In retrospect, the San Francisco 49ers played astronomically beyond their talents this season. Probably nobody knows this more than Jim Harbaugh. But I imagine he still must be distraught over Sunday’s 20-17 overtime loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship. I know 49ers fans are.
One can only look at Alex Smith and marvel at the 49ers’ turnaround season. With Smith at the helm, the franchise was teetering on edge in all of its 18 games. Could he make the big throw? Will he make the throw? Will the season go down in flames because of him? He transcended all of that, helping the 49ers to a 13-3 regular season and a stellar divisional playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints. And yet, still, the 49ers faltered.
Blame Kyle Williams if you want, but there were way too many plays left on the field against the Giants. And Smith, in my opinion, is just as worthy of fault as Williams.
Sunday’s NFC Championship was much like the 49ers’ Thanksgiving Day game against the Baltimore Ravens. The 49ers made too many mistakes to survive. The fumble by Williams in overtime stands out, but when Smith started playing target practice with the ankles of his receivers to begin two straight drives in the fourth quarter, there was more than a bit of trepidation seeping in the building. Smith’s final line was 12 of 26 passing for 126 yards and two touchdowns. If one didn’t know any better, you’d think the team in red and gold was playing with its backup under center.
However, in keeping with the 49ers’ theme of the year — stellar defense, mediocre offense — the team somehow fought its way into a position to win the game, pushing the Giants into overtime despite going three-and-out on two straight possessions with less than five minutes left in regulation. An inability to punch it into the end zone literally murdered the 49ers’ chance at Super Bowl XLVI.
Forget Williams. Get over that. It was a team loss, one marked by a deficient offense and tired defense. But what you can’t forget is that the 49ers went 14-4 despite what we all knew to be a limited team. It’s because of their phenomenal success that this year has been so satisfying for football fans, whether you’re from the Bay or not.
The loss to the Giants is not the first time the 49ers have disappointed me — and it surely won’t be the last. But this season also happens to have provided some surprises, for the better. I can live with that.
I think we all can agree that Alex Smith has come of age this season. In the best game of his turbulent seven-year career, the man who played his college ball in Utah and never seemed to bring his helmet with him to the NFL, has leapfrogged every expectation thrown at him this season under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. Smith provided San Francisco 49ers fans with an unbelievable performance to admire for years to come, besting the highly touted New Orleans Saints and their MVP-candidate quarterback Drew Brees. In the 49ers’ 36-32 win Saturday, Smith was nothing short of phenomenal (24-of-42 passing for 299 yards and three touchdowns). And while it was really a complete game for the 49ers, with the team being carried for three quarters by the defense, Smith really turned it up a notch in the fourth quarter as the offense carried the team. And it’s because of his late game heroics that I’m so enamored with the guy I openly said should be out of football — both here on this site and in my columns for The Union.
49ers linebacker Larry Grant, who I attended school with, expressed that the mood of San Franciscans has changed in regard to Smith, something I think has occurred nationally too.
“Being a San Francisco guy, I’ve seen the ups and downs in the past with Alex Smith,” Grant said. “Not only am I, but the city of San Francisco is proud of what happened. His success is leading us to the next level each week.”
A few plays on offense stand out to me and I think they should be noted here:
1) I’ve been critical of Smith because of his seeming lack of accuracy, penchant for tunnel vision, and general flappableness under duress. Not on Saturday. Not in the red zone. In the first quarter, on a patented West Coast slant, Smith hit Michael Crabtree in stride for a 4-yard touchdown to give the 49ers a 14-0 lead, erasing any doubts about his ability to pull the trigger and be a gunslinger with the best of them. I think I tweeted at the time it was a big boy throw. Better than the 49-yard touchdown he threw to Vernon Davis to go up 7-0 moments ago. It put the Saints on their heels and made Brees antsy, throwing multiple times into coverage. That was great for an opportunistic defense.
2) On what seemed like the 49ers’ last drive, their last chance to tie or win the game, on 3rd-and-7 with a little more than two minutes to go, Smith broke out left on a bootleg with tackle Joe Staley sprinting in front of him. Simultaneously, the realization of both talents came to fruition on a national stage. Staley, the veteran tackle and leader on the 49ers’ offensive line, performed one of the best blocks of his career and Smith, looking every bit the athletic quarterback he was touted in 2005, toed the sideline en route to a 28-yard touchdown. With the 49ers’ defense, the thinking was that the Saints were toast. Not so fast …
3) After giving up an unforgivable 66-yard touchdown to Jimmy Graham, the 49ers were faced with another long drive to win the game, with 1:32 left to do it. Smith, still with his big boy shorts on, made two not-so quick passes to Frank Gore to get the 49ers going. But it’s what he did on the fourth play of the drive that picked up the chins of the fans at Candelstick Park and those watching around the world. On 2nd-and-10, Smith threw a dart to Davis over the middle of the field with tight coverage on him. Davis turned it up field, sprinting for a 47-yard gain. Again, the old Alex wouldn’t have made that throw. He would have been paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake in that situation. But Harbaugh has him brooding with confidence, rightfully so, and he was able to show the world again that he was a quarterback that belongs.
4) With 14 seconds on the clock, and 49ers’ season seemingly on the brink, Smith stepped into another echelon of quarterbacks in San Francisco lore. Joe Montana did it. Steve Young did it. Now Alex Smith has done it. Looking for Davis again over the middle, Smith connects with the burly tight end on a laser of a pass for a 14-yard touchdown, one in which if it wasn’t as timely or as on target, would’ve likely been an interception. Even more phenomenal, Davis took his route, a post, behind Saints linebacker Scott Shanle in zone coverage and in front of Saints safety Roman Harper who was sitting two yards in the end zone. He had to bulldoze his way over the safety for the score. But it was small window of opportunity that amazed me. The possibility and probability of success on a throw like that must be very, very small. It was a Brett Favre throw. It didn’t make much sense, but it won the game. And with it, it won over more than few Smith detractors, myself included.
I could go on and on about this game. I could nitpick how the defense almost gave it away after setting a physical tone. I could look at five other Smith throws that I don’t think he would’ve made a year ago. I could go in length on the ballsy call by Harbaugh on Smith’s touchdown run. But the unrelenting sentiment is that this team, and in particular Smith, are overachieving underdogs. And despite being counted out, both in his career and in these playoffs, Smith has proven everyone wrong by leading the 49ers on this remarkable journey to the NFC Championship. The win against the Saints has been billed as an instant classic. Vernon Davis has said to call his touchdown “The Grab,” following in the footsteps of Montana’s “The Catch” and Young’s “The Catch II.” (On Twitter and Facebook, I called it The Catch III. I’ll defer to Vernon on this.) It can only get better for the 49ers. And certainly, if the season were to end on Sunday against the New York Giants, the overwhelming feeling now is that Alex Smith is the 49ers’ quarterback going forward. He has earned it.
It occurred to me after Sunday’s games were over that the New England Patriots, a team in which I occasionally help cover for the newspaper, is remarkably similar to the San Francisco 49ers.
How, you might ask? They’re not stupid teams. Not like the Eagles, whom killed themselves with penalties and drops against the Patriots, or the Jets, whom succumbed to idiotic gameplanning against the Patriots twice. The 49ers, unlike the bottom tier of the NFL and particularly the AFC East, are turnover allergic. They’re penalty averse. They’re smarter than your average Bear.
Through Week 12, the 49ers are 21st in the NFL for penalties committed and 15th in penalty yards. But most important, their turnover differential is a +16. The Patriots are a +6.
(The Patriots’ numbers in general are nowhere near as kind. I’ll get to that.)
There are signs of Bill Belichick in Jim Harbaugh. They’re both ill-disposed to making direct statements. They’re both committed to crappy players for reasons no one understands. And they’re both making the best of units that have eye-popping deficiencies. Think Alex Smith or the Patriots’ secondary.
Yet, when given the opportunity on a primetime game on the nation’s best holiday (yes, I went there) to show off the team’s new stature among the NFL elite, the 49ers were not up to the task. They committed seven penalties for 97 yards and Smith threw an interception, helping the Ravens bring the Red and Gold back down to Earth. What had worked for a majority of the season — ball security — was lost in the talk of the Har-bowl.
But luckily for the 49ers, they know this. Said Harbough, “I think it will makes us stronger going forward.”
Identifying the problems have been simple. Fixing the talent, has not.
The Patriots had the same sort of issues when they suffered a two-game skid a month ago. They knew what the problems were, but couldn’t fix the talent issue. (Again, think Patriots’ secondary.) In time, the team has gotten smarter. The talent-less Joes charged with defending the best wide receivers in the league have made fewer and fewer mistakes. Yes, they’ve given up some big plays, and yes they’re still worst in the NFL in passing yards allowed. But despite the alarm bells behind the numbers, they’re still apart of a defense that is giving up 20.3 points per game, good for 11th in the NFL. That’s because they don’t make stupid mistakes. Instead, they make the competition beat them straight up.
Imagine the Patriots with 49ers defense, which is the best in the NFL. They’d be undefeated. Imagine the 49ers with the Patriots offense, which is the second best, if not the best, offense in the NFL. They’d be undefeated.
These hypotheticals here really have no place in the world. But stop for a second and imagine if other teams in the NFL not only closed the talent gap, but closed the intelligence gap.
I recall sitting in the press box at the Meadowlands watching the Patriots beat up on the Jets and thinking, this is horrible. The Patriots aren’t more talented, but they’re certainly not as stupid as this team. The same could be said of a number of the 49ers’ wins. It’s a testament to the coaching and the fact that the NFL is not as much about brute force and talent as it is about smarts. Without smarts, the Patriots definitely wouldn’t be 8-3. And the 49ers wouldn’t be 9-2. And I wouldn’t be thinking of some fantasy concoction.
And now on to my picks, comments not included.
Rams at 49ers
My pick: 49ers
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MADRID — I’m happy to take a moment here on vacation to report that I have been keeping abreast of the news back home and I’m thoroughly pleased with the recent turn of events for the San Francisco 49ers.
The moves of the past month have been needed for a long time.
First, the Week 15 firing of Mike Singletary capped what was surely the most disappointing coaching stint in 49ers history since Dennis Erickson’s “glorious” return from the college ranks. Second, the hiring of 49ers general manager Trent Baalke, who fills a role that was left void following Scot McCloughlan’s abrupt departure after the Mike Nolan reign, put a must needed football man in front of a once awkward power structure. And lastly, Jim Harbaugh’s hiring ices the cake as the 49ers went after, and attained, one of the best college coaches in the game and a guy on everybody’s wish list. (Well, OK, maybe just Miami’s.)
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Editor’s note: If I ever wrote a column again, it’d be here on Wednesdays. In fact, that’s what I plan on doing. Starting next week, right here, my thoughts. You know the topics: Giants, 49ers, Warriors and journalism. Screw the Raiders. (OK, maybe some Raiders. But definitely screw the A’s.) This is long overdue.
A new group is saying they want to buy The Boston Globe.
This comes at a time when the New York Times Company has not put the Globe up for sale. Instead, the group, The 2100 Trust, is looking to protect the interest of the community, so to speak, buy buying the Globe as some form of community trust. Hence the name.
The 2100 Trust, a Massachusetts-based limited liability company, is putting together a community-focused investor group to submit a letter of intent to purchase The New England Media Company, including The Boston Globe and all its associated properties from the New York Times Company.
The Boston Globe has been a pillar in the city, the Commonwealth and the region for more than a century. We believe that The Boston Globe’s strongest days can be ahead. It is essential that the Globe be positioned for its next 100 years. This will require the significant long-term investment that we intend to make. One of the principal areas of investment will be the newsroom, which is due for a significant increase.
This all comes on the heels of the Globe’s major announcement a couple of weeks ago in which publisher Chris Mayer revealed plans for the Globe to carry two websites going forward, BostonGlobe.com and Boston.com (for which I am employed). BostonGlobe.com will be a sorta paywall website, whereas as Boston.com will remain free. Globe content will be split up among the two.
Mayer responded in a memo to the Globe about the advance, which the NYT co. still has not received.
“While we can’t stop others from having interest in our business, I’m viewing any potential outside interest in the Globe as a reaffirmation that we’re doing all the right things and moving the business forward,” Mayer wrote. “We have a solid strategy. Let’s stay focused on our success.”
The idea of having two websites at the Globe was a hot topic in the hallways last week. Everybody wants to know how it’s going to work out. And, as Mayer has said before, all the answers have not been determined yet. But this renewed interest in purchasing the Globe, something which was broached in 2006 and in 2009 when the Times threatened to shutter the Globe, seems to be an obvious response to the new strategy. I say obvious without actually knowing what’s in the minds and hearts of the individuals encompassing The 2100 Trust. However, this group’s timing could not be any more questionable.
This also comes at a time when the union is negotiating the Globe’s contract before it expires at the end of the year.
What does all of this mean for me?
It means that I’ll be working for both of the websites going forward, producing content for both. There’s a lot of gray right now, but I’ll be one of the many producers and editors for the website that determines what content goes to each website and what goes on both. (Yes, there are some items that will be on both.) My job will not drastically change. I’ll still be producing journalism with my eyes on serving New England fans for both high school sports and wherever else needed.
Eastie-Southie game hitting home
I recently moved from East Boston to South Boston. So went from hanging out in Eastie, to now living Southie. (Explaining this for the non-New Englanders.) Anyways, it means that I now have a rooting interest in watching the Eastie-Southie game on Thanksgiving Day. Or at least I can pretend. Either way, I miss the house in East Boston. But the move was warranted. They were selling it. I’m very happy with the new home and it’s actually pretty cool to be two minutes away from the office. In eight days, I will have been in New England for an entire year. I flew in on a blustery night, Oct. 28. In the past 12 months, I’ve lived in three different places. Hopefully, I’m here in Southie for awhile.
Alex Smith sucks
One game doesn’t change my opinion of a man. Nor does two. In fact, his entire body of work is what I’m thinking of when I say I think he’s a rotten QB and should be tossed out on his hindquarters. But it’s not my team, now is it. The 49ers won their first game on Sunday despite Alex Smith. However, the embattled QB did not throw an interception. He had averaged 1.8 interceptions a game up until the Battle of the Bay. It was another milestone for what has been a terrible season for Mr. Suck. But he is getting better. In fact, the comeback attempt against the Philadelphia Eagles was his first signs of real life to me, throwing two touchdowns in a what eventually was a 27-24 defeat including a — you guessed it — interception to end the game. The whole incident in which he argued with Mike Singletary and fought to go back in the game after getting pulled was the first time Smith actually appeared to be a sympathetic figure to me. He wasn’t just arguing for a few minutes of reserve time. Smith was arguing for his career right then and there. You could see it in the urgency of his body language. You could see it in the urgency of his play after he called David Carr back to the sideline. He was a man on a mission to save his career. That was interesting. But two games doesn’t change my opinion of Alex Smith the QB yet. He still sucks.
How about ‘dem Giants?I can’t help but think about the inevitable argument on sports radio here in Boston when the San Francisco Giants make the World Series. These guys are gonna bring up all the reasons why the Giants shouldn’t be there. How the Red Sox could beat ‘em and yaddy ya ya ya. I hate this line of argument. It’s all about the American League being better than the National League. I get it. AL cities have a superiority complex. Fine. But let’s not let the conversation fall into what the Sox, or any other AL team would do, when they’re not even in the dance. That’s just stupid. If the Red Sox were to be included in the argument, they’d first have to go back and win a couple of regular season games and then win a couple of series against some of the best teams in baseball before even being mentioned. I have no problem with the Yankees, Rangers, or even the Phillies, beating the Giants as the world crams it on the Black and Orange about how they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. But those are playoff teams. And as far as I’m concerned, they’re the only ones that matter.
Jason Campbell sucks
But you know this, right? And to think, I had lobbied for the 49ers to actually trade for Jason Campbell. But after the stinker he put up against the 49ers (8-of-21, 83 yards, 2 interceptions, 10.7 QB rating), I’d be remiss to say that wasn’t one of my better ideas. I mean, he did that against the 49ers. I’m not saying the 49ers defense is bad (10th in yard allowed per game), but they aren’t the Chargers (1st in yard allowed per game, 1st in passing yards allowed per game).
Crackdown on the crackdowns
I used to blow guys up all the time … OK, I’m lying. I used to cheap shot guys as my teammate ran up and down the sidelines for a league-leading 32 touchdowns. But you know what, I never once hit a guy helmet to helmet. Not on purpose. I did so one time on accident. Guess who got hurt? I did. Sorta Dunta Robinson like. It made me woozy for at least two more plays as I stayed in the game trying to stop a team from scoring on us. I don’t think it was a concussion, but it would explain a lot. Either way, this crackdown needed to happen. These guys are physically talented enough at the NFL level to tackle people by aiming for the core of the ball carrier’s body, rather than the head or neck. For guys like James Harrison to consider retiring because he may not know how to play the game is absolutely idiotic. But then again, he’s the same guy who said he wouldn’t go to the White House and meet the president (Obama and Bush) after winning the Super Bowl because “they weren’t for the Steelers.” We’re not talking about the smartest Golden Girl here.
Be sure to follow along on Twitter as I tweet about things related to Massachusetts high school sports and other stuff. I like the other stuff, but Mass High sports are cool too. It’s football season, ya know.
So I wrote a little thing about Boston sports summer storylines knowing very well that this topic was going to come up. You know, Bay Area sports storylines.
Here, again, I’m dividing them by individual team. Now, because the Bay Area obviously has more teams than Boston, I’ll just have to write more. But you know who comes first….
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OK, I really don’t care who they pick. I’m really more interested in what they pick with their first pick of the 2010 NFL draft.
Will it be a quarterback? A wide receiver? A running back? That’s really what’s important.
Readers of this blog will know from prior posts where I stand. The San Francisco 49ers need a quarterback. They continue to sign and trade for receivers as if the team has a receivers problem. Arnaz Battle wasn’t the problem. And Ted Ginn Jr. is not the answer.
Neither is David Carr.
Every problem with the 49ers offense — and I mean every problem — falls at the feet of Alex Smith. He’s a former No. 1 pick that’s not a No. 1 quarterback. That’s plain and simple to me.
No offense to Smith, but 2010-11 cannot be his year for the sake of my sanity. This year, like last year (and the year before that), the 49ers need to go in a different direction.
So what will it be? Jimmy Clausen (above) looks kinda sexy at No. 13 … or No. 17.
I’d hate to have the 49ers go this route for two reasons:
- When Smith was the starter, and healthy, he went 7-9 in the 2006 season while leading the 49ers on two phenomenal comebacks. Unfortunately, these two golden nuggets were not a sign of promise. It’s a sign of his limit. What we’ve come to know of Smith is that he’s fragile. (how did he injure that shoulder again last season? Oh, that’s right, by throwing the ball in practice. The primary function of his job!) He’s also sensitive and he wilts under pressure. Taking slices of Smith’s career and then evaluating him as a whole is faulty logic, and an apologist’s summation for a loser.
- Locker room leadership may take a hit if Hill can’t surpass Smith. I remember vividly the divide on our team in high school when we were trying to determine who would be our quarterback. Of course, it was always up to the coaches but everyone had their sides. And when a decision was made, some folks were disgruntled. If you think that can’t or won’t happen on a professional team, you’re whacko. Last thing Mike Singletary needs on his team is a loser. Guess who fits that description best of the two.
Look, I don’t want to go back down the path of trying something old (relatively speaking), tested and not battle ready. That’s exactly what Smith is. We’ve tried him, it didn’t work, it’s time to move on. Full-time duties should be put on Shaun Hill until he screws that up royally. And if it comes to that, the 49ers need to make moves for a veteran free agent. I mean, Trent Green is available. It can’t get worse than that. Can it?
Hey Denver, your loss may be San Francisco’s gain. And I’m not talking about the Rocky.
If Jay Cutler successfully forces a trade because of Josh McDaniel’s first bungled player-personnel flap, I’m personally suggesting to Scot McCloughan that he should make a move on the 3-year veteran.
What’s more, I’m pretty sure that if the 49ers don’t make a move in the first round with a quarterback selection as expected and don’t find another “capable” quarterback in free agency, San Francisco is going to be doomed with the likelihood of a prolonged quarterback problem as Alex Smith and Shaun Hill battle it out for the top spot. I know Smith took his medicine last year getting benched, but his lingering presence is, at best, a distraction. At worst, drama.
Shaun Hill, for all of his positives and glowing record as a starter (7-3), is just not the man to carry the franchise to the next level. Now is the time during to build on a solid, new prospect. Cutler can be the man the 49ers always hoped for in Smith.
Cutler, or a young unnamed and undrafted quarterback, fixes everything that eviscerated under Mike Nolan’s power. The guy from Santa Claus, Ind., is coachable, he’s fairly precise (career 62.5 percent completion rate) and his faults haven’t been played out on the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle.
No, we’ve watched him dismantle the Oakland Raiders (in prime time) and lead a relatively successful career in the shadow of John Elway’s legacy. His 4,526 passing yards and 25 touchdowns were career bests last year — a pro bowl year.
Did I mention that he’s only 25?
I’m high on Cutler because he’s one of those 12 quarterbacks in the league with 100 percent ownership in fantasy football leagues. Hill would kill for 50 percent next season.
And you know what? After all that he’s done for his team and city, they’re treating him like he’s Alex Smith.
You don’t bring in another quarterback when you’ve got a pro bowler on your team in the very same position. Repeat: You don’t bring in another quarterback when you’ve got a pro bowler on your team in the very same position.
What McDaniels did was a slap in Cutler’s face. For him to jockey for power at their recent meeting, when the feud was really about respect, is the infancy of idiocy.
Did he learn his people skills from Bill Belichick? I’d really like to know.
To solve Denver’s problems, which are not going to change without some furniture moving, and to quell the angst of this 49ers fan’s spirits, I suggest a trade of Smith and Cutler, with appropriate draft picks to measure the weight of the Broncos’ loss.
Smith would get the fresh start he deserves — as far away from my red and gold as possible — and Cutler will get treated with respect and dignity in a football town in need of a quarterback.
Oh, and Denver will get exactly what it deserves — another loss.
Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in The Union.