Here is a link to my Thursday column. The full text is below.
I will get to tonight’s 49ers game against the Rams in a moment. Consider what follows a preamble.
The other day, the 49ers tweeted a self-aggrandizing quote by Jim Harbaugh: “There’s a lot of noise out there … Sometimes you have to stand on the battlefield and do what your mission is.”
Stand on the battlefield? What war was Harbaugh in? Did he participate in the invasion of Normandy? Or maybe he stood heroically on the battlefield at Gettysburg.
Here’s news for Harbaugh. In the 1990s, the NFL sent a memo to every team forbidding use of war metaphors. “We’re going to war on Sunday.” That kind of crap. The league felt war metaphors about football trivialize real war, do not show the proper respect and awe. Soldiers come home in body bags. NFL football is not life and death.
Maybe Harbaugh never got the memo. He sees himself at war and that means he has lost perspective.
He sure doesn’t do things the 49ers’ way. He doesn’t use the West Coast offense. That’s obvious. And he has forsaken another 49ers’ tradition established by Bill Walsh.
Walsh Axiom: Get rid of a player BEFORE he hits the downside of his career.
Walsh was ruthless about cutting ties with players, men he liked, men who still could play. He saw the team as a living organism and he wanted the organism vital and young.
Among the players he let go were Fred Dean, John Ayers, Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds and Ray Wersching. There were others.
Wersching was upset with Walsh for years. One day, he came to Walsh’s office at Stanford. I was there. He and Walsh spoke privately in a conference room. Afterward, Walsh sat with me, his face white, his hands shaking, He said he appreciated Ray giving him the chance to make things right.
George Seifert, a nice man, also could be ruthless. Seifert cut ties with Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and Roger Craig. All were outstanding players when they left the 49ers and two of them are in the Hall of Fame. It bears repeating that one of them was Joe freaking Montana.
In addition to being ruthless — in an organization-replenishing sense — Walsh and Seifert had a succession plan, young guys to replace aging guys.
That brings us to Harbaugh. He depends heavily, desperately on three old players — old by NFL standards — three players Walsh and Seifert would have given the standard-issue gold watch and sent on their way.
The players are Frank Gore, 30; Anquan Boldin, 32, and Justin Smith, 34. Harbaugh has overestimated the shelf life of these men as dominant players, and he hasn’t shown the proper urgency to bring in replacements. A coach and general manager must think two years ahead. Harbaugh and Trent Baalke are lost in the moment.
At Harbaugh’s weekly news conference, I asked if it’s a mistake to rely so much on three older players.
“They’re pretty darn good guys to rely on,” Harbaugh said.
“So, it’s not a mistake,” I said.
Really? The three old players are good, but each is on the back slope of his career. Walsh would have eliminated them.
Take Gore. Got off to a great start against the Colts, 70 yards in the first half. And then the 49ers let him run the ball just three times in the second half. So, I wonder, did offensive coordinator Greg Roman forget about Gore in the second half? “Gee, I wish you guys had reminded me about him.” Unlikely.
I asked Harbaugh if Gore is on a “pitch count” limiting his runs per game.
“It could be open-ended?” I said.
I respectfully say Harbaugh was fibbing to protect his player. The 49ers cannot depend on Gore as an every-down back, so they limit his touches. That’s what they did against Indianapolis. Players do not decline gradually. In the NFL a player loses it overnight. Gore may be at that stage.
But, hey, no problem. Harbaugh and Baalke acquired the heir to Gore, right? They have on the roster the next great 49ers running back to fill in immediately when Gore can’t do it anymore, or if he gets hurt.
Forget about it.
In the 2012 draft they picked shrimp running back LaMichael James. James is hurt but Harbaugh refuses to say James will play when he gets well. Not a good sign.
And who did Harbaugh/Baalke choose in the 2013 draft as the next Gore? They got Marcus Lattimore, who busted his knee in college and will not play this season. They wasted a draft pick, redshirted a guy when they could have a real contributor now.
The 49ers are sunk if Gore goes down — they may be sunk if he doesn’t go down. The closest thing to a replacement is Kendall Hunter, a mere scat back. Every good team has a young player who is ascending to replace a starter. The Niners do not have an ascending player at running back.
The 49ers are so arrogant they did not replenish their running backs for this season.
How did Harbaugh perform at getting a young star wide receiver so they don’t have to depend on retreads like Braylon Edwards and Randy Moss or an old guy like Boldin? In the 2012 draft he and Baalke drafted A.J. Jenkins. Enough said. They got no one of significance in the 2013 draft, no one who helps now.
But Michael Crabtree got hurt, you say, and he’s a top-10 wideout and it’s not Harbaugh’s fault the 49ers are depleted at wideout.
Crabtree went down in May. Harbaugh/Baalke had plenty of time to trade for a wide receiver. They didn’t. They insisted the guys in camp were top notch.
The result? Boldin, who is limited despite his breakout game against the Packers, is the 49ers’ only threat at wide receiver. Against the Colts he caught five passes — good, not great. The only other wide receiver to catch a ball was Kyle Williams. He caught two. That’s it.
What about defensive tackle Justin Smith, Geezer No.3?
All praise to Smith, the anchor of the defense. At the top of his powers — the 2011 season — no team scored a rushing touchdown against the 49ers until Game 16. Through three games this season, opponents have scored six rushing TDs. With old Mr. Smith we see slippage in the anchor area.
Bill Walsh would not have approved.
But certainly the 49ers got a bright young replacement for Smith, someone to step right in for the old man this season. Surely, they planned ahead.
In the 2013 draft, they took Tank Carradine. He’s another redshirt, can’t play now when the Niners need him. Torn ACL. So, the Niners wasted another draft pick because they overvalued their personnel and did not plan ahead.
The 49ers should beat the Rams tonight. They are more talented. But the 49ers could not beat the Rams last season when Gore and Smith were a year younger.
I want to remind you of something. Montana’s replacement was a player whose name happened to be Steve Young.
“Young” is the operative word.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at email@example.com.