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The Niners Have Entered...The Dead Zone

Dec 13, 2011 at 4:19 PM

Ted Ginn settled under the punt, at the Arizona 44. He made the catch, dodged and weaved, and then he broke into the clear. He crossed the Cardinals' 30, the 20, the 10, and all the while a strange sensation crept into our heads. As he moved ever closer to pay dirt, our excitement was subsumed by a stronger anxiety. Having watched this team struggle, week after week, to score the TD that would put an inferior opponent away, we were screaming one collective prayer:

Score, Ted. Please, please score.

Alas, Ginn was dragged down at the four, along with our spirits. For nearly every team in the league, and certainly for every contending team, this is still an easy TD. But for the Niners, who had scored only 3 touchdowns in their last 16 red-zone trips, nothing is easy. And so the series played out, pretty much as you would expect. An incomplete pass, at Braylon Edwards' corpse. A run for a loss. And another incompletion, into traffic.

And here came David Akers, again. Last week, Akers had set a franchise record for field goals in a season, with a full quarter of the season to go. An impressive achievement, I suppose; certainly Akers has been a machine. But only an offense as gut-wrenching as this could ever allow that record to stand.

Congratulations, David. But I'm simply sick of watching you kick.

As if this one wasn't awful enough, we went on to repeat it, not once but twice. Now trailing 7-6, Alex Smith dropped back from the Cards' 45 and threw a short pass to Vernon Davis, who broke a tackle and started racing for home. (You might've forgotten that he was still playing, but sure enough, here he was.) Same prayer (please score), same result (this time at the 13), same dread. Two passes gained seven yards, a Smith run lost three (?!), and Akers, again.

Three plays later, Dashon Goldson intercepted a pass at the Cards' 33, and off he went. Same prayer (please score, dammit!), same result (at the 16), same dread. After a first down at the four, two throws at Ginn--who simply cannot catch a pass--and Akers, again.

At the half against the Giants, we led 9-6. Against Arizona at the Stick, 9-zip. Against the Ravens, we trailed 6-3. Against the Rams, 9-zip, again. And now we led the Cards 12-7. That's more than a month without a first-half TD. In a tidal wave of Akers kicks, this offense is drowning.

Of course, save for the Ravens game, which we'd largely dismissed, we'd never failed to blow the game open. And here it looked like we'd do so again, when Frank Gore finally answered the prayer with a 37-yard run on our first play of the second half. But then the roof caved in at last, with three-and-outs on our next six drives (except of course for a four-and-out). Meanwhile, John Skelton, whom we'd completely befuddled just three weeks before, simply ravaged our exhausted D. The Cards scored three touchdowns, the same three scores that we'd left on the field. And by two stupid, measly points, they won.

They say that winning is the best deodorant. But now, at last, we stunk.

Now that we're done celebrating our playoff berth, it's time to face some difficult issues. Needless to say, the offensive line is struggling; Gore's breakthrough aside, it isn't opening inside holes, and the blitz pickup still seems amiss. Then again, when a D routinely sends the house, no line can really block everyone; the rest of the O must make 'em pay. Smith was once among the best against the blitz, but now he's being overwhelmed. Sure, his receivers don't get open enough, but he's gotta either tuck it and run or throw it away--anything but simply stand there. Of course, when a receiver does get open, and Smith is able to get him the ball, making the catch would help us a lot. (Assuming, of course, he can locate the ball; Ted, I'm looking in your general direction.)

Not that the coaches are helping much. Jim Harbaugh must've known that his future opponents would copy the Ravens, yet he shockingly looked no better prepared. Where are the quick hitters? The one-steppers, the slants and the screens? Making no adjustments in Baltimore was puzzling; but still having made none two weeks later...seriously, am I missing the excuse for this?

These issues are only magnified in the red zone. Needing a touchdown up close in Detroit, we spread 'em out and hit on a slant. Now, it seems, every formation is bunched up tight, and we're throwing fades that require virtually unattainable combinations--for us, anyway--of accuracy, separation, and hands. Our odds might improve if we were throwing to Davis, Michael Crabtree, or Kyle Williams. Instead, we're repeatedly counting on Ginn and Edwards' corpse, with predictable results.

Look, we know our players have limitations; Harbaugh's already gotten more out of 'em than we ever had a right to expect. You could argue, then, that maybe this is simply it. Overloading the box, selling out to stop the run and rush the pass, is usually risky. You leave your secondary exposed, and an accurate passer, in rhythm with his receivers, will use quick-strike passes to pick you apart. But maybe Ds have figured us out: against us, there's no such risk; against us, they'll shut us down. So maybe this is all we are. A long TD, and a slew of threes. Good enough to win some games, but a Super Bowl? No, not yet.

Obviously, we could use some more talent. But that's not my biggest concern right now. My biggest concern, at least right now, is actually much more disturbing.

I still believe in Harbaugh, but I just don't understand what he's doing. As opposing Ds have tightened the screws, Harbaugh has seemed unable to adjust. Fake field-goals aside, his schemes seem to be getting less creative, rather than more. And weirdest yet, he seems unaware of even who his best players are, much less how to get 'em the ball.

A coach's job, it's often said, is to put his players in the best position to win. After some early-season bumps, Harbaugh was doing this brilliantly. Lately, though, not so much.

Our red-zone drought is Exhibit A. Frankly I've never seen anything like it. This team, which once was imbued with unshakable confidence, now looks like it just knows it can't score. With each failed trip, the pressure mounts, increasing the odds that the slump will continue. The trouble had been brewing for weeks, but the wins were enough to keep it at bay. That was the time to work it out, before it started to mess with our heads. Now we're losers of two of three. The locker room is starting to grumble, and a strong opponent is up next week.

We're 10-and-3. But right now our players don't trust themselves. Harbaugh must fix that, immediately. Or the worst thing of all might happen next.

They might lose their trust in him.
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
    The Steelers are not a great team. If the 49ers play well (if the offensive line earns their paychecks) they should win.
    Dec 18, 2011 at 8:48 PM
  • Shane
    Great piece as always Jeff, it's funny, you know you will be called out and told to "chill" when you write this bcuz we are 10-3 and we shld just be happy we have gotten this far. But that's not what the 9ers are. we are not supposed to celebrate bcuz we had a winning season, a small taste of success has brought back the cravings of the good old days!! And THANK YOU for telling it like it is. This team has real concerns, we can't score!! For as much as Smith gets praised for his lack of red-zone picks we need to begin looking inside that stat. While watching the ravens game tonight i watched Flacco zip a ball basically into double coverage to Dickson, and he went up and got it for the TD. my very thought at that moment was Smith wld nvr throw that ball, thus nvr get that TD, and we have VD!! I really think he needs to start letting it loose down there (and the coaches need to get more creative... a fade to Ted Ginn is a waste of a down). I'm insanely optimistic about tomorrow night, seriously i must be crazy, but i think with extra time and study, i still trust in JH! i got the 9ers 17-13.
    Dec 18, 2011 at 8:43 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Thanks for your response Jeff. I was curious to hear what you would say on the subject. Baalke and Harbaugh will have a big decision to make at the end of the season concerning Smith. I just don't think he will sign a short-term contract but if Baalke can get Smith to sign a contract with very little guaranteed (Gore contract) then that will be what the niners do. Looking forward to the playoffs. If we make it to the NFC championship game that would be a blast. Playing the Packers to break their undefeated streak would be quite the challenge.
    Dec 17, 2011 at 4:54 PM
  • Edd
    The problems on offense are fairly obvious. But don't forget the defense. Fangio not blitzing is a problem because the 49ers' secondary really isn't that great. Yes, the 49ers are monsters against the run, but NOT against a passing attack. This is why a G.B. or N.O. would smother the 49ers. There is personnel work needed on both sides of the ball. (I would still start with QB) :)
    Dec 17, 2011 at 8:18 AM
  • milehigh49er
    I can't believe you said we need more talent. Seriously, did you just say that? Have you watched a game lately? Or at least peeked at the roster? We're stacked. With some consistent O-line play we'll be fine. We're 10 n freakin 3. I'm sure you're one of the people that was sittin back n talkin s@#t before the season. Then once they started winning, you jumped back on the bandwagon. And now that they lost a few games you're running your mouth again like you shouldn't be. What a joke.
    Dec 16, 2011 at 4:13 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    I wanted to ask your opinion Jeff, and the readers what suggestions they have to improve the team next yr. Here's my take: The defense is set, if we bring back Rogers and Brooks next yr. But offensively we need weapons: Edwards has been hurt. Ginn is hopeless in the passing game (goodbye), let's draft Greg McCoy to take his job in the return game and give K. Williams more playing time today. Trade Crabtree for a #1 draft pick in 2013. Draft M. Sanu next yr. who is the real deal comparsion to A. Boldin. Draft Barrett Jones in the second rd. to play RT. Move A. Davis to RG. He has had two seasons at RT and doesn't play with the consistency you need to keep that position. Iupati will get better in the passing game, Staley is fine at LT. Snyder is a guy I try and resign and give him a shot at C/RG. Resign J. Morgan with a long-term deal and try to pick up some speedy receivers late in the draft. Make a trade to grab another 2nd rd. pick to get B. Weeden. I really like A. Smith but he has reached his ceiling. We need to take a chance next yr. and let Kap and Weeden battle it out for QB. Both Weeden and Kap can get rid of the ball quickly and throw with accuracy. Alex can't.
    Dec 15, 2011 at 6:12 PM
    Response: Wow, Phil, you're way ahead of me with all those names. In general, though, I think that on D we'll still need another CB, even if we re-sign Rogers; whether Culliver starts or stays at #3, I've had enough of Brown. Also, don't forget FS, especially if Goldson leaves. On the OL, I can foresee Kilgore moving in at RG, but I'm sure there won't be any further changes; Davis still drives you nuts sometimes but there's no denying that he's taken a big step forward this year. As much as I loathe Ginn as a WR, a return specialist is a valuable commodity, and he's about as good as there is; I'd like him to stay at the right price. At QB, even if Smith never gets better than this, decent QBs are rare enough that he still has value. So I wouldn't mind bringing him back, but this talk of a big, rich extension needs to stop; Kaepernick should get a chance to compete for the job. Without question, though, our greatest need is at WR; go ahead and re-sign Morgan, but we simply MUST get a field-stretching threat.
  • Diego Del Barco
    Arguably your best piece ever Jeff, nice balance and voice throughout and hitting the nail on the head.
    Dec 15, 2011 at 9:20 AM
    Response: Hey, thanks Diego.
  • Charles wu
    I have a theory, and it is only a theory. JH and company know 2 things: 1) we can play run up the middle, complete short high-percentage passes, and play good (normally great) defense. 2) High-powered throwing offenses need time, more time than we have, to really click. The games we were winning I think the run/pass was slightly shaded toward run with something like 20 more runs than passes, the last 5 I believe have switched that state dramatically with about 50 more passes than runs, I think if you include the 5 sacks Smith tried passing something like 35-40 times. I THINK what JH is doing is 1) trying to develop that downfield threat so that we can a) keep defenses honest and b) develop and evaluate our deep-threat playmakers. 2) He is testing Alex Smith, we all know A Smith might be re-signed but we haven't seen enough of what he can really do, if the game is on his shoulders alone. We have now seen him struggle and succeed and JH is taking his time, now that we have the playoffs locked up, to really evaluate the guy in pressure situations. I know he has done pretty well, but I think what JH didn't foresee is Braylon Edwards and Ted "no hands" Ginn playing like shit.
    Dec 14, 2011 at 11:02 AM
  • M. Horner
    At least Harbaugh isn't Mike Singletary. He would probably run up the middle three times from the 13. Man did that guy suck. Just big, classic, epic suck.
    Dec 14, 2011 at 10:03 AM
  • 49erLegacy
    Jeff, unfortunately you are right. I do not mean that as hating to agree with you, I say it because I hate what is going on. You would think that the necessary adjustments are going to be made in-game, but they don't materialize. People need to stop with the "Harbaugh is holding back" argument. The Arizona loss could turn out to be very costly for the playoff race.
    Dec 14, 2011 at 8:58 AM
  • Jeremy
    I wonder if AJ will write a column entitled "Arrow Down: Niners Lose Big in Arizona."
    Dec 14, 2011 at 7:03 AM
  • Lucky Phil
    Liked the article, hated the game. Here's my suggestion for Roman: Figure out how to attack the blitz. Here's an idea. Try releasing the RB to the field where the blitz is coming from. Instead of having the RB pick up the MLB or CB, run right by them to the vacant area on the field. That means the RB lines up closer to the line of scrimmage and as soon as the MLB or CB crosses the line of scrimmage he only chips the blitzer running right by. Also Roman or Alex if they can guess which side of the field the blitz is coming from (before snap) run receivers to the opposite side of the field dragging the defense with it. This will create open field for the RB. If you break a pass for twenty yards to your RB, BLITZ IS SOLVED! Roman if you can solve this problem you're 90% of the way there. Pitt is going to use a lot of stunts with their LB's to the inside. Over and over again this year the center/OG's don't read the inside stunt. And you leave gaping holes between the center and the guard. (Piece of advice for Alex, don't try and run from a CB blitz.)
    Dec 13, 2011 at 8:05 PM
  • Cdiddy
    I drove 14 hours to watch this game, needless to say I was very disappointed. But it gave me plenty of time to think; I get the feeling that Harbaugh is holding back, keeping plays under his belt until we play the big boys. We should've been able to beat the cards soundly running a "vanilla" offense but honestly I think the niners thought they would win by just showing up. I still have faith in Jim and this team but they got caught with their pants down, I'm pretty sure F.P. Soft snuck into the building despite the security. Probably due to too much positive press. Monday is a playoff game for all intents and purposes so I expect to see the best our team has to offer. Go Niners!
    Dec 13, 2011 at 7:46 PM
  • jet444
    What's Anthony Dixon doing waving flags on the sidelines? Use him in the red zone. I hope Harbaugh is not being stubborn for his own good. Dixon can be used as a decoy inside the 5-yard line or in the power sweeps or runs. Leaving him on the sideline makes little sense. Always lopping the ball to the left hoping Edwards catches it is becoming a joke. Try the right side occasionally. Three game-time opportunities to fix this CONUNDRUM.
    Dec 13, 2011 at 7:45 PM
  • mississippininer
    Really Kaplain...where are your posts when we are winning? You only come out when there is a loss and spew these misguided and slanted rants that just make the true fan gag. Come on dude, it is one game. Where were your comments after the tampa game, where were your comments after the eagles, the giants, or the lions? You were just waiting till we lost a game to say, "see we are not that good." When we beat the Steelers I want you to come on here and talk about how pessimistic your view of OUR Niners is.
    Dec 13, 2011 at 7:28 PM
    Response: I posted comments on each and every one of those wins, and almost all of my comments were wildly optimistic. So maybe you should actually READ my stuff, including all my posts "when we are winning," before you go running your mouth.
  • Two Cents
    It's funny you mentioned Ginn's punt return at the beginning of your article. I was thinking the same exact thing. I hope he takes it to the house, but I knew he wasn't going to do it. And as soon as he got tackled at the four yard line, I said there is another field goal. This offense is pathetic. And it's not just this game, it's every game except for the tampa bay game. The receivers are so bad, A Smith has to throw three TD passes to get one. How in the hell does Ted Ginn lose a pass (unable to locate) that was thrown 50 yards? The football is as big as your head. Next time try looking in the air for a second or two. Instead of looking at the ground behind you, like a jackass that doesn't know his pass route. START CRABTREE AND WILLIAMS. Forget about Ginn on offense, he is useless!
    Dec 13, 2011 at 7:08 PM
  • jet444
    Even to the most cursory observer, Harbaugh's ingenuity stops at the 'red zone' where touchdowns are a scarce commodity. In fact one touchdown out of four field goals would have put Arizona away for good. The reason is predictability. A bunched power running game has limitations in tighter spaces. Again, lopping the ball to the left hoping Edwards makes a play is also quite predictable. Solution: utilize run sweeps to both right and left, passing and running the ball from spread formations, short screens, and occasionally lopping the ball to the right might just work.
    Dec 13, 2011 at 7:00 PM
  • Terry B.
    Frederick P. Soft meet Alex P. Suck.
    Dec 13, 2011 at 6:03 PM
  • overthemiddle
    Finally, you have stated what I have tried to convey to others, we still have problems. First, we seem to move the ball just fine till we get into the red zone. We are getting first downs and we are winning time of possession which makes the defense better. You hit on what I was thinking - adjustments. They are not adjusting to what the other team does. I don't understand why Harbaugh and his coaches are not making the adjustments. I refuse to blame AS for this as he has been money up to this point. I've never seen so many dropped balls in the endzone before all year long. The red zone needs to be fixed, we have a good team and good coaches. If this problem is fixed we will be a Super Bowl contender, as we can play with anyone. If not, well..........
    Dec 13, 2011 at 5:43 PM
  • Platt
    Haha I love it. We lost a game! Abandon ship! Don't resign Alice! O my gosh players may lose trust in Harbaugh after spiraling to 10-3! Come on Kaplan!! You have been the most schizophrenic sportswriter in the NFL this year. And so have truly misguided sports fans like BBthekitty. First it was bashing Baalke...and look what happened. Then it was blasting on Smith...and look where we are. The list goes on and on. Now we have a fan who wants to sign a 2nd string QB, ditch one of the most consistent and efficient QBs in the NFL this year, and dump one of the most explosive TEs in the league. This is why I'm glad people like you two don't run franchises. We are sitting here at 10-3 in position for a 1st round bye and I read this crap. I do agree that the red zone frustration must be addressed going forward but why don't we just chill out and take a step back from the panic button.
    Dec 13, 2011 at 5:25 PM
  • Keith M. Rudder
    Excellent article. Now, if only Harbaugh reads this article so that he knows how the fans feel about the playcalling and/or the execution of the plays!
    Dec 13, 2011 at 5:04 PM
  • BBthekitty
    First step in the offseason - sign Josh Johnson. Second step, do NOT re-sign Alice Smith. Third step: sign a true #1 receiver, through the draft or FA. Fourth step: draft or sign a true receiving tight end. Last step: Do NOT re-sign Alice Smith.
    Dec 13, 2011 at 4:53 PM

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