Harbaugh has Smith, Niners on track

BY foxsports • October 4, 2011

Who smells a SCHEIN 9?

The Eagles are a mess.

Tony Romo and Mark Sanchez are having trouble with the forward pass.

The Niners have a coach and the Redskins have a new hero and it is not who you think…

1. The monologue

Who smells first place?

It’s a heck of a lot better than “who smells a rat?”

The San Francisco 49ers are a stunning 3-1, sitting all alone in first place in the NFC West. Down 20 points on the road in Philadelphia against the big, bad Eagles, the less-talented Niners roared all the way back.

They were calm. They were poised. They were well-coached.

They are the exact opposite of what they were under Mike Singletary.

Jim Harbaugh has truly saved this franchise; he’s the absolute right guy at the right time.

Remember the chaos under Singletary? Pick a quote. My favorite was his epic search for a rat. Then there was the “dad-gum” Yahoo report. And of course, “can’t coach em” followed by “I want winners.” It was great for the media. But it was awful for the players and fans. Singletary was a punch-line, a laughingstock, becoming a cartoon character. He had no idea how to be the face of a franchise. His sideline demeanor was poor. His clock management was pathetic. Mike Singletary was the worst coach in the NFL since Rich Kotite left the scene.

I took this trip down memory lane watching the Niners come back on Sunday afternoon. The Niners looked so professional in the second half. They would’ve never won this game under Singletary.

Factoring in location, opponent and scoreboard, I would argue that Alex Smith played the best game of his San Francisco career against the Eagles. Smith proved to be a stabilizing factor, rocking steady for 201 yards on 13-of-17 passing in the second half. He tossed touchdowns to Vernon Davis and Josh Morgan. It was beautiful. Finally, Smith, so maligned since being the top pick in the draft, had his moment.

Catching up with Smith Monday on the SiriusXM Blitz, the quarterback didn’t name Singletary. But his take on the mentality for the second half spoke volumes about the difference between Harbaugh and Singletary. Smith told us, “It starts from the top down. Nobody was freaking out at the half. There were no crazy emotions. There was no hoopla. The focus was on the details. It was about stringing plays together and starting from there. There was no crazy speech. It was just football.”

You mean Harbaugh didn’t pull his pants down like Singletary did a few years ago? This is a change for the better.

And Harbaugh’s demeanor and toughness and demand for accountability carried over to the field. The offensive line was incredible against the Eagles vaunted defensive line. Frank Gore churned out key, clock-killing drives and huge first downs.

And what Harbaugh has done with Alex Smith has been nothing short of remarkable. Yet, if you have been following Harbaugh’s career, his meteoric rise as a coach, it’s not surprising. Smith is thrilled to be working with the former NFL quarterback. After Smith had to deal with constant change at the offensive coordinator position and the irrational behavior of Singletary, Harbaugh has saved his career. It’s easy to blame Smith for underachieving. He throws the passes. But for years, until Harbaugh arrived, Alex Smith was set up to fail.

In 2011, he has thrown one pick in four games. Let that sink in.

Harbaugh and Smith are attached at the hip. Finally, Alex has his man.

Smith explained, “He knows what it is like. He knows you have to throw the ball away. He has a wealth of knowledge. We are constantly talking football. In past years, I was forcing it. I was trying to do too much and be something I’m not. He wants me to run the offense.”

Imagine that concept.

Look, I don’t think the 49ers are a great team. But Harbaugh has changed the culture in San Fran. They could easily win the division by default. And they are a fourth-quarter against Dallas away from being undefeated.

Here’s the beauty for Niners fans. Harbaugh is building something. They will get better players next year when they have a full offseason program. And wait until he has a long period of time to work with Smith.

Finally, after years of being mocked by football fans and David Letterman, the Niners are legit, because they finally have direction. They finally have a head coach.

2. Can’t make it up

The Eagles are 1-3. And they looked flat-out awful.

The run defense is horrendous. The 49ers’ offensive line truly beat the Eagles defensive line off the ball when it mattered in the fourth quarter.

Nnamdi Asomugha is giving up a staggering 21 yards per catch.

Ronnie Brown tried to do something that resembled chucking the ball on a third-and-1 and fumbled. It was goofy. It was awful. It was beyond comprehension. It was Eagles football.

Jeremy Maclin coughed it up late. A defensive lineman, Justin Smith, hustled down the field to make the play, wanting it more than the Eagles.

Rookie kicker Alex Henery missed easy field goals of 32 and 33 yards. And to think, the brass guaranteed me that he had the moxie to make these kicks since he did it on the collegiate level in Nebraska. The irony was thick with longtime former kicker David Akers, jettisoned in the offseason, on the Niners.

Here’s a fact. If Steven Jackson stayed healthy in Week 1, the Eagles would be 0-4.

It’s very ugly in Philly and they’ve earned it.

3. Amateur Hour

What has happened to Mark Sanchez? On Sunday night, the three-year veteran, the winner of four road playoff games, looked like it was the first time he ever stepped on the field.

He didn’t identify Ed Reed on the first play from scrimmage and Reed blitzed, sacked and stripped Sanchez. And it went for a Ravens touchdown.

It was Sanchez’s fault, not fill-in center Colin Baxter’s, when the quarterback couldn’t catch a simple snap for a fumble. And the Jets coaching staff inexplicably yanked Baxter, moved guard Matt Slauson to center and put in second-year bust Vlad Ducasse at guard, who was promptly beat like a drum.

And with the score 27-17, the Jets got the ball back when Aaron Maybin stripped Joe Flacco. On the ensuing play, Sanchez telegraphed a pass, returned by Ladarius Webb for a 73-yard pick six. That was the dagger. That’s an embarrassment.

Sanchez has struggled mightily in all four games this year.

4. Color me impressed

I picked the Lions to win in Dallas. But down 24 in the third quarter, I certainly thought it was over. Jim Schwartz has totally changed the culture for the absolutely legit 4-0 Lions. Dating back to last year, they’ve won eight straight games.

5. I’m a genius/moron

I said on last week’s Cosmic Schein that the Texans would “out-Pittsburgh the Steelers” and that’s exactly what they did. They made game-changing plays on defense, sacking Ben Roethlisberger five times. They pounded the ball via the run, with the great Arian Foster banging out 155 yards. Remember when the Steelers could run the ball and change the game on defense?

But I had the Cardinals beating the Giants in an upset special. At 27-17 with 5 minutes to play, I looked like a genius. But Eli Manning was clutch. We will get into the gruesome piece of officiating in the Goat section. But make sure to give the Giants credit. Eli Manning was 14-of-17 for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. That’s heady stuff.

6. Backseat coaching

After a review in Baltimore rightly ruled that Mark Sanchez did indeed fumble the football and it was returned for a touchdown, Rex Ryan used a timeout on the extra point to yell at the officials. Let that sink in. He used a timeout to yell at the refs. Wow.

7. My guys

Aaron Rodgers: No player in NFL history had ever thrown for over 400 yards, thrown for four touchdowns and ran for two scores until Rodgers did it on Sunday vs. the Broncos. It's Rodgers' world and we are just living in it. He's the best quarterback in the NFL.

Devin Hester: In a tight game, Hester's majestic punt return was, in my opinion, the single biggest play in the Bears’ win over Carolina. It put the Bears up two scores in the second quarter. They held on to win 34-29. And Hester set the league record with 11 career punt returns. He’s special. How do you kick to him?

Ryan Kerrigan: The Skins are 3-1 in large part to the energy and play of their first-round draft pick. It’s early, but the defensive end is the frontrunner for defensive rookie of the year.

Wes Welker: He has 40 catches on the year and has been absolutely unstoppable in the first quarter of the season.

Calvin Johnson: In the 4-0 start for the Lions, the Detroit receiver has two touchdown catches in every game. Wow.

8. My goats

Tony Romo: He got lazy with the football and threw a couple of ill-advised picks. It was a totally unacceptable performance. At least we don’t have to listen to the analysts putting Romo in the Hall of Fame this week.

Jerome Boger: He blew it. Victor Cruz clearly fumbled the ball going down untouched. He didn't give himself up. The Giants effort was amazing. And they deserve credit, like I gave them earlier. But the score was 27-24 with 2:51 left. Manning hit Nicks on the next play for a touchdown. It changed the game. Cardinals fans should be livid.

Sheldon Brown: It’s one thing to get burned by Kenny Britt. It’s another to give up touchdowns to his replacement, Damian Williams. Brown looks very old on the opposite side of Joe Haden

Pat Shurmur: Was he trying to send Peyton Hillis a message by skipping a game with strep throat last week by giving him just 10 carries? Send the message another way, Pat. Ten carries for Hillis and 61 throws for Colt McCoy is a losing formula. And you got thumped at home!

Leslie Frazier: The Vikings are 0-4 and the natives are restless.

9. 3 nuggets of wisdom

* Matt Forte gets 25 carries and churns out 250 rushing yards. Bottle it up, Mike Martz. That’s how you call plays. It’s your job, Lovie Smith, to make sure he doesn’t regress.

* The Falcons are 2-2, but they blew a 20-point lead in Seattle, hanging on to win by two. The Atlanta play selection on offense, offensive line play and overall defense has been spotty in all four games this year. I think they are going to get smoked by the Packers.

* John Harbaugh was right to gush about his defense scoring three touchdowns against the Jets. It was remarkable. But Joe Flacco’s inaccurate passes kept the Jets in it. Baltimore has a Super Bowl caliber team, if it can get consistency at quarterback.

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