For the second time in the 2012 season, the San Francisco 49ers were served up with a humiliating loss.
The template for beating a team formerly known as practically unbeatable was established with a loss to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2 and reinforced with the blowout by the New York Giants in Week 6.
All an opposing team has to do to beat the 49ers is stop the rushing game in the first quarter. Harbaugh has shown that he will abandon the run and concentrate on the 49ers weaker game: the pass.
This strategy is so successful that it is hard to ignore. It will be replicated by nearly all of the opposing teams for the rest of this season. Whether the 49ers finish above 8-8 or on top of the NFC West is in question.
It is an axiom of professional football that a balanced attack works best and a one-sided strategy often results in losses. In previous wins, the 49ers' run/pass ratio was almost perfectly balanced; in both losses it was lopsided and the passing attack failed to win the games.
It is not pretty, but those are the facts.
Jim Harbaugh is being served plates of unwanted humility at the hands of older, more experienced coaches. His inexperience in NFL football is beginning to become clear. In both losses this season, he has been out-thought and out-fought in the trenches.
In both losses, his game faltered at the line of scrimmage as the opposition wore down the 49ers’ offensive line and then overran them almost at will.
The reason that the balanced attack works best is as much physical as it is strategic. Offensive linemen thrive when executing rushing plays because they get to go on the attack and push forward. The techniques used in rushing plays are less stressful and physically taxing for the offensive linemen than they are for the defensive linemen.
You can wear down a defense until they become ineffective. Most rushing yards are made in the fourth quarter.
It is a matter of physics. Passing plays require the offensive linemen to back pedal and contain a rush of 300-pound people to the quarterback. Pedaling backward while fighting off a heavy attacker takes more energy than driving forward.
Try this experiment yourself. Find some stairs or a hill. Walk up and then down going forward. Now turn around and do it backward. Point made. The human leg is designed for forward movement, and all the conditioning in the world does not change that fact.
In the latter part of the game, an offensive lineman that continuously protects on passing plays tends to tire and become less efficient.
At the same time, the defensive linemen gain the advantage in raw energy as the game goes on and tend to become more efficient. The quarterback has less and less time to get a solid pass away and is more prone to interceptions and drops. The strategy breakdown makes the quarterback inefficient.
Being held to a few yards during the first quarter does not mean the rushing attack will not succeed during the fourth quarter. Teams with great coaches and great rushers know this and depend on it.
Continuing the rushing attack, even when it is not working, has two advantages: First, it tires out the opposing defenses faster than it tires out the offense. Second, it demands extra people be held at the point of attack and reduces those bodies available to defend against the pass in the intermediate and deep zones. Coaching 101.
Sticking with the rush balances out this inequity of energy output. It gives the offensive line a fighting chance. And it enhances the passing game at the same time.
Both the Giants' and the Vikings' coaches understood this phenomenon and used it with success against the vaunted, but flawed, 49ers. In both cases, the 49ers' coach abandoned the rushing attack because it was not working. But it is also an axiom that the rushing attack picks up efficiency as the game progresses.
In the first quarters of both games, though the rush was not working, the 49ers were able to hold their own. Only when they stopped the rush did the games get away from them.
Coach Harbaugh is showing his inexperience by abandoning the rush much too early in games where the offensive linemen are matched well with the opposing defensive linemen. He is not using the physical advantage of letting his line wear out the opposition and then breaking out the rushing attack. He is not allowing the offensive line to do their thing.
And to abandon the rush damages the passing attack. It is all part of the dynamic of football.
It is easy, of course, to criticize from the comfort of my couch, and I apologize to the coach and the team for doing so.
In my defense, the 49ers are also MY team. As a long-time watcher and fan, I feel some ownership of the club and reserve the right to quibble and grouch a bit when they lose. It is also my job (and pleasure) to cheer them when they win.
Coach Harbaugh would do well to let go of some of his hubris accumulated during a fabulously successful run over the past year and a quarter and admit he made mistakes in both losses. It is part of the coach maturation process.
And then fix it.