Here is a link to my Tuesday column. The full text runs below:
Memo to 49ers: Your offense needs to get better right now. You might want to show improvement as early as Thursday against the Seahawks so no one mistakes your offense for a giant self-basting gobbler lying there steaming on a serving platter.
You’re entering a stretch playing against the big boys, and your offense needs to grow up.
Does anyone disagree with those thoughts? I don’t think so.
The Niners’ defense has been dragging the offense to victory all season, dragged it to victory against two total turkeys, the Giants and Redskins. If it were up to the offense, the team would have gobbled its last gobble and croaked on a bed of cold cranberry sauce.
I asked Jim Harbaugh about the offense at Monday’s news conference. I will print Harbaugh’s response, and then you and I can go over it. I’ve come to love these weekly exercises in textual analysis. Harbaugh’s words are as convoluted and ambiguous — in the creative sense — as Shakespeare’s in his sonnets.
Cohn: Starting Thursday, you have a series of really formidable opponents, really good teams. Why are you confident that your offense can continue to get better, or get better to be able to compete in these games?
Before I give you Harbaugh’s response, this is what he should have said, had every opportunity to say. And remember I threw him a softball question, teed the question up there for his best swing.
Harbaugh could have said, “I have every confidence in our offense. We have a great running back in Frank Gore. We have an elite quarterback in Colin Kaepernick even if some in this room pontificate about him. We have a great tight end in Vernon Davis and we have Anquan Boldin, as tough as they get. And we have mighty men on our offensive line and we are, thank God, mostly healthy. And we are lucky to have offensive coordinator Greg Roman who amazes me every week with his brilliant game plans. You bet we’re confident.”
That’s what Harbaugh should have said. It’s the kind of stuff he definitely would have said about his defense, no question about it. What follows is what he did say about the offense:
Harbaugh: Excited about the matchups. You know, we’ve been talking about how we’re playing these as playoff games for some time now. We’ve played quite a few teams that are going to be in the playoffs this year, projected to be in the playoffs. There’s going to be a stretch of playing more of those type of teams that you project to be in the playoffs. Excited about that. If we’re good enough to be in it, then we’ll know. We’ll know soon enough. That gets the motivation up, gets the energy up, gets the awareness going. Playoff type of games against playoff type of opponents. It’s as good as it gets.
We appreciate Harbaugh’s enthusiasm and passion. He never backs off from a challenge — he loves a challenge. And he does not see the upcoming stretch of games as daunting even though the 49ers play the Seahawks twice, and the Cardinals and Chargers once each. I don’t mention the Raiders for obvious reasons.
But please observe how he actually answered my question, and remember the key word in my question was “confident.” Why is he confident his offense can produce at a high level?
He began with what I call mental throat clearing. Everyone does this under pressure, although Harbaugh was not under pressure. We babble about some subject or other while we quickly assemble our thoughts for the true subject.
Harbaugh spoke about his excitement for the upcoming playoff-caliber games. He said the 49ers had played playoff-caliber teams and would continue to play teams like that. Of course, everyone at the news conference and everyone watching on TV already knew this, so Harbaugh did not move the discussion along although he had the floor.
Then he said playoff-caliber games motivate everyone. It was another obvious statement that didn’t need stating. He was still mentally clearing his throat. Oh, I left out two key sentences: “If we’re good enough to be in it, then we’ll know. We’ll know soon enough.”
The important word is the “it.” What “it” refers to is vague. The “it” seems to refer to getting into the playoffs. That’s how I read Harbaugh’s words, and I’ve read them many times. Harbaugh did not say he’s confident of making the playoffs. He said he will find out.
We would expect a coach, especially Harbaugh, to project more confidence than that, but we appreciate his candor. So, we offer no criticism. Except for this. He never once mentioned his offense.
If you can find a reference to the 49ers offense in his words, you are a sharper reader than I am.
Not mentioning his offense was an odd omission in answer to a question about the offense. Startling really. I take it to mean Harbaugh doesn’t know about his offense, isn’t confident about it. I grab hold of the “it” we’ve been talking about, the one we said referred to the playoffs, and I place it in another context. Harbaugh was saying he’ll find out soon if his offense is good enough.
If I took poetic license, please forgive me.
Harbaugh has good reason to omit praise for his offense, to feel worried deep in his bones about it. I don’t often burden you with statistics, but try a few of these quickie stats showing where the 49ers’ offense ranks in the 32-team NFL.
Total offense: 18th.
Passing offense: 22nd.
Rushing offense: tied for eighth.
First downs: 19th.
Third-down conversions: tied for 11th.
Red Zone touchdown percentage: 31st.
Those are hardly championship numbers. They may explain Harbaugh’s reluctance to talk about his confidence in the offense. He may not have any confidence. The offense needs to do better on Thursday so the 49ers can win, so Harbaugh can stop the mental throat clearing and come to the point.
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.