw to open the scoring as he hit Delanie Walker in between three Tampa Bay defenders in the end zone. At this point I was busy making a case for Harbaugh to be coach of the year based purely on that, but then of course the old Alex Smith reminded people he was still there. Smith wasn't bad, as he has been in the past, but he had a pair of interceptions dropped and seemed to have spotty accuracy at best on some throws. Maybe Harbaugh hasn't fixed Smith, but he might have him playing just well enough not to lose."
    Oct 12, 2011 at 7:45 AM
  • charles
    all alex needed was someone believing in him--thanks coach!!
    Oct 12, 2011 at 6:18 AM
  • AJ Dembroski
    You STILL can't give Smith credit without qualification. Lost in the numbers talk, you failed to mention that had he as many ATTEMPTS as, say, Aaron Rodgers had, he'd have broken the 300 yard mark. He came out early from a dominating performance, and when he was playing, he was spectacular. Indeed, the best QB performance of the week... he simply had too few attempts to rack up huge yardage numbers. Give the man some credit WITHOUT a "but" for once.
    Oct 12, 2011 at 5:10 AM
  • Terry B.
    For some reason, I keep hearing in my head Harvey Keitel's classic line from Pulp Fiction: "o.k., gentlemen, let's not all start suckin' each other's d**ks just yet."
    Oct 12, 2011 at 4:07 AM
  • Soulman45
    Will get ready for a beatdown when you get to THE GREAT DETROIT LIONS Lions 35 49ers 13
    Oct 11, 2011 at 10:44 PM
  • edmond
    You wrote: "The ultimate melding of mind and muscle. Genius, which will kick your ass." I agree. When things are tough for the 49ers, as they have been for years prior, I wish you were a bit more agreeable. Reading chicken scratch that is 'call-it-like-you-see-it' is unbearable and sickening. This is refreshing. You've earned one cool point, Kaplan. You have a lot to go. One step in the right direction, which sold me on this team, was one small thing that happened against the Eagles. Not the comeback, but what happened during a second-half drive. One random play: Bruce Miller's catch in the flat hammering his way beyond the first-down marker. It just looked right. It looked like a team to beat, and it reminded me of... RATHMAN!!!!! Our team is playing like a team, and as a few of the faithful have said already, enjoy this, and 'join the party!'
    Oct 11, 2011 at 10:13 PM
  • russsalmon
    I'm a longtime niner fan and very pleased by what I's still early in the season and some of the comments are overzealous. Harbaugh is trying to let you know that by deflecting the heaping praise the 49ers are getting. Davis and Gore would be wise to cut the comments alluding to the other team quitting. We are ending a long run as one of the worst teams in the NFL...........let's show some class and not forget the humility we just suffered.
    Oct 11, 2011 at 9:31 PM
  • Ted
    Now did it hurt? With so much negativity going on in this country, watching a football game is such a welcome escape. I've followed your articles the last two years and felt the same frustration from the ineptness of the past 8 years and oftentimes agreed with your criticism of our team, but reading a positive or constructive feedback "once in a while" is always a welcome respite from all the obvious deficiencies pointed out by writers like yourself. I honestly didn't think you had it in you, thank you.
    Oct 11, 2011 at 9:27 PM
  • LionTech
    Extremely eloquent. You perfectly articulated my sentiments about Sunday's game. I generally think that these are the best times to be fans of a team. We have suffered through a bleak decade, and to be on the cusp of relevancy again is extraordinary and rewarding. Our faith is paying off.
    Oct 11, 2011 at 9:13 PM
  • cliff green
    Nice article! I've been a Niner fan since the mid 70's and have seen some pretty bad coaching (Clark, Meyers, Erickson, etc.) and one of the best, Coach Walsh. It's really good to finally get a coach that has a plan and a fire inside and that wants to be the best at what he is doing!!!!! I was talking to a former player before the season started and he said "Don't be surprised if the team does very well this year, maybe even the playoffs. Coach Harbaugh knows what he is doing, and pays attention to the details, and can explain why and how a play works." He evidently knew then what we are seeing now, that JH has a plan!!!!! And I am sure having fun watching OUR 49ers play again. LET'S GO NINERS...............WE'RE BACK!!!!!!!!
    Oct 11, 2011 at 8:29 PM
  • AJ Bolino
    Good stuff amigo. It's a lot more fun dissecting a blowout win isn't it? :) Looks like Smith has turned a corner. He made throws that he just hasn't made in his career on Sunday.
    Oct 11, 2011 at 7:48 PM
    Response: Thanks, AJ. Wow, you and I, in total agreement. It truly must be a new era in Ninerland.

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