Those Were Different Times

We recently ran across this post from the past, never published, penned on the eve of the 49ers' first playoff game under Jim Harbaugh. How much has changed, and how naive some of these observations seem today after all that has happened. Enjoy, and try not to weep for what might have been...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The San Francisco 49ers face the New Orleans Saints in the NFC semifinal playoff game this Saturday at Candlestick Park. Game time is slated for 1 PM local time (4 PM EST).

It has been nearly a full decade since the 49ers appeared in any postseason game at all, a true Dark Age that eclipses even the dreadful years of the early sixties and the late seventies. Through a tumultuous change in ownership, three failed head coaches, and a franchise-worst eight straight  seasons without a winning record, an entire new generation of 49er fans has come of age, to whom the “Team of the Eighties,” the originators of the “West Coast Offense,” and the first franchise to win five Super Bowls is the stuff of ancient history.  Now, with first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, a resolutely old-school approach to the game, and a 13-3 regular-season mark, these New Niners have finally emerged as legitimate Super Bowl contenders for the first time since Steve Young was battling a youthful Brett Favre for NFC supremacy.

As we write, it was thirty years ago this very day that the 49ers beat the Dallas Cowboys, 28-27, on “The Catch” by Dwight Clark, to usher in the team's first Super Bowl championship and a true Golden Age that lasted eighteen years. It's been well over twenty years since Joe Montana last started a game for the scarlet and gold, nearly fifteen since the club's last NFC Championship Game appearance, and over a decade since Jerry Rice took his legendary act across the Bay to Oakland. Montana, his successor Young, Rice, and the great defenders Ronnie Lott and Fred Dean, all stalwarts from that dominant era, have since entered the Hall Of Fame. And Bill Walsh, San Francisco's beloved “Football Moses” and one of the half-dozen most influential men in the history of professional football, went to Canton, and thence to his reward, several years ago. Much time has passed, and much has changed, since the San Francisco 49ers last participated in the NFL playoffs.

Although the timing of events was not as precise as some would believe, the late Fall of the 49er Empire began, in truth, with the fall of former owner Eddie DeBartolo. Wealthy, impulsive, kind, generous, and childish by turns, “Eddie Junior” loved his ballclub and was determined to maintain its success at all personal and financial cost. But, perhaps emotionally unmoored by his dynamic, brilliant father's 1994 death, Eddie in succeeding years became dogged by a lengthy series of unsavory incidents, the most serious of which was his continuing, stubborn association with known gamblers and crooked politicians, despite repeated warnings from the league. In time, he was forced to divest his interest in the 49ers, and instead of putting the team up for sale he turned its ownership over to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, which meant true control passed to her husband, John  York. There have been only two ownership changes in 49er history, and both have proved unspeakably traumatic, as those of us who recall Eddie's early years remember all too well. And for a time, John York appeared indeed to be channeling the long-ago spirit of Joe Thomas. It was York who impulsively and impetuously fired coach Steve Mariucci after one playoff loss to a superior Tampa Bay team. There followed in depressing succession Dennis Erickson (two years), Mike Nolan (three and part of a fourth) and Mike Singletary (the last two).  Erickson presided over 2004's 2-14 disaster, which recalled the 'worse-than-expansion' days of Thomas' reign. Nolan, son of former 49er coach Dick Nolan, saw the 'false spring' of 2006's mild resurgence followed by two years of inept decision-making. Singletary, the Hall-of-Fame former Chicago Bears linebacker, had a promising 2009 undone by a second-half train wreck last winter. Out of the smoke and flames emerged Jed York, son of the elder York, who has taken over the day-to-day ownership duties of the team. Perhaps the example of Indianapolis' steady Jim
 Irsay, son of hopeless Bob, or even that of the older, chastened, post-Thomas Eddie DeBartolo will serve as a guide for the younger York going forward.

Jim Harbaugh, son of a legendary high-school coach and a former University of Michigan standout quarterback himself, succeeded Jim McMahon with the Chicago Bears under Mike Ditka and went on to a long and respected NFL career. Dubbed “Captain Comeback” for his ability to overcome adversity with fourth-quarter heroics, Harbaugh also played for Ted Marchibroda, Lindy Infante, and Mike Riley before going into the coaching trade. He made his mark at Stanford, a school always now associated with the 49ers thanks to the Walsh connection, and his turnaround success there naturally echoed Walsh' own achievements in the 1970s. With brother John Harbaugh already coaching the Baltimore Ravens, the hire seemed a natural one, and Jim Harbaugh brought intensity and the expectation of success to the 49er camp from Day One. 

Harbaugh inherited a team which seemed somehow less than the sum of its parts. Halfback Frank Gore and linebacker Patrick Willis had already established themselves among the NFL's best at their positions, and two veterans-- tackle Joe Staley and defensive end Justin Smith-- were also solid. Singletary's legacy included two young offensive linemen (Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis) and emerging wide receiver Michael Crabtree. But in the wake of the NFL training-camp lockout and subsequent lack of preparation for the season, Harbaugh kept public expectations low, refusing to even utter the word “playoffs” during preseason. In keeping with recent events, we ourselves picked the 49ers to finish Dead Last. Again.

Then there was the biggest question mark of all-- the team's quarterback. Alex Smith's career has been a study in frustration. Mike Nolan's first big decision was to make him The Number One Pick in 2005's draft, following the 2-14 Erickson debacle. Thrown to the NFL wolves as a rookie, Smith inherited the mantle of Montana and Young, Tittle and Brodie. At times, he must have longed for the anonymity of, say, George Mira or Scott Bull instead. With the redoubtable Norv Turner as offensive coordinator in 2006, Smith had a late-season breakthrough, emerging as a potential star; but Turner left to coach the San Diego Chargers the following year, and the Coordinator Carousel began to whirl. In dizzying succession, Alex Smith went through four personal Seasons From Hell that included four new offensive schemes (including one from the legendary, mercurial Mike Martz), a nagging shoulder injury that evidently was not taken seriously by Nolan's staff, and lengthy bench-sitting time while such worthies as J.T. O'Sullivan, Shaun Hill, and Troy Smith traded the starting QB job back and forth. The enforced idleness, however, had two unintended blessings. First, Smith's shoulder had time to heal completely. Second, the experience clearly bred a mental toughness and a hunger to excel, made even more ferocious by fans and talk-show hosts only too happy to remind the world that back in 2005, Alex was taken by the 49ers ahead of the brilliant Aaron Rodgers, now heir to Brett Favre in Green Bay and hero of Super Bowl XLV.   

Harbaugh apparently had no qualms about making Alex Smith his starter. After drafting Nevada's Colin Kaepernick as a possible 'QB of the future', “Captain Comeback” handed the reins over to the now-seasoned Smith, whose lengthy experiences belie the fact that he's still only 27.  Smith is not Aaron Rodgers and likely never will be; at his best, he's Ken Anderson or--  whodathunkit-- Jim Harbaugh. A good stat line for Alex is 15-of-20 for 191 yards, a TD, and no interceptions-- that last stat being the most important. Thanks in part to Bill Walsh and the 49ers, we live in an age of QBs who routinely throw 50 passes a game, the vast majority of them short slants, flats, and quick-outs-- the bread and butter of the “West Coast Offense.”  But thanks in part to Dick LeBeau and the Pittsburgh Steelers (and Baltimore Ravens), the 21st-century zone-blitzing and zone-rushing schemes, designed specifically to stop the Walsh offense, have generated a lot of tipped and deflected short passes, resulting inevitably in interceptions that “aren't really the quarterback's fault.”.

Many things may be said about Harbaugh's 49ers, but one thing that is emphatically true is, this is not a “Bill Walsh” team. Indeed, the current scheme really doesn't resemble any of the great 49er offenses of the past. It most closely evokes, perhaps, the short-lived “Monte Clark 49ers” of 1976-- a ferocious defense, a pounding, wearing running game, and a quarterback who throws the ball downfield. (If only Jim Plunkett had learned to stay comfortable in the pocket in 1976, instead of waiting until 1980...). Downfield, interceptions are both less likely and less costly. Of all the NFL playoff teams this year, only the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos are following similar scripts to the 49ers'; as we will see, Saturday's opponents, the Saints, most certainly are not.  In any case, Alex Smith finally has a coach who understands what he can do well, and this is borne out by his increased confidence, particularly on the deep pass, and by judicious use of his outstanding athleticism and mobility-- again, the total package strongly resembles Harbaugh's own style of play.

The 49ers faced five playoff teams this season and beat four of them, and in most of those games it was defense that made the difference. Rookie Aldon Smith, the team's first-round draft choice, is a natural pass-rusher who reminds some of us oldsters of Charles Haley (without the attitude, we hope), and has a chance to be the NFL defensive rookie of the year. In the Niners' penultimate game, a smashing Monday-night victory over the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers, young Smith put on a regular show. The Steeler line simply could not block him, and with QB Ben Roethlisberger rendered immobile by a sprained ankle, Smith was utterly dominant in the fourth quarter, reminding us of Walsh's adage, “A pass rush in the fourth quarter is key to winning in NFL playoff football.” Remember too that Walsh, having established the passing game in the first half, loved nothing more than to turn to his running game in the fourth quarter when he had a lead. Harbaugh's 49ers do this with a positive vengeance. In three critical games this year-- comeback road wins at Philadelphia and Detroit, and the nationally-televised showdown with the New York Giants at the 'Stick-- the 49ers played keep-away late, the great Gore alternating with fleet Kendall Hunter and big Anthony Dixon to tear off huge chunks of yardage as elite quarterbacks such as Mike Vick, Matthew Stafford, and Eli Manning watched in frustration from the sideline.   

For the 49ers to be successful Saturday, that will have to be Drew Brees' fate as well. The Saints' superstar quarterback broke the record for passing yards this season and led his team on a 612-yard, 45-point rampage against Detroit in the playoff quarterfinal.  The Saints are playing better than any team in the league right now, and while they won't enjoy the home-field advantage in this game, few would risk relying on that as the difference-maker. Much is being made of the Saints “unstoppable force” offense meeting the 49ers' “immovable object” defense. We've found that often when such a matchup occurs, the game is actually decided on the other side of the ball. In other words, the key to this game will be whether the 49ers' offense can beat the Saints' defense.

One demonstrable weakness the 49ers have shown this year is their difficulty in handling the all-out blitz. The Baltimore Ravens showcased it for all to see in their “Brother Against Brother” (or “HarBowl”) Thanksgiving-night victory. Yes, a terrible officiating call cost the 49ers a touchdown in that game and might have swung the momentum irretrievably away, but the cold hard truth is, the Niners gave up more sacks that night (eight) than they scored points (six). Two weeks later, the Arizona Cardinals, clearly following suit, used a similar tactic to render the San Francisco offense impotent in

the second half, which allowed them to rally for a two-point win. We can be sure the Saints, who blitz more than any other team in the league, are closely studying film of those two games, and defensive coach Gregg Williams is even now developing a disruptive blitz-oriented game plan. Harbaugh's response must include schemes that set Alex Smith in motion, so he's not sitting in the pocket on every pass play as he was against Baltimore. The way to defeat the blitz is to counter it with motion and misdirection, turning the defensive scheme's own strength against it. If the 49ers can keep the game close for three quarters, there is every chance their running game will dominate the Saints' weak run defense in the final period, and lead the San Francisco 49ers into their first conference championship game since 1997.

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