No answers for no offense by Harbaugh
Published: Sunday, January 22, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 22, 2012 at 10:51 p.m.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Of course, you praise the 49ers for the amazing, unexpected, thrilling season that ended Sunday on the soft, wet, muddy turf of old Candlestick Park.
You praise them for being excellent and for bringing the thrill back to Northern California football and for competing bravely, even heroically. And you acknowledge they made one of the historic turnarounds in NFL history, going from a low-level, unimportant team in the 2011 season to the NFC championship game this season. Amazing. Praiseworthy. The 49ers are a team this area of the country should feel proud of.
But alongside the praise, it is essential to write about the game that ended things, the 20-17 loss to the Giants, almost certainly a better team, although the 49ers defeated them in the regular season. And it is obvious the 49ers offense failed — that sounds unkind, but there is no gentle way to put it.
In the first half, the 49ers — Alex Smith — attempted seven passes and completed two. What do we make of those numbers, of that elementary-school math?
We say the numbers are trivial. We say a good team easily can throw seven passes on a single drive and complete more than two in the natural course of play. The Niners did none of that.
And please don't blame the weather. The weather is such a tired excuse. The Packers often play in snow and high school teams play in rain all over America, and when it comes down to it, the Giants played on the same field as the Niners and they threw more passes for more yards — not even close.
There is a rule when you play wet games on a wet field — the 49ers must know this because they play at the 'Stick. You throw in the first half when the field is relatively stable and you run in the second half when it's a mess. The Niners did just the opposite and that was a mistake. The Niners also converted one third down all game. That was dreadful verging on disheartening and this total offensive floperoo leads to the main point, a Jim Harbaugh point.
Harbaugh is all about guts and glory. He talks like a tough guy — and he may actually be a tough guy — and he lectures players and reporters on being relentless, on taking chances, on being mighty men, on being wicked, on battling, etc.
A team that aspires to the Super Bowl must crave a win in the NFC championship game. Harbaugh would say — he really would — a potential Super Bowl team takes what it wants. It doesn't wait around or hope or dither. It just takes. It blows the other guys away.
In the first half, the 49ers took nothing. They should have been absolutely ferocious but they were meek. Their game plan was stodgy and conservative and dull. Seven passes, for heaven's sake. Harbaugh or Greg Roman or whoever calls the plays over there conducted himself more like a cost accountant than a win-at-all-costs football coach. This was the championship game. Where was the passion? Where were the Niners?
After the Niners lost, Harbaugh walked into the interview room. He looked and talked like a dazed man, which he almost certainly was. When someone asked what went wrong on third downs, he babbled like an English speaker taking an oral exam in Russian. He finally said something about “their coverage, their rush.”
When I asked why the 49ers did not throw “a lot” in the first half, he replied, “What do you define as a lot?”
Oh, the word-parsing game.
I said seven. I said seven is not a lot. It's a joke. He stared at me.
“It seemed like it went pretty fast in the first half,” he said. “Wasn't part of our game plan. We were playing football.”
Which means he had no explanation. Which means — and please excuse me — the game got away from him and his coaches and his team.
Grasping for words, for an explanation, he finally declared, “A man can be destroyed but he can't be defeated as long as there's hope.”
It's hard to know if that's true. I plan never to get destroyed and then search for the hope part. But Harbaugh, who didn't know what to say, obviously fell back on one of his Harbaughisms to get through the painful moment. And no one can blame him.
Then Alex Smith wandered into the interview room. He wasn't as dazzled as Harbaugh, but he seemed disconnected from reality as we know it. He said losing feels “crappy.”
Smith has more to feel crappy about. If you were to say he played like (a variant of crappy), you'd be correct. He tried to explain why he couldn't convert third-down plays but he never had an explanation just as his coach had no explanations for the loss. Smith seemed amazed.
Now for a hard truth — call it a possible truth. Smith had an all-time great game, an unbelievable game — for him — against the New Orleans Saints. Everyone praised him for a week and said he had crossed a border from just another quarterback to the land of the elite.
Now we say it's possible he had one great game, but in the most important game, he re-crossed the border, walked back to the world of Just Another Quarterback where he had resided for years. He was not good enough against the Giants, and if that statement seems rude, it is not as rude as getting eliminated.
His problem with third downs against New York is a problem that assaulted him all season, a problem he obviously never solved. And that means the Alex-Smith dilemma persists, and will persist into next season.
Vernon Davis spoke to the media in the postgame locker room, writers and camera people crowding around him, waiting for his verdict. “It's very upsetting to me,” he said in an upset voice. “We're definitely a Super Bowl team.
Apologies for quibbling with the great Davis. He may think the 49ers are definitely a Super Bowl team. He is wrong. The Niners are not a Super Bowl team because they are not.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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