Harbaugh's Decision Dissected, Debated

By Doug Williams
|  Monday, Sep 19, 2011  |  Updated 9:17 AM PDT
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Harbaugh's Decision Dissected, Debated

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The Cowboys' Jesse Holley takes off on a 77-yard catch-and-run to set up a victory over the Niners in overtime.

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Maybe it was the right move, maybe it wasn’t.

Jim Harbaugh’s decision late in Sunday’s game to keep three points on the scoreboard rather than take a chance on seven was either the right call of a percentage-playing head coach who knows the limitations of his team, or the wrong call of a too-conservative rookie whose unwillingness to take a chance cost his team a game.

The only sure thing is that in the day-after world of the NFL, Harbaugh’s decision in Sunday’s 27-24 overtime loss to Dallas at Candlestick Park is the subject of scrutiny as much as his team’s failure to stop a fourth-quarter drive to tie the game and a defensive breakdown to lose it in overtime.

Though the 49ers (1-1) almost pulled off the upset Sunday -- even with an offense missing its top two wide receivers -- Harbaugh seemingly has garnered little goodwill. After Sunday’s game, many fans ripped him on blogs and newspaper sites for his call, and some in the media questioned his decision.

Said one anonymous commenter, representing the theme: “Taking the three points and not the penalty shows the lack of confidence in the offense and playing not to lose. That cost the Niners the game.”

Chronicle columnist Gwenn Knapp argued that Harbaugh’s decision is just a continuation of the team’s conservative culture of recent years, in which the formula has been to show little faith in the  offense while praying the defense can preserve some close games. It’s the same strategy used unsuccessfully by Harbaugh predecessors Mike Singletary and Mike Nolan, Knapp says.

The situation was this: David Akers had just kicked a 55-yard field goal to put San Francisco up 24-14 with just over 11 minutes to play in the game, but the Cowboys were called for a 15-yard penalty that, if taken, would have given the 49ers a first down at the Dallas 22. Harbaugh said no thanks, and kept the three points. Later, he said it gave his team a “two-score advantage” that would “lead to a victory.”

Obviously, the Niners couldn’t hold, and a 2-0 start to the season slipped away.

How important was Harbaugh’s decision?

Mike Sando of ESPN.com spoke to Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats, who said the Niners’ win probability was only slightly better (.91 to .90) if Harbaugh had accepted the penalty. “In the grand scheme, this is a very small error,” Burke told Sando.

But for a team whose fans are hungering for a new era, more offense and a bold – rather than conservative – approach, the decision by Harbaugh is vexing, especially combined with a late-game defensive collapse and the failure of the offense in the second half.

The win seemed there for the taking, and then it was gone.

Just like the possible first down and a second chance after the penalty on Akers’ long field goal.

Said quarterback Alex Smith of Harbaugh’s decision: “In hindsight, you can say either way. But he hit the field goal. We got the penalty on the kickoff, defense was playing well …

“Made the decision, got to live with it.”

 

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