It’s the 3rd quarter with about 2 minutes left. The 49ers were in the middle of a tough game against the Lions and it had been an ugly day to that point. Neither team had really done much since the first half but Detroit had at least put up a field goal in the quarter. Thanks to Andy Lee the Niners had pinned the Lions close to their own end zone and after they punted it back, the Niners got the ball in Lions territory at the 44. It was a game marred by roughly 10,000 false start penalties since the Detroit crowd made more noise than Oprah at a buffet, and so of course the Niners started off the drive with their 10,001th false start. (Though I suspect it was Anthony Davis dreaming about donuts.) Up to that point the Niners were 2 for 11 on 3rd down and coincidentally were at 2nd and 11 after a short Frank Gore run. We obviously weren’t doing too hot on 3rd down and Smith and Co. needed to make a move at that point. As crazy old Maurice once said, “Fortunes favor the bold” and the Niners went for a pass. Play action, Crabtree on a drag route and uncovered. Seeing this, Smith stepped into the pocket, locked into his receiver, and launched a throw.
The ball missed Crabtree by quite some distance, sailed over his head, and was picked off by the Lions. I proceeded to yell at the TV until I passed out and woke up a few minutes later, confused and naked. While that tends to happen to me often while watching Niners games, this was different. And it wasn’t because I woke up naked. At that point, the Niners were actually winning.
How did we get here? Last year the Niners entered the year with high expectations in a turrrrible NFC West and well we all know how that ended. To summarize: 6-10 and still in contention at 5-9 only to lose to the Rams week 16. I must have passed out at least 20 times that game. This year, every analyst predicted the Rams as the hot team to win the division but they got injured early and Bradford had a serious sophomore slump. (In retrospect, of course they failed. Their best receiver was some white guy named Danny Amendola! That guy has a 77 rating on Madden! That’s fucking terrible! Did I mention he’s white! How the hell did the Niners not win the division last year! Let’s move on before I pass out again.) With the Rams crumbling, the Cardinals being the Cardinals, and Tavaris Jackson existing on the Seahawks, the NFC West was primed for a taking and the Niners jumped into that void and half way into the season, haven’t looked back.
Something is still missing though, and there were plenty of reasons for us to get worse. We lost our man in the middle, Aubrayo Franklin – though upgraded a few other areas – but more than that we installed a new system with a new head coach this offseason. That would be challenging enough but we forget that players couldn’t talk to their coaches until just before the preseason thanks to the lockout. I commented briefly on the effect of change on Alex Smith previously, and OH GOD IT WAS AWFUL to put it mildly. Condensing what should have been a 2 ½ month gradual learning process into about 2 weeks is like cramming a whole quarter’s worth of information for your final at the very end. Conceivable, if you’re smart. Alex Smith had a 2.2 GPA. That shit ain’t gonna work, and one more bad year was going to get him thrown out of school. With no time to practice the new playbook and without strong leadership in the team, it seemed like the Niners were doomed to mediocrity again.
But then something interesting happened. Without even meeting Smith in person, Coach Jim Harbaugh stated that he thought Alex Smith was the quarterback for the 49ers that could take them to the playoffs. At the time that was a ridiculous statement, but I figured there was no free agency and rather than alienating the only option on the team, you may as well back him up until you find someone better. But as time passed, nothing changed. Smith ran a lockout training camp and Harbaugh stuck with him as his starter throughout the preseason, talking about his toughness and strength and as an NFL quarterback. In an interview with XX Sports Radio in San Diego, Harbaugh said, “The things that occurred to him over the first even years of Alex’s career have been good. There has been some tough times, but all those experiences I believe lead to success”. At the time that sounded like public posturing for the small reason that every coach who has ever had a bad quarterback has said the same thing. Unless that quarterback is Ryan Leaf. Yet even after free agency opened and with some other quarterback possibilities, nothing changed.
When you tell yourself a lie repeatedly, you eventually think it’s true and I thought that’s what Harbaugh did with all that Smith talk. I had a similar relationship with Daunte Culpepper in my fantasy leagues…things didn’t end well. For either of us. Regardless of if he believed it, things obviously turned around. ESPN writer Gregg Easterbrook has an interesting theory about coaches, that they can affect a team up to 10%, positively or negatively. Hindsight is always 20/20 but let’s look back at Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary for a moment. The obvious problem is that guys named Mike are shitty coaches. I’m only half joking. Mike Nolan was a career defensive coordinator, interested in pounding the ball and quick throws (and a propensity for draws on 3rd and long, dump offs to running backs for 2 yard losses and general stroke inducing behavior). He had the offensive creativity and fortitude of a wooden stick. Mike Singletary was a former linebacker and wanted to install a smash mouth defense with a corresponding offense. He, along with offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye even put in a spread offense to take advantage of Smith’s abilities. Sounds good right? Except I was talking about BOTH Troy and Alex. When Alex Smith had a rough start, he was pulled and berated on the sideline and substituted for Troy Smith. Imagine you were in school learning multiplication and every time you messed up your teacher yelled at you in front of the whole class, and then proceeded to throw you out of class whenever he felt like it. It’s not really a surprise the Niners did so poorly.
To understand a man’s actions, you need to first understand the man. I knew that Harbaugh had a successful coaching career at Stanford – especially with Andrew Luck – and I presumed that it translated over well to the NFL. That’s true, to a certain extent, but after doing some additional research (read: Google) I found much more. Harbaugh was a quarterback drafted by the Bears in 1987 under coach Mike Ditka. He played his first seven seasons for the Bears, struggling mightily at times, that culminated in a in-game incident where he threw an interception and was berated repeatedly on the sideline by Ditka, a guy known for his emotions and extreme temper. He really came into his own when he was traded to the Colts where he took them to the AFC championship game his 9th NFL season.
What he said to Sports Radio wasn’t just posturing, it was actually much greater than that because he himself had been through the same challenges. Though he hadn’t faced the same turmoil in coaching changes that Smith had, he’d been through the insecurities and public lashings that Smith had faced. Ditka’s coaching style may have inspired some, but for players like Harbaugh what they needed was reassurance and guidance, not benchings and yellings. Ditka’s style showed off in the attitudes of many of his former players including Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary who was on the team with Harbaugh. The same Singletary who eventually became the head coach of the 49ers and pulled the same tactics that he had seen from his own coach on Alex Smith.
The reason for the 49ers success isn’t just that Harbaugh’s a good coach, but that he saw some of himself in Alex Smith. He too had faced a tormenting coach and knew what it was like to crumble under that pressure. What he saw was a talented yet struggling quarterback in need of some guidance and safety, and I think in a way that’s why he decided to come to the 49ers. He’d seen himself crumble under that pressure and wasn’t about to let it again to happen to a young man in the league. By supporting Smith even before he had met him, by always giving positive feedback and helping him through his struggles, Harbaugh was giving Smith the strength and support he never received until after that 7th season. And that’s been the difference this year. Our team has developed on defense to be sure, but Smith has played with a confidence and poise never yet seen. He still has his gaping deficiencies and will never be a Peyton Manning, but it’s not about that. With Harbaugh behind him now, Smith knows he can take that extra risk and make mistakes knowing that he will have a coach that will be there for him through all of his failures and successes. It’s not a coincidence that now Smith has a 4th quarter passer rating of 99.0 when the score differential is a touchdown or less, and leads all quarterbacks in the league with a passer rating of 131.0 in the last two minutes of the halves.
It’s the 4th quarter with about two minutes left in the game. The 49ers were down 19-15 and were driving towards the Lions endzone to score what could be the game winning touchdown. The Lions had scored 13 points to the Niners 3 in the second half but they had finally gotten to the Lions 7 yard line. After 3 plays, it was 4th and goal from the 6 yardline. The game was coming down to this next play, and everyone knew it wouldn’t be a run. The ball would be back in Alex Smith’s hands. Delanie Walker lined up right with Crabtree in the slot. At the snap, Crabtree ran a post to the outside corner, and Walker slanted under that, giving him the smallest of separation from the cornerback covering him. With a linebacker hovering in the end zone and the cornerback just behind him and Walker still at the 3 yard line, Smith would have to make the perfect throw leading him into the endzone. Seeing this, Smith stepped into the pocket, locked into his receiver, and launched a throw.