ST. LOUIS -- Sometimes a team needs to lose something to remember what it needs most. That would explain best what happened to the San Francisco 49ers, who dominated the St. Louis Rams on Thursday night. The 49ers entered the contest both wounded and woozy, with major injuries, a struggling quarterback and a troubled star battling alcohol issues thousands of miles away. They left with a critical victory, a renewed confidence and something just as vital to their prospects this season: A clear sense of who they need to be.
Those who think San Francisco merely beat up a weaker opponent in its 35-11 win over the Rams are missing the point. The 49ers reminded us that they still have the goods to challenge for the NFC championship once January arrives. But they must employ the same no-nonsense, blue-collar approach that produced the win in St. Louis. They must keep banging and grinding as they did in that contest, and most of their ills will be eased as they forge deeper into this season.
That means more Frank Gore, who gutted the Rams' defense for 153 yards on 20 carries. It means a greater burden on an offensive line that has been longing to push more people around, and more help for a defense that has been hurt by recent injuries to key starters (including nose tackle Ian Williams, linebacker Patrick Willis and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha) and the indefinite absence of Pro Bowl outside linebacker Aldon Smith (who entered rehab earlier this week to combat his drinking problems). It also means a more scaled-back strategy for quarterback Colin Kaepernick for the time being.
The third-year quarterback remains a rising star, but he's not yet ready to carry this team through such difficult times. After throwing four interceptions and no touchdown passes in his previous two games, he produced 167 passing yards and two scores with no turnovers on Thursday.
"We showed today that it's not just about Colin Kaepernick or who's playing wide receiver for us," said 49ers tight end Vernon Davis. "You can't forget about Frank Gore, our other running backs, people like [backup running back] Anthony Dixon. We have a good core of guys there and it's good to utilize them. It's important to let people know we still have other weapons, too."
In many ways, the 49ers have to return to the team they were when head coach Jim Harbaugh started leading this franchise in 2011. Harbaugh brought an old-school approach to a team that historically had been on the cutting edge offensively. He didn't care so much about spread formations and Pistol offenses in those days. Harbaugh's main concern then was manufacturing wins any way possible, primarily because that was how he'd become such a rising star in his profession in the first place.
That San Francisco team took pride in taking care of the football. It believed in winning games with sterling special teams, a relentless running game and a smothering defense that didn't care about style points. But midway through last season -- when Kaepernick emerged after the injury to former starter Alex Smith -- everything changed for the 49ers. They became dynamic and exciting and fell in love with the notion of riding the read-option as far as it could take them.
Those days appear to be over, at least for now. The 49ers made themselves over last year, and now it's time for them to remember exactly who they are. Harbaugh built this team to be resilient and resourceful, not to dominate the highlights on "SportsCenter." Their strongest assets are a mix of grit and grind, a belief that they're the toughest guys on the block when it all matters most. As quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst said, "This is our DNA. It's who we are."
The 49ers lost that identity somewhere in the past year. It was subtle, yes, but it happened. You couldn't see it as clearly when they won a Week 1 shootout over Green Bay but it's been obvious ever since. The Seattle Seahawks whipped them a week later, and the Indianapolis Colts beat them down last Sunday. Those defeats were so thorough -- and stunning -- that it was easy to wonder whether the 49ers had forgotten that they used to take pride in being the baddest dudes on the block.
The easy excuses in those defeats focused on personnel problems. The offense would be better if only wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham were healthy enough to give Kaepernick more targets. The defense would be better if cornerback Chris Culliver hadn't torn his ACL in preseason, if Williams hadn't been put on injured reserve with a broken ankle after Week 2 and if Smith hadn't been arrested. That also was the biggest problem with the 49ers through three weeks. They performed as if they were starting to feel sorry for themselves. "We were all frustrated by the results [lately]," Harbaugh said.
That doesn't appear to be something that will plague them anymore. It may seem like a step backward -- especially for the fans who fell in love with all those big plays last season and in that Green Bay win -- but this team should start looking very much like it did with Alex Smith under center. Although it didn't deliver nearly as many thrilling moments with him at quarterback, it did understand how best to win games. It came down to all three aspects of the team complementing one another. It was about substance over style.
When the 49ers look at the tape of this game, they should be encouraged. Backup linebacker Michael Wilhoite was lining up in Willis' spot. Some guy named Dan Skuta filled in for Aldon Smith. There also were veteran stars providing huge plays, from linebackers NaVorro Bowman (six tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble) and Ahmad Brooks (seven tackles, 1.5 sacks) to wide receiver Anquan Boldin (five receptions, 90 yards and the first touchdown). Everybody seemed to understand what they had to do.
Said Davis: "When you fall down like we did, it can be hard to get out of it. That's why we couldn't lose this game. If we had, it would've been gloomy for the whole organization. Now we can go home and feel good about winning again."
The 49ers will have to carry that rejuvenated spirit forward, because their road won't get any easier. The Seahawks clearly are a better team right now, and the NFC is filled with other contenders, including the Packers, Bears, Falcons and Saints. For the past two weeks, it was hard to feel good saying the 49ers should be included in that group. Today, it feels a little easier, mainly because they remembered what made them a great team in the first place.