So much is at stake for the 49ers in Cincinnati. If they win on the road against a team more or less at their level, the 49ers have hope for a decent season, a respectable season, even a promising season.
If they lose, things could get grim very fast.
Think about the implications of a loss. Their record would be 1-2. They would have lost two in a row. And they will be facing, in order, the Eagles in Philadelphia, Tampa Bay in San Francisco and the Lions in Detroit. It is conceivable, even likely, the Niners would enter their bye week with a record of 1-5.
I am not saying the 49ers will be 1-5. I am saying it's possible and I'm most definitely saying the 49ers need to beat the Bengals to make the statement they matter.
The Jim Harbaugh Era began with great fanfare in a ballroom at a swank San Francisco hotel including video and sound effects. You would have thought it was a coronation. There was talk in that ballroom of the West Coast offense, how Harbaugh was restoring a local tradition his predecessor Mike Singletary had thoughtlessly abandoned. All seemed right with the world.
But Harbaugh has done no West Coasting, not in ways we identify or understand. His offense is the Singletary/Jimmy Raye offense and that makes it pretty offensive.
See the 49ers try to dominate with power. See Frank Gore run up the middle. See the opponent stack the middle with extra defenders. See the defense knock down Gore after he gains a few yards. See the 49ers try to do that again. See quarterback Alex Smith throw short passes. See the Niner offense not gain enough yards. Take a look and see all this and then think about the words "cautious" and "timid."
Harbaugh courted Smith in the offseason. Harbaugh made it clear he wanted Smith to be his quarterback. He saw something no one else saw in Smith and he could bring him along. I have written it was a mistake to re-sign Smith, the perpetual symbol of 49er failure. Harbaugh needed to make a break with the past on the basis of symbolism alone. But, OK, he signed the guy. That meant he had confidence in Smith. Except that he doesn't.
Everything about Harbaugh's game plan screams lack of belief in the quarterback, sheer horror at turning over the game to Smith. That's what the Dallas loss was all about.
When Harbaugh accepted the field goal early in the fourth quarter and told his offense to walk off the field, he made two mistakes. He did not run more offensive plays to take time off the clock.
More important, he was telling Smith and his offense and every fan in the stadium, he did not believe in his quarterback to win the game. Harbaugh needed to go up by two touchdowns. Obvious. He refused because he thought Smith would louse things up near the goal line if given the chance — throw an interception at exactly the wrong time. Harbaugh was playing it safe, or maybe he was playing it chicken. He certainly played to lose and that's exactly what he got.
The NFL has turned into a passing league. Teams no longer need to establish the run. All those years under Peyton Manning, the Colts didn't have to run. Manning passed and they were good. Harbaugh needs to understand the spirit of the times. He needs to flood the field with receivers — and that includes Vernon Davis. He needs to put pressure on safeties and cornerbacks. He needs to let Smith be a modern quarterback. He needs to let Smith pass.