Forget Harbaugh's handshake, his 49ers are the real top story
At 5-1 through six weeks, the San Francisco 49ers are more than playoff bound
Aaron Rodgers is on track to challenge three single-season passing records
Players of the Week, 10 Things I Think I Think, Mike McGuire checks in
We all have opinions on what passed for Sunday Afternoon At the Fights in Detroit Sunday, and before I get too far into my 9,300 words this morning, let me give you my view of it so we can get on to the incredible story the 49ers are writing, what a NaVorro Bowman is, how Steve Young is playing a part (a small one, but a part) in the Aaron Rodgers story, the value of Andrew Luck, how Kurt Coleman might have saved the Eagles' season, WWAD (What Would Al Do) at quarterback, and the general flotsam, jetsam and mayhem of Week 6 of the season.
I liked it better when coaches wore suits.
The NFL likes coaches to wear licensed casual apparel on the sidelines (not "likes;'' more like "mandates''), and maybe there'd be more dignity in sideline decorum if the league went back to allowing coaches to dress like businessmen. Maybe that would have prevented 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, after a huge win at Detroit, from flying off the sidelines like a bottle rocket and slapping Lions coach Jim Schwartz like a player on his team who'd just scored a touchdown.
And maybe it would have stopped Schwartz, though understandably ticked off at Harbaugh's exuberance, from chasing after him the way he'd chase the kid on the block bullying his fourth-grader. Harbaugh lit the fuse. Schwartz exploded. And if it weren't for a 49er security guy and San Francisco PR man Bob Lange interceding ("WhoaWhoaWhoaWhoa!!!!!!'' Lange shouted at Schwartz, in the middle of the two men, when Schwartz was about to get at Harbaugh and possibly do something he might regret for a long, long time), this story might be a lot more than three paragraphs on the top of this column.
The postgame handshake is supposed to be an example of the sportsmanship the NFL stands for, which is why I think the NFL has to discipline both coaches in the wake of what happened Sunday. On all the TV shows, including my stint on NBC, as much attention (maybe more) was paid to the bizarre sights of an orgasmic Harbaugh and a losing-it Schwartz than to an incredible game between two of the best teams in football, and certainly there were more sound bites pertaining to the fight than to what happened in three tense hours of football at Ford Field.
At NBC, we not only used the accusatorily mellow sound bite of Schwartz and the mea-culpa bite from Harbaugh, but also looked at the Baltimore-Houston game. Instead of celebrating another great game by Ray Lewis or another steamroller game by Ray Rice, Jim's brother John, the coach of the Ravens, joked about fights he got into when he was a kid with Jim. Not blaming us; the coaching confrontation was the wildfire story of the day at 7 p.m., for better or worse, and our job at NBC was to mirror that, cover it from all angles, and reflect what everyone was talking about.
Point is, the actions of Harbaugh and Schwartz took away from a great football game. I don't care who started it, or who was most at fault. Fines will be fine, but there's something else the league should do: Make each coach either do a PSA about sportsmanship, or appear at a school, with the local media covering it, to talk to student athletes about the importance of sportsmanship. Sorry if I come off like your nerdy, ancient high school gym teacher, but the NFL will be taking the easy way by taking $15,000 from each coach and leaving it at that. Make this a teaching moment.
The Niners are serious contenders for a first-round NFC bye.
San Francisco is 5-1, comfortably ahead by 2.5 games in the NFC West. The Packers look like overwhelming faves for one of the top two NFC seeds, and of course, if Green Bay wins the North, the second-place team in the division, at best, could be the fifth seed in the conference playoffs. With the egalitarianism of the East and the presumed knock-each-other-off dogfight in the South, why can't the Niners win 12 or 13? Have you seen them play? Mike Florio pointed this out at NBC last night, and he's right. There's no good reason the 49ers can't be home resting on Wild Card weekend while the Saints and Bucs and Eagles and whoever else are trying to survive.
And the schedule. San Francisco plays 0-5 St. Louis and 1-4 Arizona four times in its last 10 games. Combined record of foes: 21-31.
Not to get ahead of ourselves, but in the words of teens everywhere, I'm just saying.
On to the game in Detroit. Tense. Tremendous. Not altogether pretty, but gritty. It reminded me of something Bill Cowher used to tell his Steelers before road games at hostile places. He's not the only coach who says it, but he used to preach it a lot. You've got to take their best shot early, and you've got to fight the crowd, and you've just got to hang in there in the first 20 or 30 minutes and not get too far behind. The crowd will shout itself out, and emotion will level off, and then it'll be a football game.
Mature teams do that. The 49ers, led by Harbaugh and the quarterback no one believed in, look very much like a mature team. Here were the first nine snaps, making up the first three 49er series, by San Francisco at a cacophonous Ford Field:
1. First series: Alex Smith strip-sacked by Kyle VandenBosch. The turnover led to a Lion field goal. Detroit, 3-0.
2. Second series: False start, tight end Delanie Walker.
3. False start, tackle Anthony Davis.
4. Frank Gore up the middle for 1.
5. Smith incomplete to Ted Ginn.
6. Smith pass to Gore for 8. Punt.
7. Third series: Kendall Hunter around left end for minus-2.
8. Smith pass to Michael Crabtree for 7.
9. Smith incomplete to Ginn. Punt. The punt led to a Lion touchdown. Detroit, 10-0.
Over the next 49 minutes, the 49ers, having taken the Lions' best shot, outscored Detroit 25-9. One of the best run defenses in football -- more about inside linebacker Patrick Willis and his trusty sidekick NaVorro (I Love That Name) Bowman later -- held the Lions to 66 yards, and though Calvin Johnson got his catches and yards (seven for 113), he was held touchdown-less for the first time all season. And really, while the Niners battled back to take their first lead, 15-13, Johnson was invisible. In the first 35 minutes of the game, he managed three catches for 29 yards, well-blanketed by an intent secondary.
At the same time, the players Trent Baalke drafted and Harbaugh showed faith in came through. Baalke signed Gore to a contract extension in the summer and drafted Kendall Hunter in the fourth round last April; they combined to rush for 174 yards (141 by Gore). Smith was chased by a marauding Lions front and didn't have a great day, but he still exited Ford Field as the league's eighth-rated quarterback, and after six games has thrown just two interceptions. This kind of move-the-pocket, move-the-sticks passing game is the closest he's felt to his days at Utah. The Niners admittedly reached to make him the top overall pick in 2005, and there is no quarterback who has had more lives with his current team than Smith. But maybe, just maybe, he's found the right offensive match in his fifth offensive scheme.
And the draft picks. Baalke, in charge of the last two drafts, has every right to light up a fine Dominican cigar today. Last year, he chose to rebuild the offensive line with guard Mike Iupati and tackle Anthony Davis and get a defensive piece to pair with Willis, Penn State linebacker Bowman. This year, pass-rusher Aldon Smith came with the seventh overall pick (way too high, some said). Bowman had a game-high 13 tackles. Smith had two sacks for a loss of 29, plus four tackles, a forced fumble and a pass defensed.
Harbaugh's made the mix work. What's amazing about the job he's done is that he didn't know most of these players before July 25. He was installing a new offense, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was tinkering with what the Niners did on defense, and the results have been other-worldly. How does a new head coach come in and build a team in seven weeks that wins five of its first six games? How does a West Coast team play three Eastern Time Zone games in 22 days and sweep them?
Harbaugh left this message on my voicemail afterward: "That was as good a victory as I've ever been a part of. I was talking to [defensive coordinator] Vic Fangio, and he said it was the best defensive performance he's ever been a part of.''
That's one of those calls on the busy postgame Sundays I wish I hadn't missed, obviously. Topical day for Harbaugh.
"Jim was tough and gritty and smart and competitive as a player,'' Fangio told me. "He just tries to be himself. And we've got good players. Jim's smart enough to know he doesn't know it all, and he relies on his coaches to coach.''
Now for a bit on the dynamic inside linebacker duo. When's the last time a 3-4 had two inside guys who played all three downs? I mean, played every snap? Entering Sunday's game, Bowman and Willis had missed 15 of a combined 666 San Francisco defensive snaps. They have the quickness to play laterally and the speed to chase plays down. Bowman is still learning to drop in coverage, but his pursuit ability is already at a Pro Bowl level. He caught a juking Michael Vick, preventing a key third-down conversion, in Philadelphia two weeks ago.
"They're athetic enough to play three downs,'' said Fangio. "Patrick is probably the fastest inside linebacker in the league. NaVorro is not too far behind. They are not one-dimensional. That means they can stay out there in the sub packages.''
About Bowman: He played three years at Penn State. Being from suburban Washington, he followed the Redskins, and when he went to Penn State, linebacker LaVar Arrington, a Nittany Lion himself, followed him. In his third year at PSU, Bowman was asked by Arrington to wear his old No. 11, which hadn't been given out since he left the school. Bowman played well enough to be a third-round pick by the 49ers last year.
"I take pride in seeing things before they happen,'' Bowman told me. "I run well, and I think I diagnose plays well. LaVar helped me with that, and now, playing next to Patrick, it's like having another teacher on the field with me.'' Pupil is fifth in the NFL with 56 tackles. Teacher has 47.
About the name "NaVorro:" "I was named after my Godfather, who is Cherokee Indian. When my mom sees the name misspelled, she always corrects people, even the capital 'V.'
Have a feeling we'll all be learning that name over the next few years. On Sunday, in Detroit, Bowman was as much of a sideline-to-sideline factor as Willis.
The 49ers are in the midst of one of the most challenging travel schedules I have seen in 27 years covering the NFL: five trips to the Eastern Time zone in a 61-day span. The first four trips (the third of which happened over the weekend, to Detroit) are 1 p.m. Eastern Time games, 10 a.m. on the body clocks of the players. The fifth trip, a 2,431-miler from San Jose (the Niners' home airport) to Baltimore, will be for a Thanksgiving night game.
The fifth never would have been scheduled if San Francisco had hired Jeff Fisher as head coach last winter. But the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh, and suddenly San Francisco-Baltimore became a made-for-TV, feel-good story, with brothers Jim and John the two head coaches in the game.
The 49ers played their third Eastern Time game in 22 days against the Lions Sunday. The two-month Odyssey they're in the midst of, along with a little color from each trip, is listed below:
Just for fun, on New Year's Day, the Niners will play another morning game on their body clocks, 10 a.m. Pacific Time, at St. Louis.