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Harbaugh, 49ers don't mind it getting ugly

Shorts and Shells: Week Six

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Recent posts by Eric Edholm

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Posted Oct. 17, 2011 @ 4:20 a.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

If you are not familiar with Jim Harbaugh, please do yourself a favor and read last week's Scout's Eye by Nolan Nawrocki.

Then keep that in mind when you consider everything — not just the postgame fracas — that occurred at Ford Field on Sunday.

You might not like Harbaugh much if you are a USC fan. You might detest him if you are a Buccaneers fan, having watched the 49ers throwing the football late in a 41-point game a week ago, and you might now hate him with the fury of a hundred fires if you root on the Lions, considering the strange way he left the field Sunday.

Just as the 49ers held on for a 25-19 win against the previously unbeaten Lions, Harbaugh ran across the field, pulling up his shirt part of the way at one point and slapping hands with 49ers backup OT Alex Boone. Harbaugh made his way over to Lions head coach Jim Schwartz for the standard coaches' postgame handshake.

Harbaugh came in a little hot, as I like to say, and gave Schwartz an enthusiastic handshake and a slap on the back. Schwartz didn't care for that ... and then went after Harbaugh.

A quick timeout is needed.

You could argue that this is "What's Your Deal?" Part Two, recalling the USC-Stanford Pete Carroll-Harbaugh skirmish of a few years ago. And maybe Harbaugh could stand to control himself in that situation, sure. These NFL boys don't care for that college nonsense.

But there's a terrific irony when Schwartz said after the game that "there's a certain protocol in this league," because of all people to say this, Schwartz isn't exactly Tom Landry-stoic. His patented fist pump had become a Detroit favorite after the Lions' 5-0 start, and Youtube was lit up with clicks the past few weeks with Schwartz's F-bomb laced celebration (no professional lip reader needed) after the Lions beat the Vikings in overtime in Week Three.

Schwartz's explanation for chasing after Harbaugh and trying to get in his face well after the handshake was that he was "greeted with an obscenity" and that he "wasn't expecting to get shoved."

I didn't see that part. I saw a childish bit of exuberance from Harbaugh and one that probably deserved a word or two from Schwartz. It took 49ers P.R. man Bob Lange to step in before the dozens of players still on the field turned around and realized what was happening. But it was the more veteran coach who turned and went after Harbaugh and showed the worse judgment.

Yes, I know Harbaugh apologized after the game. "I was really revved up," he said. "That wasn't me; I just shook his hand too hard.

"That's on me. The handshake was too hard."

Maybe it was. But bottom line: Harbaugh should act like he has won a few more games, and Schwartz — for a guy who has lost some games with the Lions — needs to act a little more composed after he drops a tough one. You can bet the league will be looking at the incident. The NFL, in some cases, holds the coaches more accountable for their behavior than its players.

All of this undercuts what was a good, albeit ugly, football game. More than anything, it shows that the 49ers are a legitimate threat — not just out in the West, but also in the NFC picture. Harbaugh now joins the Oilers' Bum Phillips (1975), the Jets' Al Groh (2000) and the Falcons' Jim Mora (2004) as the only rookie head coaches to start off with a 5-1 mark. Now, we'll see in what direction Harbaugh's career goes — toward the good (Phillips), the bad (Mora) or the ugly (Groh) — but for now, he's doing an excellent job with this hard-nosed 49ers team.

I am afraid their lack of offense will come back to bite them at times, but this is a good football team with a fast, aggressive, smart defense and some good special teams, and you can bet that the players loved that their coach was fired up. When Frank Gore runs the way he did Sunday, they are hard to beat.

Beware, NFC: There's a legitimate new threat in the conference, they like to win ugly and they don't care how they get it done.

 

Controversial call of the week

Two coaches made critical offensive play calls. Both were questionable. One came back to bite the team.

The Raiders made a curious call late in their win over the Browns, leading 24-10 with just under five minutes remaining. They gained one yard on 3rd-and-2 down to the Browns' five-yard line, and a field goal would have made it a three-score game — and a nearly insurmountable lead.

Instead, Hue Jackson went for the throat and ran it on fourth down. Fail.

I realize the Browns had 166 yards of offense at that point, but you have to kick the field goal there. Have to.

It almost came back to bite them. The Browns steamed 95 yards in 14 plays and 3:38 to score, make it a one-possession game and then subsequently recover the onside kick. Can you imagine if the Raiders had blown it on Al Davis Tribute Day?

They didn't — the defense bailed them out in the final minute.

But we go to a subtler decision-making situation, and that was near the end of the Cowboys-Patriots game.

I wrote last week how the Cowboys spent the bye week finding ways to reel in Tony Romo at times and be more judicious with their play-calling in key situations.

Well, Jason Garrett did exactly that.

After Romo had led a nine-play, 60-yard drive that included great completions of 32 and 12 yards and a scramble for 17 more, the Cowboys had the lead, 16-13. A defensive stop gave the Cowboys the ball back at their own 28-yard line with 3:36 remaining.

It's clock-killing time for sure, but there's too much clock left to sit on it. The Patriots had all three timeouts left — the only way the Cowboys run the clock out is by getting a first down or two.

The Patriots were daring the Cowboys to throw. They did not, running for negative yards on first and second downs and committing a false start on 3rd-and-13. It appeared that Romo had a pass play on, but when it got to 3rd-and-18, Garrett played it safe with another handoff.

"Yeah, there are a lot of things that we consider," Garrett said. "We consider running it, throwing it, and doing those things lots of different ways, but then when it became 3rd-and-18, we thought (a run) was the right thing to do."

You know the rest of the script: The Patriots got the ball back, and Tom Brady threw for the winning score with 22 seconds remaining.

It's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't reality with these Cowboys. Conservative is the way they should have played against the Jets and Lions down the stretch; otherwise, we might be talking about a 4-1 or 5-0 team.

"Well, you always want to (throw the ball) as a quarterback, but you do a lot of game planning and (look at) film and (call) things that you feel comfortable with," Romo said. "As a competitor, you always want be in a situation to have a chance. At the time of the game, I can understand definitely why we did that."

No doubting that. But what about running dives up the middle on first and second downs? That was your chance to give Romo a play, even a safe one.

Those two running calls said a lot about Romo and Garrett's trust in him. It's not high right now in crucial situations.

 

The wow factor

This week's edition pays homage to a great Rams offense ... just not the one from this season:

One very impressive streak, even in this age of pinball scoring, is safe. With the Patriots falling short of the 30-point mark, their run of 13 straight games reaching that plateau has ended. It was one game short of the "Greatest Show On Turf" Rams from 1999-2000, and it gives me a chance to mention my conversation with Torry Holt the other day.

We talked a little about that team, of course, and Kurt Warner, naturally, given that Holt was pitching Warner's "A Football Life" show on NFL Network, which is a must-watch, just as the others in the series are.

Holt looked back at that magical '99 season, which still feels like it was too unreal to have happened.

"I had just gotten there as a rookie, trying to get acclimated to the NFL, and I kept hearing freaky and odd things," Holt said. "Guys kept saying, 'This guy (Warner) can throw, man.' "

Trent Green was still the starter, though. Warner had elevated to the backup spot. But then Green went down in the third preseason game against the Chargers, and the rest was history. From Week 12 that season through Week Nine in 2000, the Rams scored at least 30 every week. They might have been the Greatest Show On Turf, but seven of those games were away from home. Passing games like theirs might be ho-hum these days, but at the time it was something to behold.

No team had passed the ball quite like they did, and it made household names of previous unknowns Warner and Mike Martz and kick-started a tremendous career for Holt.

"Kurt acted and prepared like a starter before (Green got hurt)," Holt said. "Otherwise, it never would have worked. He was so ready when it was his turn.

"But — bam! — we made it go as soon as he stepped in. His job was to make sure everybody was happy, and he did a great job with that. I see teams throwing now all the time, but back then, this took the league by storm."

No question it did. And it's notable, then, that their incredible streak still stands today, despite the proliferation of the passing game — and especially with what they do up in New England.

It's also amazing that Warner and Tom Brady came into the league the way they did: hardly considered. The next time your team signs a "scrub" QB, keep that in mind.

Of course, the Patriots still managed to extend two more impressive marks Sunday. Brady and Bill Belichick tied Dan Marino and Don Shula with 116 wins as a QB-coach tandem, something they probably will shatter by about 40 or more, and they have done it with 35 fewer losses than their Miami counterparts.

The other mark? Thirty-one straight regular-season wins at home for Brady. (The team has 20 victories in a row at home, since it last lost at Gillette Stadium in Week 13 of 2008, a 33-10 defeat to Pittsburgh when Matt Cassel was subbing for an injured Brady.) That's just unreal. And it's another reason Jason Garrett needed to go for the win at the end of the game and not play it safe.

 

Entertainers and icons

Harbaugh and Schwartz are not the only head coaches to make waves in Week Six:

For almost one half of football, Saints head Sean Payton called plays with an MCL tear and a broken knee when 6-foot-8 TE Jimmy Graham rolled up on his leg. Ouch.

Payton will have surgery Monday, and his status for rejoining the team on Tuesday is unknown.

Now, before you make a Joe Paterno joke, remember that Payton tried to gut it out and keep coaching. As someone who has suffered a torn ligament (two, actually), I can tell you it can be a gut-wrenching injury. It depends on how you get it, but suffering a broken bone on top of that had to be excruciating.

And naturally, with Payton out, Drew Brees handled the Saints' postgame press conference. Joe Vitt took over coaching in lieu of Payton, but he's not the biggest fan of media events.

Brees stepped up and, after a three-pick game, took one for the team. So did Payton. Expect him to be up in the coaches' box Sunday night when the Saints take on the Colts. NBC has to be thrilled that there at least is an interesting story line going into that game.

 

Ten takeaways of the week

Here are 10 things I took from Week Six, which reminded us that defenses and running games are not dead yet:

1. Undisputable fact: Cam Newton is 1-5 and Andy Dalton is 4-2. Apples, oranges, sure, and I love Newton, but this Dalton kid has something special. He throws with conviction, makes big plays in crunch time and now seems to have the offense in his grasp. The Bengals are a strange 4-2 team, but 4-2 nonetheless.

2. Julius Peppers was listed as doubtful but played Sunday. Think the Bears were paying a little favor to the Vikings, who somehow listed Brett Favre as being out for their game last December against Chicago but then had him under center come game time? I do. Oh, and Peppers was still in the game despite the Bears being up 29 points with 10 minutes left. Payback? Uh, yeah.

3. Lions DL coach Kris Kocurek is a fun guy to watch. He is one of the more fired-up positional coaches around, and his players seem to love him. Guys like Lawrence Jackson now have key roles on a playoff-caliber team, and I think Kocurek's teaching has a lot to do with it.

4. Niners OLB Aldon Smith might only be 21, but he's growing up quickly. Smith recorded a safety early in the game and later forced a near-disaster fumble by Lions QB Matthew Stafford, one that Jeff Backus fell on, luckily for the Lions. Interesting that Smith started out slowly in training camp and was called out by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in camp for not knowing his position well enough. Well, Smith is learning, and Fangio is learning that Smith can flat-out rush the passer with 5½ sacks. On the downside, Smith dropped a sure interception. He's a raw player, but the 49ers look pretty good for taking him now with that seventh pick.

5. Here's one reason why the 0-6 Colts have to consider picking Andrew Luck if they get the No. 1 pick: With better QB play — like, say, having Peyton Manning — they could be 5-1 at this point. Nothing against Curtis Painter, but he has played only fairly well, like a mediocre backup is expected to. Luck might not be the second coming, who knows? But if you have a chance to draft a franchise QB and someone to replace Manning three years from now, you run that card up to the podium. Only do you take someone not named Luck if you are convinced that Manning has no neck problems in the future and that you absolutely cannot pass on another special, game-changing player. In the Colts' system, assuming they keep their staff in place, that's only a pass rusher, really. Hence, it's Luck-or-bust if that situation arises.

6. The Ravens might have their best defense of the past five years. In fact, it might be one of the better defenses the NFL has seen in that same time period. I don't know how these Ravens keep growing coordinators on trees — first Marvin Lewis, then Mike Nolan, then Rex Ryan, then Greg Mattison and now Chuck Pagano — but they have had a horn of plenty there. The players are not too shabby, either.

7. The Cowboys' Orlando Scandrick is an excellent cornerback. When he was signed to a six-year extension for $28.2 million, there was some shock and awe in NFL circles. All they need do is watch Sunday's tape. Scandrick held Wes Welker to six catches for 45 yards and a TD, and yes, these days, I very much consider that shutting him down. The Cowboys' defense is just a different group with him back there, and Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman played better with Scandrick on the field.

8. For 30 minutes, the Steelers looked dominant. For another 30, they were susceptible. They were one more Mike Thomas miracle (even though Gus Johnson was not in the house) away from losing to the Jaguars on their last-second Hail Mary. And Troy Polamalu went down with what Mike Tomlin called "concussion-like symptoms." There just is a vulnerability with this team that we haven't seen in a while. After they play the Cardinals next week, they have a very important trio of contests before the bye: vs. New England and Baltimore at home and at Cincinnati. Those three opponents' combined record: 13-4. Something tells me we'll find out just how vulnerable the Steelers are after that stretch.

9. Gotta go to John Beck, right? Anyone surprised by Rex Grossman struggling — OK, whom are we kidding, he imploded — against the Eagles shouldn't have been. Grossman threw four interceptions and really could have had six; another two potential INTs were dropped. He can look good at times, which is why he has a job in the NFL, but pressure brings out the worst in him. Grossman hasn't regressed, he just hasn't changed. That's why Mike Shanahan will go to Beck — if not this week, then at some point — and it's why Shanny would have picked Beck over Grossman had Beck not had a so-so August. But Kyle Shanahan deserves blame, too. The Redskins got away from the running game and don't have the players to fit the system he wants to use.

10. Good to see Josh Freeman with the redemption game. He's a winner, and it was a little strange to see him struggle to start this season. And we're seeing a trend now: The Saints give up yards to opposing quarterbacks. They need to tighten up against the pass if they want to win the NFC South. This loss could hurt badly in the long run. Remember how crucial the Week Three loss to Atlanta was last season?

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