1. 5-1, And I'm Talking About This Handshake Bullshit?
Here's the thing; it is and should be a non-issue. Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz are both hyper-competitive, highly-strung, extremely emotionally charged dudes. It's why they've both been so successful at turning their teams around. One guy was pumped up about winning, the other guy was pissed off about losing. Normal Human Reactions, especially when you consider that the 49ers and Lions are both teams on the come right now. Last week felt like a playoff game, and I think it's going to be. Probably later this year and possibly beyond, because these teams are going to be good and ascending for a while. Playoff runs for both teams are now possible, and likely will be coming at each other's expense. And the coaches and players probably realize this.
Yeah, the focus on the post-game handshake debacle has rather peeved me this week. Not merely because it has overshadowed what was the best and perhaps most important game of last week, to the point where the "highlight package" on NBC and ESPN during halftime of their respective prime time games was reduced to "Delanie Walker scores Winning TD" and "Oh Shit Look Old White Guys (hiding behind big black guys as they huff and puff and try to look like they're) Fighting! OMG!" I mind this less as the week went on, actually, since Lack Of Shown Highlights is one of many things in Head Coach Jim Harbaugh's bag of Motivational Tricks. So maybe that plays into his master plan of the team being Perpetually Pissed Off and ready to take it out on the opposition.
But the real problem with this is the incessant repetition of this highlight from the moment it happened. The Buzz has been wholly manufactured since its inception. "Ooh look at this! Oooh look at this! What do you think, Ex-Coach Punditoid In the Studio? Weigh in on this and make it seem VERY IMPORTANT!" This speaks to the distastefulness of both the New NFL and the new Americanism that Raven Mack has been telling us all about. This is Football held in thrall by its Television Partners, Boardroomocracies who see the world only in numbers and shades of demographic pie charts. To them football is "unscripted entertainment", a competitor with so-called "Reality TV" programs. The dedicated fan is taken for granted as an addict who will tune in no matter what, therefore increased ratings -- the means to the end of increased Ad Revenue -- depend on hooking the mythical "Casual Fan" who doesn't really give a shit about football but might watch if something non-footballish in a football game intrigues them. The idiot who actually likes the manufactured, fake human drama of Survivor or Jersey Shore. So the NFL's "broadcast partners" give them this non-issue, this pop-culture can of soda on which to gorge and rot their intellectual teeth. And really, the artificial tradition of the head coaches shaking hands at the end of the game, its a new, artificial thing. John Madden and Chuck Noll and Hank Stram and Tom Landry and Bill Walsh and Vince Lombardi never did this bullshit, and that's why their names and memories are so respected. The Handshake is a pretend tradition, and exists primarily for this purpose; not so we can see guys "respectfully" shaking hands as peers and equals, but so we can see them Disrespect each other and generate controversy, which in turn provides content, non-footballish content that can be put in a football themed show and get the non-football fan to watch, so they can charge the truck company another couple thousand dollars to run the commercial during the show's breaks.
Shame on all of us for being suckered into talking about it.
2. It All Started Because Of This Stupid New Rule
The two most noticed rule changes of the 2011 season are A) moving the kickoff back up to the 35 yard line to "increase player safety" [passive-aggressively, by making the game more "boring" due to increased touchbacks so that the fans will resent it and they can eventually change it back to the dangerous old way but with "proof" of having tried to better protect their products er I mean players], and B) All scoring plays are now automatically reviewed. People are predictably -- and wrongly -- complaining that this slows down the game. To hell with that complaint, it's Sunday and I fully intend to spend it doing fuck-all besides watch football as God intended, longer games means more time spent watching football means GOOD. Here are the problems with this rule. It carries with it a new automatic 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for "attempting to challenge an un-challengable play", wheras in the past if a coach tried this the refs would just wag their fingers at the coach, announce that "down by contact is not subject to review" and just ignore all the people angrily screaming at them.
Which, while so comically draconian it could only have been devised by the same brain trust that in charge of the NFL fine system that has stiffer penalties for flipping people off and UNIFORM DEVIANCIES than it does for heabutting a guy as hard as you can with a running start and well after the whistle, is not so bad in and of itself. The problem is this, which I have now seen happen twice (once to the 49ers and once to the Raiders) and heard about having happened to the Bears once as well. The "automatic" review of scoring plays, it turns out, isn't all that automatic. There was a disputed touchdown in this game, which the officials originally ruled to be incomplete, then they huddled and convened and discussed it and changed the on-field call to touchdown. They did NOT booth review it. So Harbaugh reflexively threw the flag because, hey, he thought that looked incomplete. Which is a penalty for challenging a play that can't be challenged. Because it's supposed to be reviewed automatically. Except it wasn't. So what is any coach to do in that situation?
That's the problem the rule; for everything to work properly, it assumes and depends on Referee Competency. Referees being, by the way, part-time employees unable to quit their day jobs because they are by far the worst-paid employees in all of football, given neither the time nor compensation required to comprehend the Necronomicon that is the modern NFL Rulebook. As we've seen so far and will likely see again, they're not up to the task.
Here's the tie-in to the handshake thing. It eventually started being reported a day or two after the handshake itself, but as Harbaugh was being penalized Jim Schwartz, energetic and competitive dude that he is, got pumped up and started taunting Jim Harbaugh from the sidelines to "learn the fucking rules, Harbaugh!" Unlikely that Harbaugh heard it at the time over the Ford Field crowd noise, but there's a metric shitload of cameras at a football game, recording just about everything. Some lipreader caught this and seems to have told Harbaugh about it at halftime as they were watching film to make halftime adjustments.
And Jim Harbaugh NEVER forgets any slight, real or imagined. He's always been a hypercompetitive vindictive jerk since he came into the league as a player. He nurtures this sort of shit as an excuse to fuck with people later. Rememeber Joe Pesci's character in Goodfellas? That's Harbaugh. "Learn the Fucking Rules" went over like Jim Schwartz had asked the first year coach to go get his Shoeshine Box. Harbaugh starts his day with a chip on his shoulder and is looking for an excuse to fight, and he isn't given one he'll invent one (lack of highlights) but if you actually give him one? He'll cultivate that seed of spite until it blooms into a vibrant Fuck You Flower. Just Ask Pete Carrol.
3. Anyway, they're 5-1.
Which is way ahead of my pre-season expectations. How could it not be? I didn't see Kendall Hunter + Frank Gore being as effective in tandem as they've been. Alex Smith has, one temporary relapse against Detroit aside, Not-Sucked, game managing his way to competence with flashes of decent. The secondary continues to not have the other shoe drop. The pash rush is at times kinda okay, as Aldon Smith has turned out to be a pretty good first round draft pick. The 49ers are pretty good. 5-1, including 4-1 in the all important (for NFC West teams) non-division category. See, you can't judge NFC West teams by their division record. It doesn't work. The 49ers have had artificial good starts of 2-0 and 3-1 before, in the recent past, and they turned out to be illusory products of feasting on the weak divisional opponents. Typically, the weak sister NFC West Champion does this to the tune of 5 wins, and backs in at 9-7 (or worse) after limping to 3 wins against the rest of the league. I went through the schedule at the start of the year, then, looking for those 3 wins that could combine with a hopeful division sweep (or a 4th win to compensate for a hiccup in, say, Seattle) that would equate to a long-awaited token playoff appearance.
They've already got 4. The remaining schedule is: Browns, @ Redskins, Giants, @ Ravens on a short thanksgiving week, and Steelers breaking up the back-loaded division games at the end of the year. 5 is very doable, 6 is quite possible. It seems like, barring injury, the Division Championship the 49er Faithful thought was ours by default last year is becoming a safer and safer assumption. And the more wins they continue to get against the rest of the league, the teams competing for playoff spots, the more it looks like they might not only get there, but actually do something once they do. A token one-and-done taste of the playoffs was a best-case dream. The 49ers are well on their way to raising the bar to where that is a little disappointing. That sort of progress, all in one year, is quite exciting.