The NFL season is a grueling, tiresome journey that inevitably bruises and batters players and coaches along the way. It wears on participants mentally and physically, which is precisely why weeks off exist. Weeks off are generally welcomed by team personnel because of all of the aforementioned factors.
Unfortunately, the one other thing that weeks off can also do is kill the one thing that makes or breaks a given football season – momentum.
Heading into their week off, the San Francisco 49ers were flying high and had all of the momentum in the world. Coming off of their mildly controversial 25-19 victory over the Detroit Lions last week, the 49ers were boasting a surprisingly balanced offensive attack with a shockingly legitimate, toughened defensive core.
Mind you, this team has essentially blockaded their end zone to the point where not a single running back has been able to score a rushing touchdown on them in 2011. San Francisco ranked atop the NFC in points allowed heading into Week 7, and led the entire league with 14 forced turnovers.
Offensively, San Francisco has been riding the wave as rejuvenated quarterback Alex Smith appears to have found his stride again. Over the course of this young season, the much-maligned 27-year-old has completed 100 of 158 passes for 1,090 yards and eight touchdowns. The chronically turnover-prone passer has only thrown two interceptions, thus far.
This remarkable mix of offensive and defensive production has paved the way for the 49ers’ 5-1 start to the year and, more importantly, their clear path to capturing the NFC West title.
Of course, that was all PWO – pre-week off.
All of that momentum has now slowed and all of the built up confidence has essentially had to be shelved as San Francisco went into what head coach Jim Harbaugh has taken to calling, their “Improvement Week.”
Ultimately, it will be Harbaugh’s little quirks -- which make him arguably the most entertaining coach in the NFL this year -- that will either make or break his team’s smooth ride. If he can continue to deliver a message that resonates with the players, regardless of how quirky it may be to outsiders, then the 49ers are golden.
And it appears as though, for now, the San Francisco players are still buying into that message.
Janie McCauley of the Salt Lake Tribune recently took to identifying both what Harbaugh is preaching, and how the players are reacting to it.
"When there’s somebody who brings something like that to the table, it gives you, I don’t know if it’s confidence or if it just gives that joy in going out and playing that hard," punter Andy Lee said of his coach recently. "You want to go out and play for this guy."
Harbaugh, for his part, knows that his style isn’t the kind you run into every day. That it may kind of fly against conventional wisdom.
Not that it matters to him, though. For the 49ers head coach, it’s all about instituting a mentality that will transcend a single game, transcend a single week off – and carry weight all the way through this entire season.
"It’s a mentality that when we work we tuck our shirts in. When work is over we untuck them," Harbaugh said. "And when we win, we celebrate. That’s the theme and message behind that. It goes back a ways. I had some uncles that lived in Ohio that worked a blue-collar job. And when they came home from their work, untucked their shirts, sit on the couch, put the feet up on the coffee table, and eat some pizza and drink a beer. Those were good times. Those were good times to be a little kid and just watch them do that. So, we’ve kind of taken that approach, that theme here."
Momentum is a fickle thing and there is no telling whether or not it will last through this week off. Still, if there’s one coach who would be able to preserve and maintain it, it would have to be Harbaugh.
The 49ers return to action this coming weekend when they take on the Cleveland Browns on October 30.