Turtle Ball

September 17

49er fans who watched their team fritter away a 10-point lead in the 4th quarter and lose to the Cowboys, 27-24 in overtime, might have felt a sense of deja vu. This game looked very much like several home games against quality teams in the Mike Nolan or Mike Singletary eras.

The 49ers turtled, and eventually got shelled.

Early in the 4th quarter, David Akers belted a 55-yard field goal but the Cowboys were flagged for what could have been a 15-yard penalty, putting the ball on the Dallas 22. Instead, coach Jim Harbaugh went by the old football bromide and decided not to take points off the board — he declined the penalty and the 49ers led, 24-14.

As it turned out, Dallas had just enough time to get two scores and tie the game at 24-all, forcing overtime. The 49ers won the coin toss but managed just one first down. Tony Romo, cracked rib an all, rallied the Cowboys again with a 77-yard pass to Jesse Holley that set up David Bailey’s game-winning 19-yard field goal.

Harbaugh said he trusted his defense with a 10-point lead but what he also clearly said was, “I don’t trust my offense.” As much as he wants to build up Alex Smith, this was a rebuke. He had a chance to go for the throat but declined.

Was he wrong ? The 49ers offense had done little, ending up with just 67 yards after halftime. Smith was sacked six times.

If Smith or someone else had subsequently turned the ball over after eschewing Akers’ field goal, or if Smith was sacked, the second-guessers would have descended like rainbow fish on a sea urchin.

The strong argument can be made that even if Smith and the 49ers had only moved the ball a bit more, and Akers might have kicked another field goal anyway, valuable time would have been taken off the clock and Romo would have been under more pressure.

Instead, the 49ers played turtle ball with a 10-point lead. Harbaugh decided to have the penalty assessed on the kickoff, rendering it useless. Akers kicked off from the 50 into the end zone for a touchback, which he had already done consistently from the 35.

Anyone who has watched the NFL the last couple of seasons could tell you the problem with that strategy. With rule changes that now clearly favor the offense, it’s easier than ever to rally. It makes the NFL more exciting and marketable, but it makes Turtleball a bad strategy.

Against a team like the Cowboys, even as injury-depleted as they were, it was asking for trouble. The 49ers secondary couldn’t cover Miles Austin, and when injury took him out of the game, they missed coverage on former practice squad player Holley for the final nail in the coffin.

The knee-jerk reaction would be to “sick” the wolves on Harbaugh, to condemn him as milquetoast after two play-it-safe games. I don’t think it’s that simple — yet.

The declined field goal wouldn’t have been much of an issue if, with a 24-21 lead, the 49ers offense could have burned more than three minutes off the clock. Instead, Smith and the 49ers seemed to justify Harbaugh’s lack of trust by mustering just one first down when they needed a sustained drive.

At this early stage in the Harbaugh Era, his offensive line is actually shakier than his quarterback, and there is still a learning curve with a new coach — especially with time limited by the lockout.

At some point, Harbaugh will need to develop trust in his offense to go for the jugular, but he’s obviously not there yet. The problem is, he can’t totally trust his defense, either.

Harbaugh kept saying the 49ers “played well enough to win,” and while that is debatable, I did see signs of progress in this so-called “GPS game” Sunday. They clearly put the hurt on Romo, who could barely speak up loud enough in the huddle. They came up with some play designs we haven’t seen in a while, and stood toe-to-toe with a talented team.

They just couldn’t close the deal. Consider it a lesson learned. Harbaugh is still learning about his team and what works, but he probably found out Sunday what DOESN’T work.

The 49ers will struggle to reach .500 again this season, but I don’t think we’re seeing a flashback to the Nolan and Singletary eras. Harbaugh has this team going in the right direction, but Sunday was a big speed bump. Or was that a turtle shell ?

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