Winning is progress, no matter how it looks

Those wacky Jim Harbaugh 49ers, finding a way to win on the road that has everybody whining about how bad it looked afterward. Even their coach, in a way. "The ballgame," Harbaugh concluded, "it was tough, hard-fought, at times painful. Kind of like going to the dentist." Indeed, it was like pulling teeth watching the Niners beat Cincinnati, but all that really matters is who's smiling in the end.


And that was the 49ers in the first 13-8 final result in NFL history, a team that had bite at the finish after being backed into a corner offensively most of the afternoon.

In the process, San Francisco took over sole possession of first place in the NFC West, which certainly again is looking like the NFC Worst just three weeks into the season, with the 49ers owning as many wins today as the other teams in the division combined.

But the Niners should have no problem being the best of the Worst at this early juncture.

This is a good place for them to be just three games into the Jim Harbaugh era, a point at which the team and its coaching staff most definitely is still feeling its way around amid all the new circumstances.

Harbaugh and his staff not only still are adapting to each other, but also the intensity and fine-line decision-making that it takes to win in the NFL. And San Francisco's players, well, it still is taking time to adjust to their new coaches in general and in particular the new systems in which they are playing.

That is why you're seeing such a conservative approach on offense and a playing-not-to-lose mentality. The feeling-out process between coaches and players and working together as one on the big NFL stage is in full swing. This isn't something that happens overnight. Or even over two months, which is about how long now the 49ers have been together since training camp began back in July.

But the thing is, with that handicap restricting them, the 49ers still have been able to grind out their 2-1 start, which could easily be 3-0 if not for a late meltdown against Dallas in Week 2, a result that can be partly attributed to the factors mentioned above.

The Cowboys know each other, their core having worked together for several years, and clearly are more cohesive and established as a team than the 49ers. That allowed them to persevere in crunch time and pull out an overtime win that had the cynics wailing at Harbaugh and the way the 49ers let that one get away.

But the Bengals were not such a team. They are breaking in a rookie quarterback, and that factor alone leveled the playing field when the 49ers came to town last week.

And despite their current limitations, the Niners found a way to pull this one out against a team with a strong defense, even if it was far from aesthetically pleasing. Sure, San Francisco's offense looked bad again for all-too-long stretches. That offense ranks as the worst in the NFL three games into the season.

The 49ers punted after each of their first six offensive possessions and didn't even make it into Cincinnati territory until midway through the third quarter. But with the game on the line, that offense got it done when it counted. It even came alive in crunch time, shrugging off its game-long inefficiencies and inconsistencies to assemble a 10-play, 72-yard touchdown drive in the heart of the fourth quarter without much contribution from its key player, halfback Frank Gore.

The 49ers were still hanging around at that point because their excellent defense will allow them to hang around in most every game. And that's how many afternoons will continue to look this season, with the defense leading the way and the offense struggling to keep up but working hard to do so until it finally does.

It might not look pretty, but it's about results. Harbaugh understands this as well as anybody. He has built his coaching reputation on offense, but is showing absolutely no frustration or disdain about how his team is growing slowly on that side of the ball.

Because winning is progress, and the 49ers are the only winning team today in their division, a division that San Francisco could continue to look down at for the rest of the season, even by playing the brand of football it has displayed so far.

"It's a very positive thing," Harbaugh said. "Young football team that goes on the road, plays a good football team, in a tough, hard, physical game, shows a real level of tenacity and mental toughness. I think it's a real good thing in terms of a character building process for our team.

"I thought our defense, especially where our offense was patient and hung in there and got the job done when it needed to, and had to, I think that's fantastic, but also just the mentality of our defense. Packed the defense for the road games. Came in with the mentality that they were going to get stop, after stop, after stop and they expected it and they got it done.

"I'm excited about (our) young ball club and the character that they showed. The patience, both by the players and the coaches, in the football game, and the resolve that was shown. I think it bodes very well for our football team in a character-building way. And I was proud of our football team about that. I think all those things are very good for us."

You better believe it.

Harbaugh appeared almost apologetic about the lack of pizzazz in his team's play against the Bengals, but he knows he has nothing to apologize about after becoming the first coach in franchise history to win both his first home game and first road game with the 49ers.

Harbaugh has learned in September that his team can win with what it has even with some of its parts still in the developmental stage. With an inconsistent quarterback, a struggling offensive line and hurting playmakers, the 49ers will continue to play it safe as that unit grows while relying on their strong defense and quality special teams.

It's not a pretty formula, but the 49ers already have shown it can be a winning formula as everybody waits impatiently for their true beauty to emerge.


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