49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh spoke with the media yesterday and was asked whether he viewed Sunday's game against the Cowboys as a "benchmark." Naturally Coach Harbaugh went with his favorite description saying the most important game is always the next one. He has described this one-day at a time approach since the beginning of training camp whether it be the next play, the next meeting, the next day, and so forth.
However, in spite of the ol' "one day at a time" approach, this game is most definitely significant for the 49ers. The surrounding games against the Seahawks and Bengals are important in their own right, but to borrow Matt Maiocco's favorite term, the Cowboys this Sunday are a GPS Game. The Cowboys struggled to a 6-10 season last year and find themselves 0-1 this year, but they remain a team with a lot of intriguing talent. There are debates about some of that talent, but the Cowboys are favored against the 49ers for a reason.
After the Cowboys game the 49ers face the Bengals in Cincinnati (no gimme following their win over Cleveland), and then a tough stretch that includes the Eagles, Bucs and Lions heading into their by week. They can grab some wins in there but a win over Dallas would put them in a pretty strong position approaching the bye week.
Dating back to 2007 the 49ers have had a losing streak of four or more games each season. No matter when the streak occurred, it always took the win right out of the sails. That is an area that could prove the biggest test of what Coach Harbaugh brings to the table. Can he keep the team on the path amidst setbacks and distractions. I'm willing to wait a few more weeks to assess that theory.
Head Coach Jim Harbaugh
Press Conference - September 14, 2011
San Francisco 49ers
In the first regular season game, how much did you learn about your team as far as how you can manage a game now with them?
"We learned a lot about our team. The fact that you play the preseason and not everybody's playing every snap.They've not all played together. You learn quite a bit. How much? I think it's a good amount. Our focus and concentration right now is that, the week that you can get the most progress in the entire season in one week, is going from week one to week two. We really want to make sure that we're on point and that we're taking advantage of every possible way that we can improve and learn more about our football team."
So in that sense, are you almost sort of game-planning, now you know how to game-plan for yourself, while also game-planning against the opponent?
"I think we understand that better, more than we did. We know that that's what you do, you game plan for your opponent. You teach it, you learn it, you practice it. Then you review it. That's where we're at right now."
How do you think RB Frank Gore looked in his first game since November of last year?
"I thought he looked good. He played a physical ball game, a blue-collar game for Frank. I thought he blocked well, it wasn't just him running the ball. He took some hits off [WR] Braylon [Edwards] and the quarterback. Really good assignment football. Started to pop a few there, later in the ball game. Tough yardage, no question about that. But I thought he acquitted himself well."
How encouraged were you by QB Alex Smiths's ability to react and scramble so often and throw out of the pocket?
"Really encouraged by that. That was a point of emphasis during this training camp. To see him respond that way and do things that move the chains, get you closer to first downs, put you in more manageable situations, as far as the down and distance is concerned, is something that's a real positive for our ball club. You look at five scrambles, 24 yards, and that's not big numbers but when they're coming four, five, six, even seven yards, that's big in terms of moving the chains and making first downs."
Are you concerned at all that quarterback running exposes himself to hits or is your school of thought ‘if he stands in the pocket, that's where he'll really get hit'?
"It's just something a quarterback has to do. I'm sure there's risk, but you saw Alex make two big plays when he was out of the pocket. I think this year will be no different than any other year in football. The most touchdown passes are off of quarterbacks moving. Whether they're scrambling, buying time in the pocket, you're going to see the highest amount every single year unless this is an aberration."
Is that off of improvisation pretty much once they're on the move like that?
"Yeah, making good decisions, buying time, distorting the defense. You're out of the pocket, that coverage doesn't hold up as long when you can buy time and get out of the pocket. They lose guys, sometimes they have to come up to tackle the quarterback and the quarterback can put it over their head or it distorts the defense in a way. Happy that he was doing it and playing the game that way."
Is that what you like about Dallas QB Tony Romo in 2003 when you were reviewing him for the draft?
"I liked Tony Romo in 2010, and 2009, and 2008. An elite quarterback, no question about it when it comes to the accuracy, the improvisation, the confidence to throw it into tight windows. All those things make him a top flight quarterback."
Did you see that at Eastern Illinois that he would have that athleticism, that ability to move at the pro level?
"I remember liking him for all of those athletic, accuracy, decision making qualities that he has. He's certainly had a fantastic career and plays at the elite level."
How do the Cowboys use LB Demarcus Ware so effectively and then, also the second part of that, what does he do that's so unique?
"He's probably the best pass rusher in football. Right there at the top, elite-level. Plus he can also play like a defensive end. So strong with his strong hands, powerful lower, explosive, and now a technician in terms of technique and all of his assignments, etcetera. The guy is the best in the game."
How do you see the Cowboys have put him in good situations...
"Taking advantage of all those, those situations where they put him on the open side to rush the passer. They can play him on the tight end side and again you see the strength of playing over a tight end. Squeezing down the line of scrimmage, and they do a great job of taking advantage of all his skill sets."
You already mentioned two elite players in pretty key positions on both sides. Is this game a game that you think could be a real benchmark for you to figure out what you have here in this locker room?
"Definitely, definitely. We definitely look at it that way and the most important game is this one, is the next one. We look at it like 16, one-game seasons. That's how important we look at this. As a benchmark, as a big game, as one where we need to play extremely well in order to be successful."
You've played in some great rivalries when you played in the NFL. This is one of the most historic ones in NFL history with the Cowboys and 49ers. Can you talk a little bit about that?
"There's just so many games when the two uniforms are out there on the field at the same time, that stirs up emotions or brings back memories. It just looks really good out there to the eye. Definitely it's all that and it's like you just said, it's a big game to us, it's our second, one-game season. That's how we'll treat it. We'll plan accordingly for it and teach, practice, and learn and get ready for this ball game."
So, here you are caught up in the middle of this storied rivalry trying to figure out how to beat these guys. You could almost step back as a fan and look at it like ‘wow I'm in the middle of this'. What it's like being in a storm of this storied rivalry?
"You get used to being in the storm of trying to figure out how to beat these guys. That's where you're at, that's where all the focus and concentration is. The storied rivalry part is... I probably spent about fifteen seconds thinking about that when you asked me. There's so much going on where we are at in this part of the week to get ready to win this ballgame. That's where we're at."
Did TE Justin Peelle have the blocking skills you were looking for in the extra tight end?
"We think so. We're excited to get a look at that today."
How is WR Michael Crabtree doing three days after the game?
"I hate to speak for Michael on that. We talk and I feel like I know where he is with us talking. We'll get a better look at that today in practice."
He will practice?
Are you in a situation where on game days for a couple of weeks you might have to activate WR Kyle Williams just for insurance in case Crabtree can't make it through a whole game?
"That's definitely a possibility."
As former NFL quarterbacks, do you have any sort of a shared history with Dallas Head Coach Jason Garrett?
"No, I don't really have any shared history with him. I know some people that he knows. Jason and [Quarterbacks Coach] Geep Chryst go back to the Princeton days I believe and have crossed paths a couple of times. I really know Jason through Geep, have shaken his hand a few times, but never really been in any settings with him."
How did you feel about how the nickel defense played with the three guys coming in on nickel? How do you feel about the defensive rotation as a whole? Did that work to your liking on Sunday?
"Yeah, it thought it was stout and coverage was good. [S] Donte Whitner made the big tackle on the screen on [Seattle RB] Marshawn Lynch. That was really good when you can get a safety that can come down and play high or play low. I thought that stood out, among other things that stood out. Pleased with the rotation."