Jim Harbaugh Adds Dash Of Kaepernick To San Francisco 49ers Recipe For Success

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 29, 2013



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”

That was a young Bill Cowher talking to his daughter after his Pittsburgh Steelers lost Super Bowl XXX to the Dallas Cowboys.

This comment came two weeks after Jim Harbaugh, quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, just missed his chance at that Super Bowl when his Hail Mary fell incomplete in the end zone in the 1995 AFC Championship.

In this business, players, coaches and even the writers know a lot about winning and losing.

Things will not always go in your favor, and that unpredictability of the game is what keeps it interesting.

One day Kyle Williams fumbles two important punts, while another day Matt Ryan comes up empty on fourth down with the game on the line.

Now Captain Comeback has made it to the big game as a second-year head coach, and this Captain Comeback has to eat some crow after predicting before the season these 49ers would not win more than 10 games in 2012.

That was only a regular-season prediction, and after an 11-4-1 season (damn ties), the 49ers did manage to go one game further than they did a year ago. So while the prediction from yours truly was wrong, the important part is to understand why it was wrong.

That perfect storm of regression did rain on the 49ers, but they buckled down and withstood it anyway. They did have to win games differently in 2012, and they were better prepared for a Super Bowl run. We know these days regular-season records mean very little in determining your playoff success as it’s about having a team capable of going on that run.

What gave the 49ers the advantage to go on the run this year is Harbaugh’s risky move to stick with second-year player Colin Kaepernick over veteran Alex Smith, who was third in the league in passer rating at the time of his concussion that cost him his starting job.

Whether it is Smith or Kaepernick behind center, Harbaugh has quickly rebuilt the 49ers into a winning machine, and he does it by dominating specific aspects of the game. Here is a look at those aspects, and the differences between last year and this year’s 49ers as they prepare to take on the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.

 

Turnover mastery did regress in 2012

The 2011 49ers were historic when it came to turnovers. The offense had a record-low 10 giveaways, while the defense led the league with 38 takeaways to create a very elite +28 turnover differential (tied for No. 4 since 1940). It was domination of both fumbles and interceptions, and it happened on both sides of the ball for San Francisco.

Naturally, this was going to regress in 2012, and it did. However, the 49ers were still respectable with only 16 giveaways (tied for No. 2 in the league this year), but only 25 takeaways (tied for 14th in 2012).

Add it up, and the 2012 49ers were +9 in turnover differential, which is solid, but tied for No. 8 in the league with the Ravens of all teams. We have seen bigger declines before, but it is still a -19 drop for the 49ers in turnovers.

Biggest Declines for Teams with Highest Turnover Differential (Since 1940)

Rk

Team

Year N

Record

TO Diff.

Year N + 1

Record

TO Diff.

DIFF

1

Bears

1963

11-1-2

29

1964

5-9

-3

-32

2

Chargers

1961

12-2

24

1962

4-10

-6

-30

3

Redskins

1983

14-2

43

1984

11-5

15

-28

4T

Browns

1960

8-3-1

28

1961

8-5-1

5

-23

4T

Colts

1959

9-3

26

1960

6-6

3

-23

4T

Giants

1997

10-5-1

25

1998

8-8

2

-23

4T

Browns

1966

9-5

24

1967

9-5

1

-23

8

Eagles

1989

11-5

24

1990

10-6

2

-22

9

Seahawks

1984

12-4

24

1985

8-8

3

-21

10

Chargers

2007

11-5

24

2008

8-8

4

-20

11

49ers

2011

13-3

28

2012

11-4-1

9

-19

12T

Bengals

2005

11-5

24

2006

8-8

7

-17

12T

Packers

2011

15-1

24

2012

11-5

7

-17

14T

Chiefs

1990

11-5

26

1991

10-6

11

-15

14T

Packers

1943

7-2-1

25

1944

8-2

10

-15

16

Packers

2009

11-5

24

2010

10-6

10

-14

17

Patriots

2010

14-2

28

2011

13-3

17

-11

18

Giants

1950

10-2

24

1951

9-2-1

14

-10

19

Packers

1965

10-3-1

24

1966

12-2

18

-6

20T

Colts

1958

9-3

30

1959

9-3

26

-4

20T

Packers

1941

10-1

26

1942

8-2-1

22

-4

The 49ers are another example of how offenses are more likely to repeat their performances than a defense, especially when it comes to turnovers. This team has a style on offense built around the running game (31st in pass attempts), and with good ball security, mobile quarterbacks and smart decision making, the giveaways were again low.

Would the turnovers have still been as low without the switch to Kaepernick? That we will never know. The offense had nine turnovers in just over eight games with Smith, but has only had nine in the last 10 games.

Smith’s interception percentage (2.29 percent) was more than double last year’s historic rate (1.12 percent). Kaepernick’s 1.38 interception percentage looks more like 2011 Smith’s, though he has been fortunate to only lose two of his nine fumbles. He had four fumbles on botched snaps against the Patriots alone (lost none).

Despite this drop in turnover mastery, the 49ers still dominated field position in part thanks to their special teams play. For the second-straight season, the 49ers led the league in net starting field position (+6.25) according to Football Outsiders, though it was not as high as last year’s mark (+9.39).

Why the decrease in turnover success did not hamper the team’s success is that they avoided a lot of the big turnovers, which is always the key.

For as great as the 49ers did last year, their season was hit by a deathblow from Kyle Williams’ two big fumbles when fielding punts in the NFC Championship. Eli Manning and the Giants’ offense could do nothing in the second half without that incredible field position given to them.

In this postseason the 49ers have had just one turnover in each game, and Kaepernick’s pick six against Green Bay was on the opening drive, and needless to say he made up for it with a record-setting performance.

Michael Crabtree’s goal-line fumble in Atlanta looked to be a big one in the NFC Championship, but this is a balanced team, and the defense’s ability to force a three-and-out drive set the 49ers up with great field position for the game-winning drive.

One big turnover can kill you in a close game, and the 49ers have avoided that. They have also avoided playing a lot of close games in 2012, which is a big difference from last year.

 

Lack of close games equals lack of close wins in 2012

We know teams who win a lot of close games in the clutch regress in that department the following year, but the 2012 49ers really saw a drop here.

Alex Smith led six fourth-quarter comeback wins in 2011, and the 49ers were 6-3 overall in such opportunities. That was a big change from the 4-12 record Smith had at comeback opportunities before 2011.

But in 2012, the 49ers did not even have their first comeback opportunity until Week 10, which was that fateful game against the Rams in which Kaepernick replaced Smith for good.

Last year the 49ers played a lot of close games, but were consistently in control of things. They led in the fourth quarter in 17 of 18 games, and did hold a (brief) fourth-quarter tie with the Ravens the one time they did not have a lead.

This season, the 49ers had some bad performances, which was part of their trend of following two wins with a loss (or a tie). They lost 24-13 in Minnesota, 26-3 at home to the Giants, and 42-13 to the Seahawks in Seattle. None of these games were close enough to have an opportunity to come back or lead a game-winning drive.

So after that 6-3 record at comebacks in 2011, this year’s 49ers were just 1-0-1. The only win came in the NFC Championship, which completed the largest road comeback (17 points) in championship game history. That’s good timing.

Overall, including game-winning drive opportunities, the 49ers were 2-1-1 at clutch wins. That funny-looking record comes with Kaepernick at quarterback in all four games, and he could be 4-0 with four game-winning drives if David Akers could just make field goals of 41 and 51 yards against the St. Louis Rams.

With the golden age of close Super Bowls upon us, expecting a long drive to win the game late by Kaepernick should have 49ers fans a bit worried, because we just did not see that this year. His two game-winning drives consisted of one short pass completion to Crabtree both times (New England and Atlanta) on drives that only covered 38 yards each with plenty of time to play.

But more than worrying about a late drive, the 49ers have to make sure they are at least in that position in the Super Bowl, because this has not been a season full of consistent play like 2011 was.

One week the 49ers are historic in becoming the first offense to ever go over 300 yards passing and rushing in the same game (45-3 win vs. Buffalo), while the next week they turn it over three times and lay an egg at home, losing 26-3 to the Giants, a team they played two nail-biters with last year.

The 2012 49ers are more susceptible to blowouts, both good and bad.

 

Building blocks of Harbaugh’s success

The main points of our preseason regression look at the 49ers were built around the fluky nature of turnovers and having too many close wins. While the 2012 49ers took on different – vastly in some cases – levels of success in those areas, they did still have a strong regular season, earning the No. 2 seed in the NFC once again.

Harbaugh’s model for San Francisco winning is fairly clear: win the battles in the trenches, be the more physical team, and from that they will control the game more often than not by winning the battles with turnovers.

Since 2011, no team has won the turnover battle more times in the regular season than Harbaugh’s 49ers. That includes nine times in 2012 and an 8-0-1 record.

Most games winning turnover battle (2011-12)

Rank

Team

Games

Record

Pct.

1

San Francisco 49ers

23

20-2-1

0.891

2

New England Patriots

23

20-3

0.870

3

Green Bay Packers

20

20-0

1.000

4

New York Giants

18

15-3

0.833

5

Houston Texans

17

15-2

0.882

6

Chicago Bears

17

13-4

0.765

7

Baltimore Ravens

16

14-2

0.875

8

Seattle Seahawks

16

13-3

0.813

As is usually the case with a talented 3-4 defense, the 49ers stop the run very well, which allows for the pass rush to work as the opponent becomes one-dimensional. Aldon Smith has been prolific with 33.5 sacks his first two seasons, but make no mistake how important Justin Smith is to that front seven operating at a high level.

The 49ers have only thrown for more yards than their opponents 14 times (tied for 20th), but they are 12-2 (.857) in those games. This offense still prefers the run, and they do it very well with Frank Gore and the talented offensive line. Mix that with the defense’s ability to stop the run, and you have the best rushing differential team in the league as well.

Most games winning rushing battle (2011-12)

Rank

Team

Games

Record

Pct.

1

San Francisco 49ers

26

22-3-1

0.865

2

Houston Texans

23

19-4

0.826

3

Denver Broncos

23

17-6

0.739

4

Minnesota Vikings

23

12-11

0.522

5

Seattle Seahawks

20

15-5

0.750

6

New England Patriots

19

17-2

0.895

7

Chicago Bears

19

15-4

0.789

8

Washington Redskins

19

12-7

0.632

9

Baltimore Ravens

18

15-3

0.833

10

Cincinnati Bengals

18

11-7

0.611

Despite upgrading the receivers with Mario Manningham (lost to injury) and Randy Moss, this is still not an offense that will often blow people away. The offense ranked 13th in yards per drive (32.71) and ninth in points per drive (2.16). Solid numbers, but still outside the elite range.

The reason the 49ers do not score more is their situational football continues to lack efficiency. It was terrible last year, improved this season, but is still below average.

San Francisco 49ers - Situational Football

Stat

2011

2012

Third-down conversions

29.41% (31st)

35.05% (25th)

Red-zone TD percentage

40.74% (30th)

50.91% (21st)

Field goal attempts

52 (1st)

42 (1st)

Offenses who struggle to convert on third down and turn red zone opportunities into touchdowns simply will fail to score a lot of points. Usually the 49ers do not need them because of their defense, but that unit has not been as much of a strength this year as well.

In both seasons Harbaugh’s offense has attempted the most field goals in the league, which is why Akers set a NFL record with 44 makes last season. But this year Akers is just 29/42 (69.0 percent), and missed a 38-yard kick in the NFC Championship; his only attempt that day in a dome.

Of course an offense can avoid such problems by producing more plays on first and second down. In 2012, the 49ers gained at least four yards on 54.8 percent of their first-down plays, which was the best in the league.

Bigger plays in general also help. The big play is the extra dimension Kaepernick provides the offense, and he has helped make Crabtree a more productive receiver this second half of the season.

The rushing threat that Kaepernick is provides many problems for defenses that just did not exist with Smith, and the fact that Kaepernick is more likely to run on his own rather than by design is just another headache for defensive coordinators.

Harbaugh had the tough choice at quarterback this year, but it is hard to argue with the results now. Taking out the 24-24 tie this year since both shared it, consider this fact:

  • Alex Smith is 2-25 (.074) as a starter when the 49ers allow at least 24 points.
  • Colin Kaepernick is 3-1 (.750) as a starter when the 49ers allow at least 24 points.

That move has to be the biggest reason this team did not regress to the level us statheads expected, and why the 49ers are still playing this season.

 

One more game this year, but Captain Comeback’s far from finished

San Francisco fans have seen instant coaching success before, but this is not George Seifert or Steve Mariucci taking over the well-oiled machine the 49ers once had. This is coming after eight years of not winning.

Yet after just two seasons Jim Harbaugh has already achieved more than most head coaches in this league have, and he has an opportunity to create something special again in San Francisco.

Bill Walsh would be proud of such an approach, even if it works opposite of some of his innovations. One thing similar: Walsh drafted Joe Montana in the third round in his first season (1979) on the job. Harbaugh drafted Kaepernick in the second round last season. That’s often how these eras of success start.

In a NFL that glorifies the quarterback and passing game, Harbaugh has gone to back-to-back NFC Championship games with a reclamation project in Smith, and a young experiment in Kaepernick.

We will never know for sure if the 49ers would be where they are now if Smith never suffered that concussion in Week 10, but we know the 49ers were so close to this same point a year ago with that quarterback.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

Regardless of who is behind center, as long as San Francisco continues to follow the plans laid out by Harbaugh, the 49ers are going to win a lot more games than they lose. His brother John may have this year’s team of destiny, but Jim has a chance to create the NFL’s next dynasty in San Francisco.

 

Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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