Aberration? Yes, or Maybe No

Nov 27, 2011 at 7:21 PM

Of course it was. The NFL just demanded too much. Hoping to guarantee a Thanksgiving feast for their fledgling network, the schedule-makers laid claim to the Har-Bowl. Understandable. But having us play at home on Sunday, limiting us to one day of practice, making us take our fifth trip to the east, and matching us up with a top contender on Thursday night? Diabolical, and insurmountable. Jim Harbaugh might've mixed his metaphors when he complained that we "drew the short end of the straw," but he was undeniably right. For the NFL Network, it was mission accomplished; the ratings indeed were its highest ever. For the Niners, though, it was an inescapable defeat, and thus it shouldn't trouble you. It was, in almost every sense, meaningless.

No. No it wasn't. Good grief, stop whining about the schedule. Our game on Sunday was against the Cardinals, who should be demoted to the lingerie league. Certainly, we could plan for John Skelton while taking a peek at the Ravens too. Oh, sure, we let the Cards hang around for a while, but putting ‘em away seemed hardly exhausting. And as for the travel, just give me a break. We flew to Baltimore, not East Timor; and a 5 p.m. kickoff was a whole lot better than our usual road start at 10 in the morning. Watching Harbaugh deploy these excuses while denying that he was doing so--"it's not making excuses, it's just the truth"--was embarrassing. So enough of the woe-is-us routine. The Ravens had lost to Jacksonville and Seattle, they'd beaten those lowly Cardinals by 3, and their supposedly fierce defense had given the Bengals nearly 500 yards. If you're as good as you think you are, you win that game. I mean, do you really think that beating the Packers at Lambeau will be easier?

Your expectations are insane. Fine, leave the schedule out of it. We hadn't lost in more than two months. We hadn't lost in regulation at all! Did you truly expect that we'd go the whole year without laying an egg? This is life in the NFL; aside from those Packers, nobody's perfect. The Saints can lose to the Rams. The Patriots can lose to the Bills. Weird, out-of-character losses just happen, and I'd rather take one against a contender like the Ravens. The point is, we were bound to hit a bump in the road, and ours was more understandable than most. We still can win the Super Bowl. Or have you forgotten 40-to-8?

You're just begging the question. The issue is whether this loss indeed was "out-of-character," and you're just assuming that it was. But was it? Ignore for a moment our lofty "power rankings," and think back to the preseason. Remember all your concerns? An offensive line that couldn't pass-block. A quarterback who was slow to decide under stress. A receiving corps without a reliable playmaker. And a D that generated an inconsistent rush and spotty coverage. The Ravens exposed each one of these. Nine sacks--a franchise record both ways--and nearly every pass-play a mess. Most were the fault of the line, which went back to sucking, but some were the fault of Alex Smith, who often seemed paralyzed. Not that he got much help outside, with Braylon Edwards living down to his reputation and Ted Ginn continuing to repel passes like a trampoline. Meanwhile, our pass-rush was nonexistent, and our secondary gave up more third-down completions than I care to recall. Sure, Harbaugh's smoke and mirrors worked for a while, but this was every bit the team we expected. This is who the Niners are, and if we make it to Lambeau--though that's a big if--we'll be lucky to lose only 40-to-8.

Logic, anyone? So let me get this straight. The Niners go nine-and-one. Our offensive line holds up beautifully against some of the league's most ferocious pass-rushes. Smith, in turn, blossoms into one of the league's best decision-makers. Meanwhile, our D becomes the league's best, period: impervious to the run and unbreakable by the pass. Yet the real Niners are the ones who lost to Baltimore, instead of the ones who are nine-and-one against everyone else? That's just absurd. Don't forget: as bad as we looked, we were still in the game. One marginal call gave the Ravens 3 points, another took away 7 from us, and there's your 10-point spread. So just relax, will ya? Next week, we'll get back to our nine-and-one ways, and the only thing we'll remember about Thanksgiving will be the indigestion.

You're just burying your head in the sand. See, this is why the Ravens game was so important. Four of our last five games are against the dregs of our division, and the fifth, with the Steelers, is at home. We should win out, and look good doing it. (Though Chilo Rachal, whom Harbaugh jaw-droppingly professed to "believe in," might have something to say about that.) The Ravens game was our last tough road game between now and January. It was our last chance to show how we respond to tough conditions, and we responded with our worst game of the year. Now we'll doubt ourselves all the way to Lambeau, no matter how badly we blow out the Rams.

Doubt?! C'mon. Harbaugh doesn't know the meaning of the word. You and all the naysayers might doubt, but our coaches and players will use it as fuel. Harbaugh wants your doubt. He feeds off it. As he said earlier, "The more against us the better." Well, there's plenty more against us now. And when Harbaugh says this loss will make us stronger, that's exactly why.

Oh please. Spare me your motivational mumbo-jumbo. We've been through that with coaches past. It doesn't amount to anything. What matters instead is planning and execution, and though Harbaugh still will be Coach of the Year, he was absolutely pantsed on Thursday. The Ravens didn't send extra rushers on every play; they just disguised their rushers brilliantly. That was enough to overrun our offensive line, and Harbaugh, perhaps doubting Smith's ability to make accurate throws on one- or three-step drops, simply made no adjustments at all. Make no mistake: our future opponents will copy this. They might not do it quite as well, and Harbaugh will be better prepared. (The Steelers game should provide a good test.) But we'll win only with better planning and execution, not with better motivation.

In the end, though, Harbaugh will not let a bad loss derail us. A lot of ink has been spilled on comparisons between this season and that magical year of 1981. In ‘81, you might recall, a hotshot ex-Stanford coach with an innovative offense shocked the league by going all the way with a band of misfits who had gone 6-and-10 the year before. Those similarities are eerie enough, but there's another one too. Going into our eleventh game in ‘81, we were eight-and-two, riding a seven-game winning streak. We played the Browns, who were four-and-six, and we played ‘em at home. Four field-goals were enough for us to take a 12-5 lead into the fourth quarter. But then we gave up 10, including a late field-goal by Matt Bahr (yes, that Matt Bahr), and we lost.

Afterward, the critics predictably questioned whether the coach's team had been exposed. Whether the league had caught on to the coach's maneuvers. Whether the coach's innovations could make up for his roster's average talent. Many were ready to jump off the wagon, and some just went ahead and did.

And the Niners didn't lose again.

What's happening here is much, much bigger than a bad showing against a strong opponent, on the road after a short week. Harbaugh will learn from it--he's too smart not to--and he'll make his team even better than before. And from this point on, nothing will stop him. The Niners still will win it all.

You know something...?

I think you're right.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • David Christ
    Best article I've read in a long time. Looking at both sides of the argument helps the conclusion make more sense even if we don't agree. Otherwise it just sounds like biased crap anyone can write. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this, thanks.
    Dec 6, 2011 at 10:36 AM
  • Terry B.
    Dan, anytime you give up nine sacks it was indeed as bad as it looked.
    Dec 2, 2011 at 7:31 AM
  • Lucky Phil
    Holy Smokes is this a Jeff Kaplan comment board? Not one criticism. Truly Amazing, I never thought I would see a week go by (after a JK article) where not one person would have a negative comment. Ok, Jeff I have one question for you. Please be honest with me. Were you trying to write an article that was impossible to criticize? Because if you were this was truly brilliant. Or after all these weeks and months of getting unfairly criticized and misunderstood did you have a mental breakdown and now are suffering from multiple personalities? Either way is fine. I just like to know if I'm still reading the Kaplan I know and love or some other guy.
    Nov 30, 2011 at 5:39 PM
    Response: Okay, Phil, I guess I've left you in suspense long enough. Actually neither of your theories is correct. I admit that this one is pretty much bash-proof. But as you've noticed, I'm not afraid of criticism, and I'll never write strategically so as to avoid it. If I'm writing strategically, that means I'm not giving you my true opinions, and if I'm not giving you my true opinions, then I'm wasting both my time and yours. So no, I was not trying to avoid criticism, nor have my critics driven me into any kind of psychopathy. Quite simply, as I was processing the Ravens game, I had BOTH of these opposite reactions. I wanted to believe that we just had a bad day under tough conditions, yet I couldn't help but think that we might've seen who we really are. Ultimately I chose to go with the "bad day" theory, in part because the alternative is so terrifying. But this back-and-forth actually took place in my own head. So all I've done is give you a peek at what it's like in there. As you can see, it's not always pretty, but I'm glad you enjoyed it anyway.
  • Lou Dunkin
    Lou Dunkin: from "Between the Knees". Here's my two inches for what it's worth. Braylon Edwards: I don't care if you have a bad leg and a bad shoulder. That's no excuse for not catching a football. Vernon Davis: Why in the hell are you constantly jumping in the air before you (try and) catch a football? You are the biggest, fastest SOB on the football field, when you jump in the air a strong breeze can tackle you. Keep your feet on the ground and run like a bull on jet fuel. Chilo ... Chilo ... Chilo ... my 82 yr old grandmother is a better speed bump than you. A. Smith: I love you. No player in the league gets hit harder than you and pops off the ground without a dent. You have Balls of Steel, young grasshoppa! Jeff Kaplan: Best damn writer on the webzone.
    Nov 29, 2011 at 5:29 PM
  • Celticraider
    Jeff, you have outdone yourself again! Best damn 49er sports writer. You always have substance and humor and uncanny insight. I wish the other boring writers could take lessons from you. Great job Kap. Now let's see a clean sweep of the following games.
    Nov 29, 2011 at 4:46 PM
    Response: Thanks again, Celt, and to all of you.
  • Double Hernia
    Lift with your knees. Go Niners!
    Nov 29, 2011 at 4:29 PM
  • ss49ers
    as bad as they played on thursday against the ravens, u have to look at the positive. they only lost by 10, any other team would have gotten blown out.
    Nov 29, 2011 at 3:53 PM
  • Jonas
    Wow, just wow, you should never write anything again, as someone said. That was a whole lot of something.
    Nov 29, 2011 at 3:07 PM
  • Dan
    That was an entertaining conversation. I don't recall reading someone talk to themself before, but it works. That wasn't as bad of a game as it looked like. We only lost by a non-interception, a hand on the shoulder, and nine sacks. The nine sacks were bad, but not likely to be the story of our season. I never did like Rachal on our line, he's not a very good pass-blocker. I honestly think if that game was played in San Francisco it would have been the exact same score going the other way; the Niners would have won it 16-6. The Ravens are a very good team, and everyone knew they were going to match up with us really well. I'm interested to see how we do with the Steelers on an extra day's rest and at home. Very good article Jeff, I hope from now on they all end with a line something like, "The Niners still will win it all."
    Nov 29, 2011 at 1:44 PM
  • Napoleon
    LOL why hello mr. "sassy pants" Kaplan! nothing says, "i want to be an edgy writer" like italicizing the first few ironic words of every paragraph! seriously though, this is a really well written article! good stuff, keep it comin! =D
    Nov 29, 2011 at 10:29 AM
  • Shane
    Jeff, great to have you back, fantastic piece, fun to read. Personally, I come away from the Ravens game encouraged (i side with the optimistic Jeff). the fact of the matter is we did travel 3 time zones on a short week against a good team. There is no denying that. This team obviously has some flaws, the two biggest being having an average QB (which ppl don't wanna hear) and a secondary that will give up yards, and at times 3rd downs. We did have a couple of crappy calls go against us, a good call but stupid play, a pick in the endzone and a gimpy WR. despite all of this we were in the whole game and lost by 10??? that is encouraging. It seems like it took a perfect storm for us to take a loss. Two biggest things: if we lose a guard we are screwed and Smith missed a TON of hot reads all game.
    Nov 28, 2011 at 7:57 PM
  • Lest49
    Look on the bright side. Could the Ravens have played any better... not much. Yet the QB stats were Flacco 15/23 161yd 1td 0int, Alex 15/24 140yd 0td 1int. But if Braylon comes inside and makes the catch and Chilo keeps his hands out of Frank's block Alex goes 17/25 250yd 2td 0int. I feel better now!
    Nov 28, 2011 at 2:41 PM
  • nick
    "Our game on Sunday was against the Cardinals, who should be demoted to the lingerie league" ^ that is funny !! I don't care who you are !
    Nov 28, 2011 at 12:19 PM
  • overthemiddle
    There are no excuses for that game against the Ravens. We were outplayed, period. Sure we had a short week but the great teams still find a way to win that kind of game. The fact of the matter is we aren't great but we are getting there. This past game bodes well for the future. The niners will learn from it and don't forget, that game was still within our reach into the fourth quarter. Nothing wrong with 9-2 and we are still a team that is learning. Watch out for next year, we could be awesome. Very nice article Jeff.
    Nov 28, 2011 at 10:37 AM
  • AJ Dembroski
    Kaplan, I've given you crap for not giving credit where credit is due; time for me to practice what I preach. This was one of the best, most creative, and most entertaining articles I've read in a while. Well done.
    Nov 28, 2011 at 9:56 AM
    Response: Thanks, AJ.
  • Ryan
    Jeff, I think you're right. Two things, I think this would have been more of a GPS game had we had a full week to prepare and had it not come on the heels of a long flight. Alex himself said (in the locker room) that they just did not have the time to prepare all the necessary protections etc. That said, Teddy Ginn's proclivity for dropping passes concerns me. I think we have a shot if we go into Lambeau Field. Seriously. This team is battle-hardened, has been through enough tough situations in getting to 9-2 and I really hope to see improvement as we march towards the Playoffs. Playoffs, who would have THOUGHT it? I'm still in shock. #Faithful
    Nov 28, 2011 at 9:39 AM
  • Youfamissim
    Chilo... coulda had Walker sub at rgt guard with better results. Some drop-offs are steep. Chilo reminds me of a game between Miami and NE a few years back when Dolphin center Tim Ruddy would drop into the fetal position after the snap. Chilo the Turnstile... couldn't find a way to put his body in front of a Raven... decided he wanted to be traded and played like it Thursday. When Oh WHEN will the D-Coordinator decide that a pass rush/blitz once this year may end all the 3rd down completions? The Dallas loss, the Giants game, and others hinged upon a 4-man rush when the line is tired. They played all game. Why not stop the "prevent", play for keeps, and perhaps salvage some time for a winning drive; rather than watching the opponent slowly march down the field? Arrrgh.
    Nov 28, 2011 at 9:07 AM
  • 49Legacy
    Jeff, this is probably your best work (at least that I have read). As I watched the game I wondered when is the pass-rush coming (especially on those 3rd down plays), also when are the adjustments on offense coming, whether it was 3-step drops or roll-outs to buy some time, neither one materialized....BTW, I remember 40 to 8.
    Nov 28, 2011 at 7:07 AM
  • Isaiah
    40-8. I had almost forgotten. That truly puts things into perspective.
    Nov 28, 2011 at 6:53 AM
  • Kerwin
    Firstly, to Adrian, NOOBODY!!! Secondly, Well written Jeff! Sometimes our memories about the past are like high school glory! Better than it really was. I was challenged by a friend earlier this year to compare Montana's yards per game avg. to Alex's. I WAS SHOCKED!!!
    Nov 28, 2011 at 6:10 AM
  • Terry B.
    How will Harbaugh's smarts make Chilo Rachal learn how to pass block?
    Nov 28, 2011 at 4:27 AM
  • Adrian
    Who writes it better than Jeff Kaplan??
    Nov 27, 2011 at 11:28 PM
  • M
    The 49ers didn't look prepared or have a game plan. Could it be he was giving a break to his brother who was fighting for a playoff spot? The 49ers have the division wrapped up. He looked pretty happy losing. The game plan looked like it was against the Colts and not one of the best defenses in the league.
    Nov 27, 2011 at 10:13 PM
  • Ulises
    My man, I believe in fate! There are great people on this team that will persevere and achieve the ultimate goal! Niners faithful, get ready...stay ready! Here we go...and it's going to be great!
    Nov 27, 2011 at 10:06 PM
  • GrizzlyAdams
    Seattle will be a tough road game. They're always good at home.
    Nov 27, 2011 at 9:40 PM
  • ladale
    Wow!! That was a lot of something.
    Nov 27, 2011 at 9:08 PM
  • dave
    Great article! It gives you something to really think about!
    Nov 27, 2011 at 8:58 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Pure Genius Kaplan. Your critics are thoroughly confused.
    Nov 27, 2011 at 7:32 PM

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