Jim Harbaugh was talking about criticism, conceding when the 49ers lose, there will be second-guessing.
“The whys for what happened,” he calls it. The worry is not what happened, but what didn’t happen, with the 49ers unable to get a victory.
“They’re the hunted now,” Harbaugh said of his Niners, after winning the division, surprising everyone — except maybe the Niners themselves — and compiling a record tied for second-best in the NFL.
The hunted, and seeking explanations, looking not so much for excuses, but reasons.
The personal foul against linebacker Larry Grant, the failure to call a personal foul against the Arizona defender who smacked Alex Smith on the knee.
“Things,” insisted Harbaugh, “that when you look at it, really changed the course of the game.”
There are always “things,” questionable calls, bad bounces. Good teams, great teams, just go on. As did the 49ers in 1989, when they played in the cold, on the road, late at night, in the rain and won a Super Bowl.
The best don’t whine. When he was No. 1, Roger Federer shook his head at an obviously bad call by a linesmen and won the next point. If Tiger Woods’ ball trickled into a bunker, in his best days, he recovered with a shot to within inches of the cup. They know they’ll do it. Their opponents know.
The Niners aren’t quite there yet. They can’t punch it into the end zone — 10 field goals and only three touchdowns the past three games. They can’t overcome screwups by the officials or last weekend’s mechanical failure by the instant replay machine, which created a long delay when they had the ball.
“Grant gets called, roughing the passer,” said Harbaugh, “when he was cut. He got back up, hit the quarterback in what looked to be the thigh. OK. You understand that can be called. We had the same things happen to Alex.
“On the pass right before the fake field goal. Defender gets cut, gets back up, lunges into Alex’s knee. No flag. That would have been a first down. We still have the ball. Larry [Grant’s] penalty gives them a first down, which leads to [an Arizona] touchdown.”
Could-have and would-have are the words of, well, not losers because that is too strong, but of non-winners. The Niners are last in the league scoring in the red zone. That’s why they have dropped two of their past three, not because of officiating.
Next come the Pittsburgh Steelers, a Super Bowl team from last year, tough, even brutal. The Steelers won’t have James Harrison, suspended for yet another vicious hit, this one helmet-to-facemask on Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy. The great Ben Roethlisberger may be limping.
No matter, the Steelers play to the extreme, employing what they have, instead of worrying about what they don’t.
It was reassuring when Harbaugh, asked if a positive comes from a loss, answered, “You don’t really get into what’s good, what’s bad. It’s what you make of it … Make the what-ifs irrelevant by how we handle it, how we attack, how we go forward.”
Like the good, old days. It isn’t how you won or lost, it’s whether you won or lost.