The talk in August and September was it will take new coach Jim Harbaugh a while to adjust, that Alex Smith can’t win, that there are no wide receivers, the offensive line couldn’t adjust to the blitz, and the schedule didn’t do them any favors with three of their first six games in the Eastern time zone.
We wake in mid-October finding the 49ers at 5-1 with as strong and resilient defense as any in the NFL. Winning the NFC West seems a distinct, if not obvious, outcome. Surprisingly, however, is the realization that Harbaugh and staff have melded psychically and emotionally with this team. They are getting better and there’s the feeling among them that they are gong to continue to get better.
Here are 10 reasons why the San Francisco 49ers are for real.
[All quotes courtesy of transcripts from the 49ers PR office.]
The players feed off him. He’s got them buying into this blue-collar, go-to-work mentality. He’s got them thinking positives (defense, running backs and special teams) and not negatives (can’t throw downfield).
Jim Harbaugh is not only Coach of the Year in the NFL so far, he’s coach of the decade. And in that aspect, consider this aspect of the “Shakegate” incident that occurred after the Detroit game with Lions coach Jim Schwartz.
Schwartz and Harbaugh worked together as assistant coaches at Baltimore. Last spring, Ravens coach John Harbaugh and Jim Harbaugh had dinner with Schwartz. The Lions coach, according to John, told Jim that if the lockout extended into the spring and summer, there was no way Jim could get his team organized and get in the work to compete in the NFL.
Jim Harbaugh reportedly said, “I’ll find a way.” And he has. In the press conference Monday at 49er headquarters, Harbaugh downplayed the incident.
“I remember a topic on the lockout, I remember having dinner with Coach,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “I don’t remember any...I don’t know if you have the specifics, I don’t remember those words verbatim. There was talk on the challenges of first-year coaches in the lockout situation.”
Trust me on this. He remembers. And trust me on another thing. Harbaugh challenged the first Detroit score to tight end Brandon Pettigrew. He threw a challenge flag on a play that can’t be challenged and drew a penalty for it. Here’s how that situation got explained on Monday.
Q: There was something the camera definitely picked up where [Schwartz] was saying something like ‘know the rule’ or ‘he doesn’t know the rule’, commenting about your challenging something you couldn’t challenge.
Harbaugh: “We knew the rule. We knew that that would be a penalty.”
Did you know that Schwartz had said something? Did you hear him say something?
“No, I didn’t hear anything out on the field. Was that the end of the question?”
And okay, let’s go with the challenge. Did you know immediately that you had done something you couldn’t do?
“No, we knew that you can’t challenge a scoring play but just the way it transpired and we saw the incomplete pass by the back judge, and then the referee came over and they huddled and talked. Then, touchdown went up. That just seemed very quick that we were lining up to kick an extra point and didn’t know if they really had the review to know where that stood. I threw the challenge flag to give them more time to look at it. But yeah, we knew we couldn’t do it.”
Harbaugh may not have heard it, but he knew that Schwartz was challenging him. And he answered. And coming out with a win was all that sweeter.
The Niners let Takeo Spikes go in August, and the hue and cry was that they were weakening their defense. That was then. With NaVorro Bowman working alongside Patrick Willis, the Niners have the best, fastest inside linebacker tandem in the game. They stay on the field even in obvious pass situations, a testament to their athletic ability and their skills.
Bowman hunting down Michael Vick in the third quarter of that crucial game in Philadelphia demonstrated his speed. Against Detroit, he racked up 17 tackles. Willis racked up three pass-defensed against TE Brandon Pettigrew, tough duty considering he’s focusing on the run, first.
Add in Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson and, now, rookie Aldon Smith, that’s five strong, fast, skilled linebackers, giving defensive coordinator Vic Fangio plenty of options for blitzes and coverages.
In August, the Niners let NT Aubrayo Franklin go through free agency. The hue and cry was that the Niners would be weaker up the middle. On October 18, they are second in the league in points allowed, first in yards-per-attempt allowed rushing (3.6), and they haven’t given up a rushing TD so far.
Needless to say, DTs Ray McDonald and Justin Smith, NTs Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean Francois and the linebacking crew have proven that Takeo Spikesand Aubrayo Franklin were nice teammates but the 49ers have moved on.
The defensive coordinator has flown under the radar so far, but not any more. He’s getting the team to play to their talent level, and in so doing, the 49ers have become a premier defensive team, up there with the Ravens and, well, that’s it. [Interesting Nov. 24 game in Baltimore coming up, eh?]
Harbaugh ran down some of the defensive accomplishments:
- Of 16 Detroit series, 11 were either 3-and-out or one first down and out.
- The defense held Detroit on third down 15 of 17 chances. “Another just eye-popping statistic,” Harbaugh said.
Here’s Harbaugh’s explanation of the great game defensive game plan:
“Detroit gets the ball out of their hands very quick, and we wanted to have coverage. But we also wanted to make it appear that we were bringing pressure. So, it was very well schemed, very well played by our players.”
Second of all, the Niners had five sacks but at no time did they rush more than four. Awesome mix of blitz-and-cover schemes.
The Niner defense has allowed opponents to convert just 31 percent of their third downs. That’s called “getting off the field,” and it’s a huge reason why a team with the 28th-ranked offense in yards is seventh in points. A strong defense and good special teams go a long ways to overcome San Francisco’s offensive liabilities.
Brad Seely (red) has a word with the side judge.
Special teams coach Brad Seely has done a wonderful job maximizing the return capabilities of Ted Ginn Jr., who is among the league leaders with nearly 32 yards per kickoff return and about 14 per punt. The putn return number in particular means the Niners have to get one less first down to get to scoring position. That's a big edge.
But it was Ginn’s 40-yard punt return late in the fourth quarter that proved a decisive factor in the victory over the Lions. They had a short field of 35 yards to cover for the go-ahead TD.
Just as impressive, however, is that punter Andy Lee has a net 41-yards average. Last Sunday he pinned Detroit inside the 10 three times. Harbaugh calls that “flipping” field position. It’s a huge asset for the 49ers but not necessarily something that shows up on ESPN’s highlight shows.
Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis (52), Michael Crabtree, NoVarro Bowman, Kendall Hunter, Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis, Ray McDonald, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith—these are core players who make a difference in every game.
Average age: 26.5. There’s a good chance that this core will stay together a long time. Add in other rookies and newcomers like Chris Culliver, Colin Kaepernick and Bruce Miller, and the core is getting deeper.
The Nov. 24 game against the Ravens and John Harbaugh appears to be the toughest on the 49ers schedule.
Five of the 10 remaining games are against NFC West opponents, who, at this time, post a collective record of 3-12. But it’s not a cupcake last two months by any stretch of the imagination as the Redskins, Giants, Ravens and Steelers are slated. Outside their division the combined record of future 49er opponents is 17-10, starting with 2-3 Cleveland on Oct. 30.
From this perspective, it appears that the top three games in order of difficulty will be:
at Baltimore Nov. 24
Giants Nov. 13
Steelers Dec. 19
at Washington Nov. 6
A split of those games and a domination of NFC West opponents, which looks likely now that the Rams have a hobbled quarterback, Arizona still hasn’t figured out an offense and Seattle seems capable of getting better but not enough to overcome a rising 49er team, and the 49ers will be set for the playoffs.
A win over Cleveland, four of five NFC West wins and two of four against the Ravens, Giants, Steelers and Skins brings amounts to a 12-4 record. That may not be enough for home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but it will get them a bye week and a first-round home game.
The Niners should be around deep into January.
The General Manager has transformed the team. Here, let’s just take it straight from the 49er PR release last week:
Twenty-nine of the current 53 players on the active roster were acquired under Baalke’s direction over the last two years.
In a matter of days in August, the 49ers General Manager and his staff acquired 21 players who now remain on the 53-man roster, including K David Akers, WR Braylon Edwards, C Jonathan Goodwin, CB Carlos Rogers, S Donte Whitner and S Madieu Williams.
The draft builds the core of the team, but the additions through free agency and trades add the extra components. All of the above had made significant contributions, and the addition of Carlos Rogers, Whitner and Williams has really helped the secondary.
Vernon Davis (above) and Delanie Walker represent a throwback to another era. I mean, an era that predates Vince Lombardi as a coach. Lombardi got his start as a lineman for Fordham University, and he was a part of the Seven Blocks of Granite.
These were linemen who could pull and trap up and down the scrimmage to create running lanes. The key was angles: Defensive players like Ndumokong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch are speed guys; they create an amazing amount of energy in one direction. But blocking them from an angle changes that direction and gets them out of the play. In fact, their speed works against them because they are deeper out of the play.
Look back at the Frank Gore’s first big run against the Lions. Davis crashes down, and Walker, as a wingback, cracks on Suh, pushing the tackle past Gore. Just like that a lane opened up and Gore turned it into a 55-yard gallop.
Both Walker and Davis are exceptional in the passing game, but Harbaugh and staff are using their athetlic skills to get the running game going. There is no tight end tandem in the game that provides that combination of skills.
With Mike Iupati (77) and Anthony Davis being first-round draft picks last year, there was a high level of expectation, and both, understandably, had their learning moments. But they are young—Iupati 24, Davis 22—and huge (over 300 each).
Their play against the amazing Lion front four proved they are growing into first-rate players. Add in Joe Staley and Johnathan Goodwin, and that’s four solid players on the OL. Finally, the addition of Adam Snyder at right guard has really solidified the unit. Consider that they gave up no sacks against Tampa Bay two weeks ago in Candlestick, and they gave up only two in the horror-dome called Ford Field in Detroit. Amazing.
For those who never have played team sports, occasionally a magic moment occurs. The players feel it, and the coaches feel it. There’s an organic force growing; people realize that they are capable of doing great things, and they have the confidence to execute.
It’s happening in San Francisco. And I believe it started back in January when Harbaugh and his staff, particularly Fangio and offensive coordinator Gregg Roman, looked over the tapes of the 2010 season.
I bet there was a collective realization that the team had plenty of talent. It was just a matter of fitting offensive and defensive schemes to maximize the talent. And, voila, here we have a guarded, run-oriented offense minimizing mistakes while the defense overpowers opponents.
Just like that, the 49ers realized their formula, and because of that they are all—players, staff and front-office, too—connected. Harbaugh spoke to that last Monday.
Q: Talking to your players in an informal poll, they say that your emotion and energy fuels them, they feed off of that, is that exactly how you would hope it would be? They got a little entertainment out of yesterday.
“I’m fueled by those guys to be quite honest with you,” Harbaugh said. “I think the team’s impacting each of us. I think it’s fair to say that this group is coming together. And in large part in this ballgame this week, as well as some that we’ve already played, they’re real character builders for our young football team.”