Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 2:15 PM | Leave a Comment | Recommend | Print
By Jeff Kaplan
Trust me here, I hate to do this. Usually the question's absurd, unfairly detached from the moment's context. But as we begin this playoff season, it just might be the only way—to gain some crucial perspective, on what just might be the most scrutinized 12-win team of all time.
We're going to play "If I had told you."
Again, I really hate to do this. Even writing those words gives me the creeps. The question focuses on the big picture, which of course can be telling; but it's always a mistake to ignore the details, which usually can tell you more. Befitting the road we've traveled, though, we ought to start with the longer view.
So here goes. Recall where you were on May 21, when you learned that Michael Crabtree had torn his Achilles. And now I'll ask you.
If I had told you that we'd go 12-and-4; that those losses would be to four playoff teams (including three division-winners); and that the last of those losses would occur in Week 10...
If I had told you that Colin Kaepernick, despite his depleted receiving corps, would throw for 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns; that he'd run for another 500 and 4; and that he'd rank top-10 in both efficiency rating and deep-throw percentage...
If I had told you that our offense would feature both a thousand-yard rusher and a thousand-yard receiver, joining a 3,000-yard passer for the first time since 2001...
...what would you have said?
You'd have had no other choice. You'd have said that we'd have an elite offense, administered by an elite QB. And adding our perennially elite D, you'd have said that the Sixth would be ours for the taking.
Yet there's a very good chance you're not saying this now. And the question is, why not?
The answer's in those details, of course. And as I've said, usually they tell you more. In this case, though, I think they don't.
Let's start with the record. 12-and-4 was indeed a great season, under any circumstances but especially ours. (Never mind the upheaval at wideout; we had also to deal with the dreaded curse of the Super Bowl Hangover.) But the first issue is that it simply wasn't enough; Seattle won the division and the league's most daunting home-field advantage. Plus, there's a flip side to our "quality losses": of the five other teams in the NFC playoffs, we've already lost to three (and we'll play a fourth on a frozen tundra). Put it together, and our road to the Super Bowl has never been tougher.
My answer to this is it just doesn't matter. As we've discussed, the home field (even when it's Seattle's) doesn't matter anymore. What matters now is health and momentum, and the Niners lead the league in both. And as for our record against our likely playoff opponents, all those losses took place before Crabtree's return, when we were completely a different team. In other words, those losses are moot. Please note again, since Crabtree's return, we haven't lost. To anyone.
So let's move on to Kaepernick, where the weekly debate has been exhausting. Even his harshest critics wouldn't dare rely on his lowly rank in yards per game—32nd—since that rank reflects only our coaches' commitment to offensive balance. (His rank in yards per attempt, obviously the better measure of his production, is eighth.) So instead they assail his component parts: his footwork is rough, he flees the pocket when he should climb it, he fails to consistently see the whole field. And they use the nitpicker's signature weapon: the all-22 screenshot, usually showing a receiver wide open, while the quarterback sets up to throw somewhere else. The QB had only fractions of seconds to process a staggering series of data, yet the critics stare at this frozen instant, captured from some overhead vantage, and they wave it around, like some smoking gun.
This isn't to say that Kaepernick always makes perfect decisions. (And amazingly, his play-clock issues still persist, though his coaches have a hand in those.) But all QBs have such nits to be picked; as I've noted, the screenshot police have made just as much hay about Russell Wilson, Eli Manning, and even Tom Brady. (I shudder to think what they would've come up with if Joe Montana were playing today.) So on this point at least, the big picture tells us much more than the details. Since perfection's impossible, Kaepernick's job is not to be perfect; his job is to be, in general and in the big moments, explosively efficient (or efficiently explosive). And he has done it, absolutely. Indeed, of the eight passers who've gone deep more often, only two have been more efficient.
And that's including the time B.C. In Crabtree's five games, despite taking on three top-15 Ds, Kaepernick's rating was 101, 10 points higher than his mark for the year. He also led six fourth-quarter scoring drives in one-score scenarios, thus showing excellent poise in the clutch.
Yet because he misses a guy now and then, we're supposed to think that he's average or worse? All I can do is say it again: Colin Kaepernick isn't the issue.
There's a flip side, though, to all those close games, which do evince one more detail, the one that does deserve serious mention.
Three years in, Jim Harbaugh remains a mystery. I still don't doubt his own philosophy of almost wildly violent aggression. But I don't understand why he doesn't insist on coordinators who share it. On Sunday, we did the same thing we did against New England, almost exactly a year before. We came out aggressively, we got a big lead, and then for some reason we simply stopped. Greg Roman wasted play after play, running into the teeth of the top rushing D; and on rush and coverage Vic Fangio went soft. And just like we did a year before, we gave up the lead and asked Kaepernick to save us. Once again, Kaepernick did. But with Aaron Rodgers waiting at home, this persistent tendency—to win close when we should win big—is a telling detail, and a troubling one.
In the end, though, even that detail is lost amid a big picture like this. A picture of nearly constant winning. A picture that demands your faith.
I won't begrudge you your share of doubt. Given how the last two years ended, you're entitled to think that we've wasted our chance, that only more heartbreak is waiting ahead. As recently as two weeks ago, when the Falcons recovered an onside kick—a desperate play that works about twice out of every 10 tries—I posed the same question I asked myself in the wreckage of those two playoff defeats: why on earth do I put myself through this? But right away, as NaVorro Bowman closed the ‘Stick in perfect style, Harbaugh's Niners answered the question: This right here. This is why.
And that's just it. You can ask your questions, lay out all your reasons for doubt. (Heaven knows, I've done it myself.) Yet no matter what, Harbaugh seems to come up with the answers. Of course I understand he might lose. But I'll never, ever, believe that he will.
So another playoff season awaits. Another Super Bowl is at stake.
And I believe. I believe that we'll win it.