Here is a link to my column about the 49ers win over the Eagles. The full text runs below:
Make no mistake. The 49ers’ season was on the line. Deeply in question before they rallied to beat the Philadelphia Eagles 26-21.
Lose to the Eagles and you’re 1-3. A miserable .250 winning percentage through the first quarter of the season. Hard to recover from that. Hard to recover with two games left against the Seahawks and one against Denver and one against New Orleans and one against San Diego and one against Arizona.
A few losses would lurk in those games even for the best of teams. For a 1-3 squad, more losses would loom. The Niners would experience self-doubt and, players would doubt their coaches, and coaches would doubt themselves. Doubt all around.
The 49ers had to win even though they had a punt blocked for a touchdown, and the Eagles ran back a punt for a touchdown, and Colin Kaepernick threw a pick six. It’s like the football gods — among Jim Harbaugh’s favorite terms along with “low-hanging fruit” — well, it’s like the football gods said, “Let’s see what you can do with this hardship. If you aspire to a championship, you will pull yourselves off the floor. You will find a way to win.”
And that’s exactly what the 49ers did. This team, which before Sunday didn’t know how to play a second half, came on strong in the second half, ran down the Eagles, overpowered them. The Niners won a gritty, essential game, won a game full of hurt and glory. Didn’t panic. Made a statement. Stayed relevant. Kept their season going.
Admire the 49ers.
Don’t take my word for it. After the game, safety Eric Reid defined the victory: “It was huge. We needed a win. We needed to kick-start our season, and we needed to do that today. This one was huge for us.”
I have a theory about the 49ers’ win. I want to share the theory with you. Two things you should know. 1) My theory applies only to the Niners’ offense. Phil Barber is sitting next to me writing brilliantly about the defense, which was excellent and probably won the game. 2) My theory deviates somewhat from Joe Staley’s theory. Keep that in mind. You will hear from Staley in a few paragraphs.
OK, here goes.
The 49ers won because their offense rediscovered itself. That means the Niners reverted to who they are, found their true identity — something they lost in Arizona the previous week. Actually, something they casually — carelessly — cast aside in Arizona.
Against the Cardinals, the 49ers used formations with four receivers and sometimes with five receivers. You would have thought the 49ers were a ballet troupe or a trapeze act. You would have thought they would start flying.
They hardly ran the ball. They were all flash and dash. They were one other thing, and this involves a dirty word. They were a “finesse” team. Finesse is a dirty word as far as a Jim Harbaugh team is concerned. Totally out of character. It’s like Harbaugh temporarily had a nervous breakdown and was taken over by an alternative personality — Sensitive Jim. California Jim.
Hey, don’t get sore at me for that snarky California adjective. Harbaugh uses “California” to denote touchy-feely, over-emotional, not football useful.
On Sunday against — face it — the finesse Eagles, the 49ers returned to smash-you-in-the-gut football. Rip-your-heart-out football. They ran the ball 42 times. Running the ball means you want to dominate the other guys, cause them harm. It means you control them. Own them. Running opens up certain essential passes. Kaepernick, in a subordinate role, completed certain essential passes.
Frank Gore, who did not exist in Arizona, carried the ball 24 times for 119 yards against Philly. Kaepernick carried the ball seven times for 58 yards, one run a sweep on third down for 16 yards that kept a drive going and led to a field goal — the 49ers’ final score. Great call. Gorgeous run. “Run” being the key word.
Here’s how committed the 49ers were to running. They lost Anthony Davis, their right tackle, and kept on running. They lost tight end Vernon Davis and kept on running. Sometimes, they had only one wide receiver on the field.
They ran. They chose fury over finesse. They pounded the ball and then they pounded the ball some more. They played 49ers football.
Now comes Staley. I asked if the offense had returned to its true personality. He looked at me kindly, as if I were a cretin. Here is a long Staley quote. It’s worth it.
“Every week is different,” he said. “Every week is what we feel is going to give us the biggest advantage. We knew going in we wanted to control possession and we wanted to control the clock, and that entails running the ball and having success.
“Gain three yards on first down and four yards on second down and creating third-and-2 and third-and-3 and converting and having those long sustaining drives, and we did that today. That was the game plan going in and that wasn’t the game plan last week.
“We wanted to have positive plays. That was a big thing. A two-yard play is positive. We have a four-yard play, that puts us in third and manageable instead of third-and-15 or something.”
Someone asked if the 49ers had suffered an identity crisis.
“No,” Staley said. “We never felt like we had one. If you look back at what we did against Arizona, those four-and-five-wide receiver sets were very successful. We were able to move the ball really well using that personnel group. We’re all about creating an advantage for what we can do offensively. We’ll do whatever we have to do to get a ‘W.’ This week was controlling the line of scrimmage.”
Why did the 49ers feel they could control the line of scrimmage?
“It was something we had to do because their offense is so explosive,” Staley said. “When they get going, when they get a first down, two first downs, three first downs, the way their tempo goes they really wear down a defense. One of the things to counter that is to have a long sustaining drive. That’s what we were going for.”
Someone asked if the 49ers lack an identity on offense.
“I don’t really give a (expletive),” Staley crooned. “Sorry for my words.”
No need to apologize. Football is an earthy game the way San Francisco plays it.
Staley was eloquent and educational. Just one thing. He says the Niners have a many-faceted personality, right? They can pass like crazy and they also can run. Whatever is required.
I disagree. The essential Niners’ character is get in the first punch, run at your face, have no pity. That’s who they need to be. Remember, they lost the Arizona game with all those crazy wide-receiver sets. Sorry, Joe.
Here’s a bit of postgame Harbaugh just because he’s always fun.
Q: What does beating a team that was undefeated do for the team morale?
Harbaugh: It would be good for morale, I would suspect. Good for my morale.
Then he said, his jaw set, his face grim, his voice urgent: “Proud of our team. Move on.”
He meant: No time for sentiment. Just play football.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.