The San Francisco 49ers are new at this.
They are uncomfortable in this type of unfamiliar territory.
A place they have not walked through since Jeff Garcia left town many years ago.
“So what is this magical, mystical place you speak of? Does it contain excitement and wonder?”
“Does it contain brave heroes performing legendary acts of valor and skill? A place where no task is too big or quest too daunting?"
“Are there Ogres, Giants and Dragons?!”
“Tell me, what is this place?!”
It is a place called “Control.” The 49ers were there. They were in it.
It was a place so alien to their normal experience, so bizarre, that they couldn't remember how to precede in this forgotten land.
“Please, tell me the story!”
OK, but I don't know how the story ends, only how it begins. Once upon a time there was a football coach...
Mike Singletary Was Right
This past Sunday, against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, Mike Singletary backed up his talk, and his team walked the walk.
“Alex Smith and our offense WILL move the ball.” Check.
“Our offense WILL move the ball, and we WILL score.” Check.
“Our defense WILL stop Drew Brees.” Check.
The 49ers moved the ball very well against the New Orleans Saints. They moved the ball better than they have moved the ball in over six years.
That is a long time.
The 49ers looked like a more than capable team, through both the air and the ground.
Frank Gore was getting chunks of yards on the ground, not simply breaking the occasional home run.
Alex Smith had made several explosive plays through the air, even more than the venerable Drew Brees could muster.
The offensive line was giving the quarterback time, and controlling the line of scrimmage all night. Something that, in contrast with the 49ers of the last seven years, has been about as rare as a chupacabra sighting.
The 49ers defense prevented Drew Brees from generating any explosive plays almost the whole night and caused the Saints to punt the ball far more than they are accustomed to.
The 49ers are now a team with powerful legs.
Unfortunately, it's time to talk about their arms...
Vernon Davis Was Wrong
Despite the fact that the 49ers could move the ball like a serious contender...
Despite the fact that the 49ers defense dowsed the most explosive offensive football team in the league...
Despite the fact that the 49ers were able to out gain the New Orleans Saints on both the ground and through the air...
Despite all of that.
They still lost the football game.
And when you lose a football game, it means you were not the better football team.
Vernon Davis said, “I think we are a better team than the Saints.” And he was wrong.
He was wrong because winning football teams get the right bounces.
Winning football teams get the luck they need at the time they need it.
Winning football teams might drop punts, but they'll get the ball back, even if they have to break their leg to do it.
This goes beyond football. It goes into the land of the esoteric. It is a new land where controlling a football game is not good enough.
It is a place where “swagger” sails ships, not wind. A place where you make it happen.
“Try not. Do; or do not. There is no try.” Yeah Yoda, he knows what place I'm talking about.
The bounces come because you believe they will come. The muffed punts are placed directly into your arms because you believe you have a right to the ball.
Vernon Davis was wrong because winning a game comes down to more than talent. It comes down to ownership of oneself.
Alex Smith Took Ownership
If you told me that Alex Smith would throw for more yards then Drew Brees, I wouldn't have believed you.
If you told me he would take control of the team and lead them down the field in a heroic display of leadership, I would have thought it a miracle.
Alex Smith made plenty of mistakes in the Saints game, but more importantly, he did what no one expected of him; he took ownership of the team, while in the spotlight.
He became a hero.
Alex Smith was given the football with an opportunity to show his determination before a national audience.
He had two minutes and eight seconds on the clock with no timeouts left, so he had to call many of his own plays and take ownership of the situation.
Several times where the blitz collapsed the pocket, he scrambled and ran for first downs.
One time in the pocket, Smith ducked and looked like he was getting ready to fold and give up on the play. But Alex Smith, somehow, for some reason, instead looked up and to his right, where he fired a perfect sideline pass to Josh Morgan for a first down.
Smith was becoming more familiar with this new uncharted land. A place where the O-line gave him time in the pocket, and his receivers were open.
After Frank Gore scored on his touchdown run, it was again up to Smith to take ownership of the situation.
Alex Smith found Vernon Davis for the two point conversion. The pass had to be precise, and it was.
Alex Smith had almost single-handedly tied the football game in the last two minutes.
Under the most intense pressure, his determination did most of the work.
Because the 49ers had already given the game away, the effort came too little and too late.
But at that moment, Alex Smith had demonstrated that he was not a guest, but rather he was an owner in the land of Control.
The 49ers have the talent to beat any team in the league, at any time, and anywhere.
But all the talent in the world is worthless, if one cannot conquer oneself.
The 49ers are no longer playing an opposing team.
From here on out, there is only one team on their schedule. That team is the San Francisco 49ers.
Unforced turnovers and unlucky bounces will not go away by watching more film or doing more drills.
They will only go away when the team as a whole believes that they own the right to the football.
For the past seven years the 49ers have won games by depending upon turnovers and big plays. They depended on them because they were not able to win most of their battles on the field and were rarely in control of their own destiny.
Things have changed.
The 49ers no longer depend upon another team's mistakes. Now, other teams depend upon their mistakes.
They are now in the driver's seat. They are hitchhiking no longer.
Get the play in on time. Catch the punt. Snap the ball.
The 49ers know they have to avoid these types of self-inflicted wounds. But avoiding them won't happen by physically running away from them. These mistakes can only be avoided, by a team that collectively believes in itself as a winning football team.
Winning football teams feel at home in the land of Control. They never try to avoid mistakes; instead, they expect the other team to give them what is rightfully theirs.
Alex Smith can no longer think about the passes he is throwing but only feel the confidence he has when throwing them.
Vernon Davis can no longer think about the ball he has just caught but only the direction the team is moving in as a result.
Mike Singletary understood this idea, where Davis did not.
Singletary said, “We WILL move the ball.” He did not say, “We are the better team.”
Because the better team is the one who believes it on game days, not practice days.
The 49ers are now the team who is in control. They are in control of their destiny.
Their collective belief and confidence, will determine the result on game days from now on.
The schedule has changed; there is only one team the 49ers have to face each week, and the winner will be the team with the most swagger.
And this is how the story begins, on their magical journey, in the long lost land of Control.