Niner fans can point to many things that went wrong in the 27-24 loss to the Cowboys last Sunday. Individually the offensive line protection, Jim Harbaugh’s decision in the fourth quarter to keep the three points instead of running time off the clock, the offense and defense breaking down in the second-half and lack of a running game are all reasons why the 49ers ended up losing in overtime. Taken all together the 49ers have showed they are not a team that cannot hold leads against quality opponents. The 49ers had moments of brilliance during the game as they took a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter but all the matters is the final score.
The turning point for me in the game was Harbaugh’s decision to keep the three points with over 11 minutes left in the game. You can look at Harbaugh’s decision one of two ways. Harbaugh trusted his defense to hold the Cowboys off from scoring ten points in the last 11 minutes of the game. The way the defense was playing and with Tony Romo hurt with a broken rib I can see how Harbaugh thought his D could have held off the Cowboys offense. Another way of looking at the decision is he still does not trust his offense. After kicker David Akers made his field goal with 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter to put the 49ers up 24-14, a 15-yard penalty was called against the Cowboys. Harbaugh was faced with a decision to either take the three points, and a 24-14 lead, or take the 15-yard penalty just outside of the Cowboys 20-yard line with a new set of downs to run the time off the clock. For those that defended Harbaugh’s decision I have read their reasons being that he did not trust the offense to either score a touchdown or be put them in position to kick another field goal. The offensive line did give up six sacks so Harbaugh could have been concerned about the offense making a turnover and the 49ers losing out on points.
To me this is boloney.
Now, I am not a supporter of Alex Smith and I jumped off his bandwagon after last season. Smith has not put up great numbers this season but I have to admit Harbaugh’s guidance has improved his abilities tremendously. The biggest difference I have seen in Smith is his ability to go through his progression faster than before and to run the football if there is nothing there. The Two Mike’s, Nolan and Singletary, never taught Smith to do this nor did they try to utilize, on a consistent basis, his athleticism that made him the number one draft pick. Something which Harbaugh’s is trying to do. Unfortunately for Smith he is getting Harbaugh six years too late and although his confidence and abilities have improved under the new head coach, Smith will not turn into the franchise QB we need. But you already knew that.
Even though the Cowboys were missing their two starting cornerbacks, Smith looked impressive for the first three quarters. When it counted though, in the fourth quarter and overtime, Smith could not deliver. After Harbaugh’s decision to keep the three points in the fourth quarter the 49ers had two more possessions on offense which resulted in 6 yards on the first drive and 11 yards on the second drive. You can look at the yards gained and say Harbaugh made the right decision to take the assured three points as the offense could not get sustain drives afterwards. But if Harbaugh does not trust his offense to not cause a turnover at the Cowboys 20 yard line and at very least get three points, when will he trust them to make the plays?
Smith maybe improving at quarterback but one of his biggest weaknesses is he cannot seem to shake his inability to score on long drives. On the 49ers four scoring drives they started the drives at their own 32 yard line (7-0, Gore TD), Cowboys 48 yard line (14-0, Williams TD), Cowboys 29 yard line thanks to an INT (21-14, Walker TD) and Cowboys 46 yard line (24-14, FG). On the other drives the 49ers offense did not score they started five times at their own 20 yard line, their own 30 yard line and at the Cowboys 49 yard line. The last one is the nominally in the group as the 49ers should have scored points with a short field. My point is, Smith gets better and more confidence the shorter distance he has to lead the offense and the closer he is to the goal line.
Going back to Harbaugh’s decision to keep the three points, this was truly a mistake. I think had Harbaugh taken the new set of downs at the very least Smith would be able to get a field goal for the 49ers while running important time off the clock. Even if the offense went three-and-out we would still get the field goal as Akers is a stud at kicking and more time would have been taken off. Smith looked his most impressive on his two passing touchdowns to TE Delaine Walker and WR Kyle Williams. The two passing TD’s were perfectly thrown and at the time Smith looked like a franchise QB. Harbaugh should have let his offense go for the touchdown like he had in the previous three quarters. The reason why is Smith is at his best inside the 20 yard line. Last season inside the red zone Smith had 41 completions out of 59 passing attempts (70% completion rate), 219 passing yards, 113.7 QB rating and 13 of his 14 TD passes came inside the red zone. The shorter the field the better Smith becomes. For all that Harbaugh says he knows about Smith and his abilities, why is he overlooking this most important fact?