A Winning Formula, For Better Or Worse

Dec 27, 2011 at 12:58 PM

By now there's no mistaking it. It's no gimmick, and it's no fluke. This, instead, is the real deal, the truth behind the most startling resurgence in the league this year.

This is how the Niners win.

There are four easy steps. Step one: in the first half, score up to three field-goals, but no touchdowns. Step two: in the second half, score up to two touchdowns, with or without additional field-goals. Step three: play good defense throughout. Step four (for fans only): take plenty of anti-anxiety medication. (This author endorses Xanax.)

Five straight wins. All this way.

And none more important than the two last week. Having lost two of three, last week suddenly loomed like a reckoning. A tough opponent at home on Monday, and a Saturday trip to one of the league's toughest venues. Lose just one, and we'd lose almost everything: our well-earned place among the elites, our first-round bye, our legitimate shot at the Super Bowl. Lose just one, and we're just another pleasant story: a surprising start that eventually gave way to the predictable collapse. Thanks for playing; better luck next year.

But we won 'em both, the way we win. Against Pittsburgh, our first drive netted a first-and-goal at the two, putting us dangerously close to screwing up the formula. Fortunately, though, three plays netted minus-two, and we were able to limit our first-half offense to field goals for the sixth straight game. In the second half, we added the two permitted touchdowns--both, somewhat miraculously, in the red zone--and our D, aided mightily by the immobility of a certain quarterback, took it from there. The formula remained intact, and the fourth quarter was, for once, pretty much anxiety-free.

Seattle, though, brought us back to the basics. During an abysmal first-half, we didn't even sniff the end zone, and our lone field-goal was a 53-yarder. In the second half, we tied the game with another red-zone touchdown, and our D started to tighten the clamps. But though the formula would've allowed us to score a second touchdown to put it away, Jim Harbaugh flatly declined. On third-and-goal from the Seattle 13, he elected to run and then tack on a field goal. And after Seattle took the lead by breaking our record-streak of no-rushing-touchdowns-allowed--sadly, our punting team just gave it away--Harbaugh elected to run on third-and-six from the Seattle 24, settling for yet another three.

Despite the fact that kickers now routinely make field goals from damn near 60 yards away, Harbaugh settled for a two-point lead, casually demanding that our defense keep Seattle not only out of our end zone, but even out of our half of the field.

Someone pass the Xanax.

But once again, our D rewarded Harbaugh's faith, forcing a turnover as soon as Seattle crossed midfield. Even that wasn't quite enough, as our O couldn't muster a clinching first-down. But then our D snuffed out a last chance, and we'd earned another formula-win.

After each of these games, Harbaugh said something interesting. On Tuesday, after being put on the spot--perhaps unfairly--he said that he envisioned Alex Smith as our "long-term" starting quarterback. Now this, of course, might well be true, though discerning its meaning would require us to know how long he thinks a "long term" is. But it doesn't square, or doesn't square nicely, with what happened on those third downs in Seattle. With the season on the line in a very real sense, Harbaugh decided not to throw, choosing instead to put his D in an almost wildly dangerous state. (Which demonstrates, ironically, that "playing it safe" is anything but.) You might just say that he trusts his D, as of course by now he clearly should. But you must also concede: even after all these weeks, even after all these wins, Harbaugh doesn't fully trust Smith. (Though, in fairness, he likely trusts his receivers less; Braylon Edwards, we hardly knew ye.)

Naturally, Harbaugh can't say that. So he's forced to say what he said on Saturday: "we're always playing for touchdowns." I'm sure that's Harbaugh's usual philosophy, and this year we've seen it occasionally. When he fully trusts his quarterback, I think we'll see it constantly. But it doesn't square with those third downs at all. In other words, at least for now, it simply isn't true.

The issue, then, is whether we'll win the Super Bowl anyway.

That we truly can is a tribute to Harbaugh. Of course, the 2000 Ravens are the conventional example of a modern champion with a field-goal offense and a stellar defense. It's highly unusual, but it can be done. The Niners, though, are even more reliant on field goals, and our defense isn't quite as good. That here we sit at 12-and-3, clearly capable of beating anyone, merely confirms Harbaugh's singular brilliance.

But this doesn't mean that he's always right. Think again of that third-and-six, and let's put that same scenario at Lambeau next month. Let's say that Harbaugh bails out again, and gives the Packers that two-point deficit. Let's say that this time our defense falters, and the Packers hit on a last-second three. Let's say that we lose, knowing we'd squandered a chance to win.

Can you imagine anything worse?

No one can blame Harbaugh for having remaining doubts about Smith. Smith has had a very good year, much better than we had a right to expect; if what you want are touchdowns, though, Smith has yet to prove he's your man. Nevertheless, when we get to the playoffs, Harbaugh cannot let these chances go by: in actual fact, he always must be "playing for touchdowns." Of course, this wouldn't guarantee that we'd score those touchdowns; and even though we should take our shots, the field-goal brigade will likely continue.

It's almost unbelievable. In week one, David Akers kicked four field-goals against Seattle, and he just kept going. In week 16, with four more against Seattle, Akers set the NFL record for field goals in a season. For the Niners, a franchise that once deemed a field goal a sign of failure, the field goal has become our lifeblood. It's a risky formula. But in Harbaugh's hands, it's been, thus far, a winning one.

For better or worse, this is how the Niners win.

Let's just pray the wins don't stop.
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.


  • Don
    Still waiting on what you think about Baalke's picks. Still think you could've done better than he did?
    Jan 6, 2012 at 11:47 AM
    Response: Patience, Don. Let's put all our energy into these playoffs, and then (I think) you'll get the concession you seek.
  • Lucy Goosey
    Jeff, I love your romantic side. Let's make some magic this year. Go NIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRS.
    Dec 29, 2011 at 2:42 PM
  • Dallas Niner Fan
    David C. and Johnny I totally agree with what you guys said. I think that this season is like '81, the Niners' first super bowl. Remember when we played Pittsburgh that year. I never saw a team with a harder-hitting backfield than the Niners in that game back then. Go Niners!!!!
    Dec 29, 2011 at 7:42 AM
  • Johnny
    Jeff, i think this team and this season is eerily starting to resemble the 2010 sf giants. Bunch of misfits basically who are hated on by every writer nationwide. Play lots of close tight games due to the lack of offense but they play stellar defense and have a chance in every game. With a first round bye i really think anything could happen. This may very well be our year. Also remember the saints from a few yrs ago. Defending champs, played amazing all year especially brees then they get bounced in the first rd by SEA. Green Bay has a bye but they very well could be beaten in the 2nd rd.
    Dec 28, 2011 at 7:22 PM
    Response: I'm with you, Johnny. The cynical part of me is warning me to be ready for a blowout loss, but my romantic side is telling me that we're about to see a magical run.
  • David C.
    1 on the poor receiver play. Kyle Williams has been the only consistent receiver this year and his opportunities were too few to matter. Crabtree, Vernon, Ginn, and Edwards have all had big drops, some of them TD passes. I think Delanie's been more consistent than these 4 but he's had his moments too. This offense would be a lot different if it had a receiver who could catch consistently and stretch the field. I disagree that it's Alex in particular that Harbaugh doesn't trust, I think it's the passing game including the receivers.
    Dec 28, 2011 at 6:06 PM
  • Nick S.
    Jeff, regarding the Seattle game, you really need to take into account that the 49ers lost both Delanie Walker & Kyle Williams to injury. And with Braylon gimping around, I'm not sure how confident Jim Harbaugh was in Alex throwing to the remaining group of pass-catchers, especially when you consider Brett Swain probably hasn't had that many reps with the #1's in practice. I think it was wise to exercise some caution towards the end of that game and work the clock a bit.
    Dec 28, 2011 at 2:13 PM
    Response: Fair point as always, Nick. But we still had Crabtree and Davis, two generally reliable targets. We could've run a six-yard play with one of THOSE guys.
  • Dallas Niner Fan
    You know Jeff I don't think that Alex is the major problem with our offense. I mean everyone gives him heat but there were at least 3 dropped balls by our receivers and I can remember dropped balls earlier in the season in the end zone. In every case Alex had the ball right there. Another problem I see with our receivers is that they don't seem to know where the first down marker is. They catch the ball about 2 or 3 yards from the marker on second down and it's like third and 2 or 3 and of course we don't convert. How many times this season has Alex come back from behind to win a game? Now I understand that he can overthrow his targets at times and overall maybe his criticism is valid. But should we not at least discuss poor receiver play? I really think that this is the major problem.
    Dec 28, 2011 at 12:03 PM
    Response: Good point, Dallas. I don't want this article to be taken as an Alex-basher. As I said, he's been very good this year, much better than his receivers have been. If I had to go into next year with a new QB and the same WRs or the same QB and new WRs, I'd definitely choose the latter. But down in the red zone, the field is so compressed, no WR is going to be wide open. (At least not usually; occasionally you can trick the D like we did against Pittsburgh.) It's up to the QB to put the ball on a dime, where only the WR can get it. Now Alex has shown he can do this, but he isn't quite consistent enough. And I think this is what Harbaugh is most afraid of. If the only risk were a dropped ball, I think he'd take his chances and throw. But he can't stand the thought of a pick, and really that's why, by and large, we've "played it safe" on O all year. (Indeed, though Alex's low pick-total is certainly due in part to his improvement, our offensive approach has been at least as important, and probably more.) So no question, Dallas. The receivers haven't helped at all. But I still think that when Harbaugh ran on third-and-six, he was trying to avoid a mistake by Smith, not a mistake by a receiver. If we're gonna win the Super Bowl, though, I think he'll HAVE to trust Smith more.
  • M. Horner
    I'm starting to wonder, is Harbaugh that good, or did Mike Singletary just suck that much?
    Dec 28, 2011 at 7:51 AM
    Response: Can't it be both?
  • Josh
    lol. Go 49ers!
    Dec 27, 2011 at 9:37 PM
  • Matt
    You wrote: I'll admit that I'm not sold on Alex, but I don't think you can accuse me of having an "anti-Alex bias" when I'm asking for Harbaugh to have him throw MORE. You said that Harbaugh does not trust Alex, which is absolutely NOT supported by the body of evidence. Your off-base premise is clearly rooted in your anti-Alex bias. I am so sick of hearing how Harbaugh must be lying to the media about Alex because he can't possibly believe the positive things he says. Get over yourselves! Harbaugh does not lie to the media to get them off track. He says what he really believes or he says nothing at all. That is who he is. The sooner you get that through your heads, the sooner you can begin salvaging your shredded credibility.
    Dec 27, 2011 at 6:47 PM
  • Paul A
    Jeff, Forget the Xanax, this 9er team is better than porno sex! After those lost years of dull football, you have to love this stuff these guys are putting out on the field. I moaned and groaned for some exciting fooball and now here it is, just go with it! Truth be told, no one at the beginning of the year thought this team would be where they are today. Go 9ers!!!
    Dec 27, 2011 at 6:32 PM
  • 49erforlife
    well in the past alex was one of the best in the redzone.
    Dec 27, 2011 at 5:10 PM
  • Ron
    Harbaugh trusts Alex to run play action on 4th and 2 at the 40. He doesn't trust our redzone passing attack because 2 of Alex's ints have been down there. In this game, he played it very close to the vest and it worked. In another game, it might be different depending on the situation. I don't know what's in store for the future, but this season, he's created our identity, field position and a balanced attack with the occasional big play when we've lulled the opposing defense to sleep. We're operating at an 80% success rate with this formula. He's going to stick with it. He's very stubborn and confident about sticking with our gameplans. It's worked so far and if the breaks fall our way with a bye and a home playoff game, it's likely to take us to the NFC championship game. So keep your stock of Xanax up.
    Dec 27, 2011 at 4:06 PM
  • Tullhead
    Pundits keep saying, "what happens when they're in a game with a high-powered offense and then Alex needs to throw and score TDs?" But, one must also ask, what is the probability of that occurring? We've played 15 games and it hasn't happened yet. No team has gotten ahead of us by much (except the Eagles, I guess). We played some good offenses (Lions, Eagles, Steelers...) So, sure, we'd all like it if Alex was routinely passing for 300 yards, but it is what it is, and strangely enough.... we have a chance to make it to the NFC Championship game, if not the SB. Pretty good for coach's first year.
    Dec 27, 2011 at 3:28 PM
  • overthemiddle
    For the formula to work in the playoffs the defense has to play lights out. If not, field goals won't be enough. One thing, the Niners usually win the time of possession game and that goes to keeping the opposing offense off the field. I have been an Alex supporter from the get go but I am not yet sold on him. Or it may be the play calling. It is hard to argue with a 12-3 record but if one looks back at the three losses we could easily be 15-0. Oh by the way, I can imagine something worse - not being in the playoffs at all and not having that chance to beat the Packers and others. Hey doc two xanex for the playoffs please or I might be in for a heart condition.
    Dec 27, 2011 at 2:32 PM
  • Canadian Faithful
    Just win baby!! I don't care how the wins come, as long as they keep coming! Niner fans and media have been spoiled by the many years of style wins. This is a new era in football. Yeah defense wins championships. It may not be as sexy as Drew Brees touchdowns but I like the matchup with the saints in the playoffs. Niners have 22 starters that play within the system and win as a team. That is what their coaches instill in them and it works! Stop looking for the negative. Cheer for the positive and support their success. And most important.....don't point the finger if they lose in the playoffs. Embrace how far they have come in 6 months and look forward to building for the future.
    Dec 27, 2011 at 2:12 PM
  • Matt
    I think your premise is flawed. To that point in the game, SF had racked up 178 rushing yards. Why not see if your ground game can pick up the 6 yards for the first down? They had converted in similar situations multiple times during the season and were flat out rolling on the ground in this game. Plus, as you mentioned, the receiving corps was in bad shape in terms of injuries. Harbaugh put the game in Alex's hands in previous contests and Alex came through. He was just changing it up and hoping to catch Seattle off guard. Quite frankly, I think your typical irrational anti-Alex bias is showing through.
    Dec 27, 2011 at 2:11 PM
    Response: I'll admit that I'm not sold on Alex, but I don't think you can accuse me of having an "anti-Alex bias" when I'm asking for Harbaugh to have him throw MORE.
  • desert rat
    Atlanta settled for field goals last night vs. the Saints, who will probably be our divisional opponent. We saw how that worked out. Atlanta got blown out. While N.O. was scoring touchdowns, Atlanta continued to tack on the 3's. Think touchdowns. Throw the ball INTO the endzone. Works for the Saints.
    Dec 27, 2011 at 1:49 PM
  • telecat
    There is no way the 49ers go far in the playoffs without more touchdowns. It worked for the Giants in baseball for ONE YEAR. But it doesn't have legs because the game is about scoring. Alex is NOT the QB of the future, no matter how much his apologists squeal.
    Dec 27, 2011 at 1:41 PM
  • Deborah P. Downer
    You know what I love about this? You so badly want to write something negative about the 49ers and their "Winning Formula," but you can't, 'cause they're... winning. I (and probably many others) do agree with the subliminal message though: we need to score more touchdowns.
    Dec 27, 2011 at 1:31 PM
    Response: And that, by the way, is the full extent of my negativity.
  • ninefan56
    Sounds pretty similar to the SF Giants formula - tight defense, and just enough offense to win the game. I hope for the same results.
    Dec 27, 2011 at 1:27 PM

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