Just so you know, the San Francisco 49ers are doing it all wrong.
In a league that values the passing game most of all, and allows Super Bowls to be won by teams with horrible defenses and rushing attacks, the 49ers rebuilt by Jim Harbaugh in less than one full calendar year are about those exact things — running and stopping the run. Their quarterback, Alex Smith, is a one-time first overall pick bust turned that most pejorative of terms — "Game Manager." They're all about minimizing their own mistakes and maximizing the errors of their opponents -- that's why they have the best turnover ratio in the league — but almost nothing they do pops off the tape like a Ben Roethlisberger bomb to Antonio Brown or an Aaron Rodgers missile strike to Jordy Nelson.
The only offensive record they've set of any note this year is that their kicker, David Akers, has booted the most field goals in a single season in NFL history with 42, and that's a completely appropriate indictment of their red-zone offense.
Harbaugh's 49ers are decidedly, defiantly, and delightfully old school. They're also tied with the New England Patriots for the second-best record in the NFL at 12-3, they're pushing the New Orleans Saints for the two-seed in the NFC, and a New Year's miracle could see them with even more. After a 19-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks in which two franchise marks were broken against his team (long stretches without allowing a rushing touchdown or 100-yard rusher), Harbaugh reflected on the approach that has seen them through the season.
"It was just a great job by our guys," he said. "I think it was a playoff type of atmosphere, a playoff type of a game. It was a great preview for our team of what the playoffs are going to be like. We overcame a lot of things. We overcame adversity, overcame the opposing crowd. It is a tremendous atmosphere for football, they're really into it here. It really makes you feel like a man, when you can do that. Our guys feel good about what they accomplished. I thought they let it all hang out today. They came up with some big fourth down conversions in the game. Our players were the ones that executed it. It's just really good football for our young team."
Seattle's Marshawn Lynch scored a rushing touchdown and ran for 107 yards -- he was the first 100-plus opponent the 49ers had allowed since November 22, 2009 and the first back their defense had let in the end zone all year — but in the end, the most effective runner on either side might have been the quarterback Smith, who kept several plays alive with his legs in ways that Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle's quarterback, failed to do. With their integrated run game, the 49ers were two of three in fourth-down conversions, and that's another aspect of Harbaugh's situational knowledge. While the Seahawks were floundering on short-yardage situations even after solving the San Francisco run defense, the 49ers kept things going when necessary even though they converted just three of 14 third-down attempts.
It isn't always pretty, but it works when it needs to.
"It was a little bit of gamesmanship," Harbaugh said of the call to go for it on the first drive of the second half. With a short play expected, Smith hit Vernon Davis for 16 yards. "I was trying to direct it to the offensive line, saying that we were going to run the ball to them, so let's come off the ball, in case anybody was looking. We had play action pass called. I was trying to be animated toward the offensive line that we were going to run the ball in this situation, so come off the ball, and give it that illusion, but we had a play-action pass called."
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Harbaugh's coaching job this year — and he's almost certainly sewn up Coach of the Year awards — is the development of Smith. Harbaugh took a shell-shocked player and gave him the template for success that worked with his skill set — stay within yourself, don't screw it up, and know where your strengths lie. With that established, Smith has started to come out of his shell in a way that may have him as the franchise's answer for the long term.
"There were some real great, creative plays; improvisation," Harbaugh said of Smith. "On the fourth and three, getting Vernon down the sideline there, a terrific throw. He used his feet a couple of times, to scramble. He was consistently accurate. It's tough enough playing quarterback in this type of environment: loud. He didn't make it look that way. I thought he was sensational, in all aspects. Some real pinpoint throws."
Smith's confidence now shows on and off the field. "They were playing us tough on the outside, a lot of man-to-man and press," Smith said of Seattle's defense. "It really felt like, especially that two-minute drive at the end of the half, it really felt like as we were playing I had a lot of backs turned to me and it felt like I could have moved the chains better at the end of the half and we took advantage of it in the second half. I kind of had it in my head. If they were going to play that way I was going to try to use my legs."
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll wants a team very much like the one Harbaugh has — a defense-first squad with a strong running game in which the quarterback is more a complementary piece than the be-all/end-all. For a while, at least, his team slugged out with Harbaugh's just as the two coaches did in their days in the Pac-10. But eventually, as it was in the season opener for both teams, Harbaugh's team pulled away as it has for most of the season — correctly, methodically, and based on the mistakes the other guys make.
"They're the best in the NFL," Carroll said of the 49ers' defense. "Today, our guys blocked them like other teams that we've played. I thought it was really, really stellar on our part. Nobody has blocked them like that. Somebody said they hadn't allowed a 100 yard rusher in 36 games, or some crazy number like that. I can see why. Those guys are really good."
Yes, they are. And while Harbaugh's 49ers may not pop off the screen, their smashmouth style might be the perfect counter in the postseason to a collection of playoff teams that have moved away from the fundamental approach.
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