Just One Goal For Niners Now

Nov 15, 2011 at 1:55 PM

After two uninspiring wins--grinding it out against two bad opponents--my dissonance reached a critical mass. With our aerial assaults against Philly and Tampa now long forgotten, much was said and written about Jim Harbaugh's retrograde offensive approach. One writer put it this way: "In a pass-happy sport, Harbaugh has tweaked the West Coast offense to feature power running first." (I found this choice of words somewhat bemusing, as a West Coast Offense that features power running first is merely "tweaked" only if, by "tweaked," you mean "flipped completely upside down.") And according to Niners-QB-turned-ESPN-blowhard Trent Dilfer, Harbaugh would stick with this approach forever: "I don't think as long as Jim Harbaugh is coaching that team you're going to see a huge difference in philosophy. This is a guy who believes in establishing the line of scrimmage, shortening the game and leading with the run."

This, of course, is not what I had in mind when I was breathlessly celebrating Harbaugh's arrival. After all, my opposition to a run-first offense is what had led me to beat my drum, week after week, for the tarring-and-feathering of the man he'd replaced. A pass-first offense is more than the surest route to success in today's league; it's also the surest sign of the restoration of our glorious identity. Proof that Harbaugh truly is a disciple of Walsh.

Yet the contradiction was inescapable: Harbaugh's run-first offense was winning. Harbaugh's schemes, miles ahead of the cavemanism of recent years, actually succeeded in controlling the action. We were winning precisely the way that a run-first offense wins in theory but never consistently wins in fact: we were playing into the strength of our D, limiting the other team's chances to score, and scoring just enough for ourselves. The wins were ugly, but there were just so many!

This still wasn't Niners football, yet it was winning, again and again. In light of those wins, I trusted Harbaugh, yet I couldn't imagine this lasting forever.

Like I said, dissonance.

In the week leading up to the Giants, however, two developments augured relief. First, Frank Gore, who in those two sloggers had rushed 50 times--for nearly 250 yards--began his annual injury drama. Gore might be the greatest rusher in franchise history, but our addiction to him tends to carry a price. When he's healthy, it's just too tempting to use him like the bell-cow that he is. When he's hurt, the offense tends to open things up, and it tends, dare I say, to go for the throat.

Second, of course, the Giants questioned Alex Smith.

When Justin Tuck asserted that Smith's job was merely "not to lose"--implying that Smith was a dreaded "game manager"--he wasn't saying anything outlandish. Indeed, when Harbaugh asserted earlier that Smith was an "elite quarterback," he was clearly trying to have it both ways. By definition, when your offense is run-first, you're asking your passer to manage the game. A game manager can be good, or even very good; also by definition, though, a game manager can never be elite. Elite quarterbacks might be tough to describe, but these days they've got one thing in common: they don't play second-fiddle to running backs.

So Tuck's statement was supported by the evidence. But naturally Harbaugh, whose loyalty is exceeded by only his competitiveness, would take it as a challenge. "I'll check it out," he said with a grin, and thus the stage was set. On Sunday, much to my own relief, Harbaugh would prove that Dilfer was wrong.

And Smith would take his biggest step yet, toward proving that Harbaugh might've been right.

In the first half, while our D was holding the Giants to two field-goals, Smith was doing his best impression of a Jugs machine. Of the 11 plays on our first drive, Smith threw on 9. Of our 26 total offensive plays, 20 of ‘em were passing plays. And Smith was sharp, once again making smart decisions and accurate throws, even when going deep. Oh, sure, a touchdown would've been nice, and maybe we would've gotten one if Ted Ginn hadn't tried to catch a ball with his face. But there was no mistaking the "huge difference in philosophy," or the fact that Smith, with a huge assist from this night-and-day offensive line, was up for the task.

In the second half, more of the same, with Smith passing on six of the nine plays that led to another field-goal by the incredible David Akers. The Giants managed to take the lead, but Smith showed his newfound poise as he hooked up with Vernon Davis on a 30-yard score and with Michael Crabtree for the 2-pointer. After a quick pick by the equally incredible Carlos Rogers, Kendall Hunter seemed to blow the game open. But the Giants went on to hold the ball for almost the entirety of a nerve-wracking fourth quarter, erasing half the deficit before the simply ubiquitous Justin Smith got a paw on a last-minute fourth-down pass, a handful of yards from the tying score.

Afterward, the Niners couldn't contain their conceit. Harbaugh defiantly reiterated that Alex Smith was "a top-flight quarterback" who just "keeps proving it." Smith observed that he'd "managed" yet another victory, giving his critics a cheeky eff-you, which those critics, myself included, couldn't help but admire. Is Smith truly an elite quarterback? No. Elite quarterbacks produce yards and touchdowns at rates that Smith might never attain. But this was a genuine milestone. Against a top opponent, Smith directed a pass-first O from beginning to end, and, as Harbaugh said, "he delivered." Smith is good--good enough for us to win--and I was proud to see him prove it.

But I was even prouder to see Harbaugh prove his genuine philosophy. As Greg Roman put it, "we were kind of hoping to keep that a secret as long as we could but I guess it's out of the bag now." Indeed, and thank heavens. Harbaugh didn't "tweak the West Coast offense to feature power running first"; on the contrary, he's preserved Walsh's pass-first vision, but he's added a more powerful running dimension. He still might go run-first at times, perhaps more often than I would prefer. But he isn't hamstrung by some stubborn insistence on "leading with the run." Instead, he's built an offense so shockingly versatile that he will lead with anything, whatever will keep the defense off balance. It's Niners football, but Niners football 2.0, and though it's not always pretty like Walsh's original, it's total genius just the same.

With these questions resolved, the bar of expectations is officially raised. In delirium like this, it's easy to lapse into satisfaction. This miracle was so unexpected, now we're betting the house's money. So no big deal if we don't win it all; we're ahead of schedule, we'll get ‘em next year.

Now that thinking just won't do.

Suddenly, we've got everything we need. And though the future still looks bright, we cannot count on having it next year, or the year after, or the year after that. We've got it now, right now. And we cannot stop. We cannot settle. It's time for us to get very serious.

The entirety of our focus must be on one goal. The only goal that's worthy now.

The Niners now must win it all.
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.


  • Dallas Niner Fan
    The debate about whether Alex Smith is an elite QB, although an interesting one, totally misses the point. A point that the media did not pick up on. When Jim Harbaugh made the comment at a press conference that Alex is an elite QB the debate began and is still raging. Ah, but a sly guy this Mr. Harbaugh. I don't believe that Harbaugh really believes it. Well, maybe he does but again it's not the point. What Harbaugh did by making that point was pure genius. You don't think that the confidence of Alex Smith went into the stratosphere and that the comment told Alex in no uncertain terms that the coach had his back? This was planned by Harbaugh all the way to use the media to prepare his QB mentally for a big game. Have not seen the likes of this psychological genius since Jimmy Johnson coached the Cowboys. Remember? Jimmy was always an expert at psychology and using the media to prepare his team mentally. I think that Harbaugh has taken this craft to a new level and I am really liking it. Go Niners.
    Nov 17, 2011 at 8:23 AM
    Response: No doubt, Dallas: though Harbaugh's schemes have been a huge boon to Smith, Harbaugh's BELIEF (or at least his professed belief) has helped him just as much.
  • JT
    Finally an article by Kaplan that isn't full of filth lol jk Jeff keep up the good work.
    Nov 17, 2011 at 1:15 AM
  • Dan
    Yeah, Singletary wasn't a very good coach, neither was Nolan. I think it is also becoming increasingly clear that Trent Baalke is an amazing GM, and Jed is a pretty good football club owner. I wonder if the Jed/Trent haters are ever going to admit that? Singletary has been gone almost a year now and people are still talking about it? Jeez get over it. The past is gone, and the future is pretty freaking bright. You know who sucks? People who live in the past. Yeah, you know who I'm talking about.
    Nov 16, 2011 at 1:29 PM
  • M. Horner
    One thing that's becoming increasingly clear is just how much Mike Singletary sucked. How could he not do anything at all with these guys? My god, did he suck. Just big, classic, epic suck. I wonder if the Singletary homers will ever admit that.
    Nov 16, 2011 at 11:42 AM
  • AJ Dembroski
    The "West Coast" offense is NOT "pass-first" by definition. One of Walsh's central tenets was the ability to run or pass in any situation. This was considered "pass first" for its time, but only because everyone else was run-first. BALANCE is the key. The only one of Walsh's Superbowl teams that passed more than it ran was the 1981 team... all of the others ran more.
    Nov 16, 2011 at 10:36 AM
    Response: Actually, all THREE of Walsh's Super Bowl teams ran more--as did the 1989 team--which just goes to show, it's not how MUCH you run, but when. And if you don't agree that the WCO's "central tenet" is to pass to set up the run, rather than vice versa, I'm not sure what to say. I guess I'll let John Madden say it: "Bill's legacy is going to be that he changed offense. Offense before Bill Walsh was run, run defense, establish the run. Run on first down, run on second down, and if that doesn't work, pass on third down. Bill Walsh passed on first down, passed on second down and used that to set up the run."
  • PackerFan
    Congratulations to all Niner fans. Your long dry spell seems to be at an end. No matter who you cheer for, the 49ers are now legitimate contenders. Jeff summed it up well: "The entirety of our focus must be on one goal. The only goal that's worthy now." Bring your long-johns for the championship game. As in 1997, win or lose, it will be a great game.
    Nov 16, 2011 at 9:14 AM
  • ninersush
    kaplan good article. i've been thinking about alex's performance lately and i'm kinda drawing shades of how the currently great crop of quarterbacks/teams developed. for example, when brady or rodgers first started they weren't prolific QBs like they are now. Instead they made plays when they had to and incrementally got better. There were games they flashed talent but they didn't go from 0 to 60 in a season. They did show they had that "it" factor, were accurate, and could move the ball when needed. Alex is starting to show those qualities. I'd like to see more accuracy from him but i think that will come along as he breaks the shell of bad built on him by previous idiot coaches. Further the team can win these ugly games which is a great sign. To be able to grind and muddle through games is what we want to see. That shows they are mentally tough, will hang in there til the end/play all 4 quarters, and most importantly make plays at the end to win games. So what we're really doing here is going back to what we came to expect of the 9ers in the previous era of glory. And really is there any other way........Superbowl or bust..... God Bless the 9ers & everyone else too.
    Nov 16, 2011 at 9:06 AM
  • ART
    If the definition from Mr. Kaplan, "An elite quarterback produces yards and touchdowns," is correct, why are Carolina, the Eagles, the Bills, and many other teams that have their QBs making tons of TDs and yards losing? An elite QB plays for winning - not for yards or TDs. I never heard anyone complain about how Terry Bradshaw managed the Steelers in the 70s.
    Nov 16, 2011 at 8:10 AM
  • GoldandGarnet
    Jeff, Great article! I think you hit the nail right on the head. Our O is so versatile it could really lead to anything. Also, don't you get the feeling, every week, that they are always "cooking something up" for each opponent? Onside kicks, unique shifts that cause offsides, counters to the weak side, WR screens, really........REALLY!
    Nov 16, 2011 at 4:27 AM
  • ninefan56
    Thank you Jeff for another interesting article. The Niners are winning because they are playing well, they have good players, and now have good, creative coaches and a good system. They are not winning because you have willed them to play football your way. I hope to see the Niners continue to develop in all phases of football, and I truly hope that Smith and company can pull off a winning season and then play deep into the postseason and if all things click it would be fabulous for the team to go to the Super Bowl. In any case one more win will give us something we haven't had for years, a winning season. Then we can work on the playoffs and then the championship and then hopefully we will go to the super bowl. At each level we have a reasonable chance of beating any team including Green Bay. So go Niners.
    Nov 15, 2011 at 9:32 PM
  • Coach Aheeb Rabeeb Smuka Sumba Heeb Hard
    Oh F8ck yes! That's the best Article I have read this year. Forty! Forty! FORTY! Ninerrrrs!
    Nov 15, 2011 at 7:37 PM
  • Ryan
    Jeff, Welcome back. I'm a fan, a genuine fan, and I'm with you. Smith is good enough for us to win, and I expect the improvements to continue. Remember, he is still not in sync with #15 fully yet, AND, Braylon is yet to REALLY go down the field aside from the slant which he was held on. There's more to come from us, and we will be VERY dangerous come playoff time. Question, two more games like Sunday, do we sign Alex back? I mean, how can we NOT? #Faithful #NinerNation
    Nov 15, 2011 at 6:13 PM
    Response: I'm starting to agree. Whether he comes back as the long-term starter, a second-year bridge, or even the back-up, he's a legitimate quarterback, and you just can't have too many of those.
  • since1954
    "The Niners now must win it all." A necessary implication: the Niners must win at Lambeau Field in January. There is no detour around it.
    Nov 15, 2011 at 5:53 PM
  • Scott
    Welcome back Jeff. Nice to have you on board again.
    Nov 15, 2011 at 4:31 PM
  • Darius
    Great read! Go 49ers! Win it all!
    Nov 15, 2011 at 3:53 PM
  • Celticraider
    Jeff, I've got to hand it to you. You are best niner writer out there. Your perceptions and article content are always the most provocative, your insights profound (although not always correct), and your writing style the most articulate, humorous, and enjoyable. You are a breath of fresh air - Thank you. AND yes, the niners have to win it all or come damn close. Harbaugh and company are brilliant. The decade-plus of suffering is finally over! I have watched the niners in Kezar and candlestick and have not felt this exhilarated since Eddie and Joe and Jerry and Ronnie stole our hearts and showed us what football greatness was.
    Nov 15, 2011 at 3:35 PM
    Response: Thanks for your kind words, Celtic. I'm grateful for your support.
  • MJW
    I've commented many negative things about your writings in the past. I've always said you would be a pretty decent writer if you ever just added a little "brightness" to your writings. On one hand I want to tell you "I told you so" but on the other hand I always understood your points, but just the constant downness of your writings was too much to bear. I'm glad you are finally coming around and seeing the light. You've had your doubts, and you've stuck to your guns respectably, but you/we are starting to see what's really going on here. That is, good decisions from the top of the ladder in Jed, Trent, and Jim (who you really were pretty harsh on). Those decisions had a trickling effect to our 8-1 record. Hell, even as a die-hard Smith supporter, I must admit it is nice to not have to gasp for air every time Alex steps back to pass. I now get excited knowing that something great could happen any time he steps out. I have to give much credit to Harbaugh for that. It's just nice to see the Faithful come together and quit battling. We have been so divided over everything the past 7 years, and it's nice to be one as a fanbase again.
    Nov 15, 2011 at 3:26 PM
  • Matt
    I would agree that the definition of "elite" is somewhat elusive with many people having differing ideas. For myself, I think elite status has more to do with longevity. On any given Sunday any QB can rise up and play at an elite level. But to be an elite QB you have to play at a high level for a long period of time to the point where that quality of play can be expected week in and week out. Manning has been somewhat inconsistent since his Super Bowl win so I can understand why many say he is not elite, even though he is having a great season. Likewise, I don't consider Smith to be elite at this point, but if he continues to consistently perform at this current level it is very possible he could get there.
    Nov 15, 2011 at 3:22 PM
  • Bill
    Please Mr. Kaplan! Please! "A pass-first offense is more than the surest route to success in today's league; it's also the surest sign of the restoration of our glorious identity. Proof that Harbaugh truly is a disciple of Walsh." Walsh passed to SET UP THE RUN. That's the main tenet of any WCO. You don't chuck it down the field on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd down. If you check the stats closely, you'll be shocked to find out that the celebrated Bill Walsh offense ran more than it passed -- and that is especially true in 1981. Where on GOD'S GREEN EARTH do you get this idea that Walsh was lighting it up all over the field? He wasn't, Jeff. The pure WCO was dink, dunk, run, run, and run some more. What you are seeing out of Harbaugh is EXACTLY what Walsh did in 1979, 1980, 1981, etc. What you remember is Jerry Rice and John Taylor lighting it up all over the football field. What you fail to grasp is that was mostly under Seifert -- not Walsh. Mostly -- not all -- but mostly.
    Nov 15, 2011 at 3:21 PM
    Response: Bill, I understand that pass-first means pass-first, not pass-always. And yes, passing first (or, if you prefer, running second) is the main tenet of the WCO. And no, that's NOT what Harbaugh was doing for the better part of our first eight games.
  • Bryan Baldeon
    Exactly. Where we're at now, no one expected this. We can't be complacent with the wins we have now but the team has to keep on getting better for that one goal. This is Harbaugh's team and will be for the next decade. Greater things are yet to come.
    Nov 15, 2011 at 3:02 PM
  • Jarrod
    I knew you had it in you to write a complete article without any negativity!!!! Great article and hopefully the end is what is being said in the locker room. Who's got it better than us? NO ONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Nov 15, 2011 at 2:51 PM
  • Erec
    F*CK YEAH! (though I would counter that we still can't say definitively that Alex isn't an "elite" QB. He certainly was the picture of dominance in college. Go back and look at his TD-INT ratio. When he's comfortable, he's damn-near perfect. And it looks like he's starting to get real cozy. I wonder if he's got skills in the kitchen, because I think he might be serving up a whole lot of crow in the near future.)
    Nov 15, 2011 at 2:40 PM

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