Tuesday, September 13, 2011

49ers Week 1 Review

Jim Harbaugh is already off to a better start in 2011 than Mike Singletary was in 2010 which, after how last year ended up playing out, is quite the relief. The offense was not much better, truth be told; in fact for a while the first half resembled last year's season opener against Seattle with a lot of predictable and conservative attempts to run the ball up the middle with Frank Gore, which has about as much element of surprise as the sun coming up in the morning. Halfway through my play by play summation of the game I was running out of new ways to describe "Frank Gore runs up the middle for half a yard". One 49er drive started out as a 1st and Goal at the Seattle 8, on the heels of a pretty Strip Sack by Parys Harrelson, which slowly wafted through the air (like so many plastic grocery bags have done before it at the 'Stick) and directly into the hands of the obligatory DL whose name you can't read because he's Tongan and thus his rock star hair flows out of his helmet and over his name tag at all times. This led to three nothing runs and a FIELD GOAL. Yeah. And the same 6-0 lead the 49ers had last year in game 1 against Seattle before the wheels fell off, the oil tank hemmoraged, the transmission bounced onto the ground, the windshield glass voluntarily shattered due to its own despair at all of the above and even the ashtray learned human speech just so it could say "Fuck this shit, I'm outta here. See ya."

Fortunately the game diverged from 2010 patterns at that point. Oh sure, the next drive ALSO stalled and led to a Field Goal, but it featured a cagey and crafty 4th down conversion wherein an Offensive Lineman reported eligible to the referee, lined up as a Tight End, and then made a deliberate show of standing up, taking a step back, and crouching back down to reset. Which is completely legal and fair and teams have their TEs do this routinely. But the Seattle linemen all jumped demonstrably into the neutral zone and bumped into the 49ers line as all teams train their guys to do these days, in the NFL version of kindergarten tattle-tailing. "Oooh Look! Teacher Teacher! They false started and made me jump!" But this was a totally legal shift that fooled Seattle because the player doing so wore a normally-ineligible number. Still only led to 3 points, but I got excited over this display of outside-the-box cunning. Singletary never would've come up with this; he'd have smashed Gore up the middle again for 3 more inches and a cloud of dust, which Seattle had shown every indication of being both totally able to see coming and completely stop when it came. Harbaugh devised sneaky but technically legal penalty bait, safer and surer than a run or a pass when 5 yards is way more than all you need, because Jim Harbaugh is a Cagey Bastard. I'm gonna like having my team coached by a Cagey Bastard again.

The 49ers eventually took a 16-0 Halftime lead, which all-too-quickly turned into a 19-10 lead, because the 3rd Quarter Sucked and the first half of the 4th Quarter wasn't much better. There was an awful lot of Frank Gore slamming into the middle of his own line and last year's old Offensive Conservativism. 22 carries for 57 yards, to put it in numbers for those who like that sort of thing, by which I mean Fantasy Addicts. But the defense was playing well, particularly the defensive line. Justin Smith forced Seattle linemen to put him in a sleeperhold every single passing play, and the officials even actually called it a few times. This year's first round draft pick, Alton "Not Alex" Smith swatted a couple passes at the line, one of which meant the difference between Seattle settling for 3 and trying for 7. This turned out to be a very important difference, because just as I was noticing the 49ers had a 2 score lead with 4 minutes left and how It's A Good Thing They Lead By More Than A Touchdown Just In Case Seattle Gets Lucky Or They Fuck Up... they immediately Fucked Up. On a 1st down play, Tavaris Jackson threw a modest 4 yard hitch pass to some guy named Doug Baldwin, and he ran for about 40 yards because there was NOBODY behind him. There was no blitz on or anything, it was just a regular 1st down play in the middle of the field, except for some reason the safteys thought that the right side of the field was purely optional or something. Just like that it was 19-17 with 3:46 left, which surely meant the 49ers would run the ball 3 times for 2 yards and punt the ball back to Seattle with 2 minutes and all their time outs left to get just 1 Field Goal and reduce my vocabulary range to variants of "Motherfucker" for the rest of my Sunday Evening.

Except then something rather amazing started to happen. Especially amazing if you're one of the folks upset about them moving the kickoff back up to the 35 to promote Better Player Safety Through Boring Touchbacks. Or if you're a Miami Dolphin fan and are thus used to this guy not living up to your hopes and expectations:

Part of me was tempted to have my game review be just this picture, re-posted 3 or 4 times.

Being prone to pessimism means that being proven wrong feels GREAT. Seattle's ensuing kickoff sailed into the end zone (of course), Ted Ginn ran up to catch it with that curious loping stride of his that always makes him look like he's jogging slowly even though he's actually outrunning everyone else on the field, and no sooner does the thought "why is he trying to return this? Ugh!" finish running through my head than Ted showed me why he was bothering to return this. Undaunted by all his earlier journeys from the end zone to the 15 yard line on kickoffs, or his Adventures In Running Backwards To Lose Yardage on punts, Ginn caught the kick with a running start and looped around the left side of Seattle's kick coverage and was down the sideline as seen above. (Not seen: Ginn slowing down around the 25 slightly to wave the ball around like a doofus like all modern players do, and almost get caught in an embarrassing strip or tackle, only to fortunately realize someone actually was gaining on him and re-engage top speed. You'd like to think this team would learn their lesson after losing a game they had won last year against Atlanta literally as a direct result of showboating like this leading to a fumble because Roddy White has a brain in his head, but eh, what can you do).

Ted Ginn, bailing out his team's stupid secondary (actually they played okay, other than that one massive brainfart). Ted Ginn, compensating for his team's too-conservative offense. 49ers forced a 3 and Out including a sack that pushed Seattle's punter into his own end zone, and TED GINN, Doing That Shit Again!

Somewhere, a Seahawks blogger is writing his review of the game, and it's entitled

Ted Ginn, now the 12th player in NFL history with a kickoff return TD and a punt return TD in the same game. He might be the first guy to get them on consecutive touches. Ginn's probably close to the speed record for the feat, as these return plays all happened in 77 seconds of game time. And in those 77 seconds, quite a flew flaws, concerns, and question marks got swept under the rug. Hell, Ginn's display has also overshadowed a subtler but perhaps more amazing accomplishment of Sunday's game:

Alex Smith was getting cheered.

Our favorite whipping boy actually played a pretty good, albeit unspectacular, game. It was a Game-Manager's stat line for Alex, barely over 100 yards passing and a completion percentage made artificially high by a low number of attempts, almost all of which were underneath, but he didn't complete any to the other team this time. He didn't fumble, either. I don't think he even took a sack. He definitely didn't get booed every time he threw an incompletion, which is a welcome contrast from last year's nastiness. Alex contributed to the offense with his legs and, oddly enough, his shoulder. Frank Gore's one really successful run in the entire game came on a pitch where Alex Smith got out in front of him as his lead blocker and put his shoulder square in some dude's chest to clear the way. For an encore, Smith bootlegged right and ran kinda-sorta-over a dude at the goal line for their one and only actual offensive TD of the game. Obviously 49er fans want Alex to magically turn into an approximation of Joe or Steve some day, but in the interim, the channeling of Tom Rathman was just fine.

Next Week: another home game, against the old enemy from the glory days, Dallas.

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