A Forgotten Man: Why Walt Harris' Absence Looms Large for the 49ers

Andy BenschSenior Writer IDecember 11, 2009

SEATTLE - DECEMBER 14: Walt Harris #27  of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates on the field during the game against the Seattle Seahawks on December 14, 2006 at Qwest Field in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

When the 49ers' veteran cornerback Walt Harris tore his ACL during OTAs (organized team activities) over the offseason, most media members and Niner fans hardly even blinked.

It appeared to be a Bay Area-wide consensus that losing a then 34-year-old cornerback wasn't going to hurt the 49ers' chances of achieving their goal of going to the postseason.

However, what if it was Harris on the field instead of Mark Roman on that final play in Minnesota? When Brett Favre struck a dagger into the hearts of Niner fans on the essentially the game's final play (like he seemingly always does against San Francisco), what if there was another defensive playmaker out on the field?

The 49ers are currently 5-7 after their latest disappointing loss, but fans can only imagine how different the season would have been if the Red and Gold had started out 4-0 instead of 3-1.

Am I saying that Favre couldn't have made that miraculous throw with Harris on the field? No, absolutely not. Brett Favre is Brett Favre—but you can bet that the coverage would have been much tighter with another Pro Bowl defensive back flying around out there.

While some may argue that Harris didn't perform to the level he did in his first year with San Francisco in his most recent two seasons, his overall performance hasn't deteriorated in the slightest.

In the 2008-09 season, Harris' 44 solo tackles, 54 total tackles, three interceptions, and 14 passes defended were on par with his career single-season averages. While he may have lost a step since 2006, when he was named to the Pro Bowl, his savvy veteran presence was still a pivotal piece of the 49er secondary.

As all 49er followers have learned, Dre' Bly may be a veteran, but he is far from savvy with his high-stepping at his own 30-yard line and subsequently fumbling the ball away.

Therefore, other than Nate Clements (who also has been injured for a large portion of the season), the 49ers were thin when it came to proven cornerbacks. Bly, Shawntae Spencer, Tarell Brown, Keith Smith, and Marcus Hudson have left much to be desired.

With a healthy Harris in the lineup, each of these less talented corners could have been used in much more appropriate situations rather than thrust into extra playing time.

Considering that six of the seven 49ers losses have come by seven points or less, four by four points or less, and three by just a field goal, one defensive stop could have been the difference between a win or a loss in almost all of those games.

With the 49ers secondary being ranked 27th in the league in passing yards allowed, a few more passes knocked away by the corners and perhaps that 250 yards per game becomes 225 yards.

By allowing just 25 fewer yards per game, the 49ers defense would be ranked 20th against the pass instead of 27th.

In their most recent defeat at the hands of the lowly Seattle Seahawks, the play that sealed the game was a 32-yard downfield pass to rookie Deon Butler.

The 49ers defender covering the rookie wideout was none other than Keith Smith, who didn't even turn to locate the football. A veteran of 73 NFL games got beat downfield by a rookie in the most crucial situation and didn't even know the ball was coming in his direction. Simply, inexcusable poor execution in coverage on that play.

Now regardless of injury to the top 49er corners, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck may have still made a game-winning throw. But if Walt Harris is out there in that situation, you can be guaranteed that a better effort would have been given on such a pivotal play.

Granted, the secondary isn't the only area of the 49ers that is in clear need of work. They still deserve an immense amount of wrath from Mike Singletary and the rest of the coaching staff.

While an improved pass rush and better play from the offensive line could have also changed the course of action in many of the 49er losses, that shouldn't let the secondary off the hook.

Poor tackling from the secondary has been just as big of a reason for the total passing yards against as the lack of a pass rush.

Both Clements and Harris are excellent tacklers, and combined between the two of them, San Francisco has had to deal with 17 man games lost.

Take the top two corners on any team and limit them to just seven games out of a possible 32 (16 possible each, if healthy), and that team will struggle against the pass.

If only Harris had skipped that OTA where he suffered a season-ending ACL injury, then maybe the 49ers would still have a realistic shot at the postseason. But showing up to every meeting and every practice, even during the offseason, is what makes Harris that savvy veteran leader.

Unfortunately, the 49ers have been lacking that presence at the cornerback spot all season, and it might just have prevented them from making the playoffs.