The cardinal rule in sports is to never lip off to the coach. Not in the locker room, not during practice and absolutely never on the field. Insubordination is something that usually fails to produce the desired results, no matter how many times we've seen Jack Bauer save Los Angeles from a terrorist strike.
Vernon Davis famously pissed off Mike Singletary in the middle of a game and was sent to the showers. Terrell Owens antagonized every coach he ever played for and was lanced almost as many times as he found the end zone in his career. Latrell Sprewell threatened, choked and punched P.J. Carlesimo in the face, and the Warriors were told they couldn't terminate his contract.
Did Sprewell plead insanity? I have no idea.
One month ago, after another flaccid effort by the 49ers offense stirred up the dreaded image of Mike Nolan looming on the sidelines, Frank Gore made his frustration known. To be clear, he didn't throw a temper tantrum. During his nine years in the NFL, Frank has been just as tactful giving his opinions as he is shaking tacklers and breaking off huge runs downfield.
He waited until the clock ran down to zero, shook hands with a few of the opposing players, hurried alongside Jim Harbaugh and politely told his coach that his strategy sucked. It was a scene vaguely similar to last season's NFC Championship Game, when the 49ers were trailing the Falcons by 17 points in the first quarter.
Whatever was said then, Gore must have memorized his speech verbatim and repeated it after the Week 3 loss to the Colts. He rushed for 90 yards and two touchdowns to help the Niners complete their comeback against the Dirty Birds, and he's averaged 101 yards and one touchdown during San Francisco's current four-game winning streak.
The images from both situations are uncanny: The offense gyrating like an armored tank rolling over debris. Opposing quarterbacks lying face down on the turf after throwing a game-changing interception. The 49ers walking off the field, helmets raised, celebrating their latest victory.
When asked about the adjustments his team made following the 49ers, Gore played things close to the vest, as usual.
"We had a [players] meeting, we told ourselves we had to get back on track. We're still the same team from last year. Last two weeks things weren't going our way, we sat down and talked to each other about how we had to get back on track." [via the NFL Network]
Player meetings are great at remedying locker-room issues and building up team morale, but any problems with direction and playmaking have to be fixed at the top.
Jim Harbaugh doesn't like being told what to do. He's classic and old school in the way he formulates a routine and sticks with it. If he managed an American League baseball team, he would refuse to DH his pitcher. He ends team practices every day before 4 p.m. so he can watch Judge Judy. He wears the same black turtleneck and white khakis to every game.
So the idea of him actually changing his strategy on the field? Don't be silly.
This obstinance can be cataclysmic if a team has figured out a way to beat you. Think back to the Super Bowl in 2002, when Bill Belichick and the Patriots were throwing out nickel packages on first, second and fifth down to stop St. Louis' vaunted "Greatest Show on Turf" offense. With the Patriots physically assaulting the Rams receivers on every play, Mike Martz was forced to do something he always hated: run the football.
A lot of coaches would love the opportunity to run Marshal Faulk right at an undersized defense, but for some reason—I'm guessing a mixture of hubris and an unflappable ego—Martz decided to keep throwing it.
Harbaugh found himself in a similar position against the Falcons last season, and he shelved his machismo and moral absolutism for two-and-a-half quarters. This is the playoffs. There is no next week. You either adapt or you die.
This year, after losing consecutive games for the first time in his NFL coaching career, it took another scolding from his star running back for Harbaugh to click that refresh button. From looking at the state of the team—Patrick Willis out with a groin injury, Vernon Davis limited by a pulled hamstring and Aldon Smith entering rehab—you'd think it would be heavy handed for anyone to remind Harbaugh that a change had to be implemented. But Gore knew exactly what had to be done. The ball had to stop going through the air and be placed in his hands.
It's amazing how the offense, defense and special teams can be impacted with one minor twist of a dial on the control panel.
The 49ers have scored 30 points in all four of their wins, and they've forced 12 takeaways, which have all resulted in either touchdowns (eight) or field goals (four). The defense is clearly playing better with the offense staying on the field for lengthier drives, and the Niners haven't trailed in the second half once during their streak.
Clearly, Harbaugh and Greg Roman have woken up from their pipe dream of a high-octane passing offense and reverted back to the smash-mouth brand of football that features Gore as its main engine.
Kaepernick has showed no signs of second-guessing the switch, which has demoted his role in the offense to game manager.
"We also have a Hall of Fame running back next to me. So we have to feed him. We have to give him his carries. He's a playmaker for a reason. You have to give him his touches."
Unlike most players who complain about not getting the ball enough, Gore doesn't care about stats or individual glory. Wins, wins and wins are the only thing on his mind while he eats, sleeps, practices, sight-sees, listens to his iPhone and probably when he plays football. After six long seasons of turmoil and despair playing under Singletary and Nolan, he has a mindset myopic to winning and perhaps getting that Super Bowl victory which has eluded him the last two years.
The 49ers haven't faced any serious contenders during their current tear, but with Michael Crabtree Mario Manningham and, yes, Aldon Smith all possibly returning to the team by November, the team everyone dreamed and feared during the offseason may finally be intact.
When that happens, Gore likely won't have to remind his coach that throwing the football is a viable option.