Joe-Pinions: Sports

23 Jan 2012 – Heartbreak at Candlestick

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 23/01/2012

Maybe the rain that fell from the heavens was portentous, a sign of the tears to come.

The team that seemed destined to enjoy a repeat of glorious history instead saw a re-run of history of a different kind.  Instead of yet another improbable victory against a superior opponent beaten by the inexorable combination of superior willpower and destiny, the 49ers instead relived the nightmare of losing to the New York Giants due to an ill-timed lost fumble.

For diehard San Francisco 49ers fans, this defeat was yet another echo of the past.  In 1990, Roger Craig lost a fumble when the 49ers were seemingly on their way to punching their ticket to a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance.  The Giants stole the win with a successful field goal attempt at the end of the game.

Last night, in overtime, wide receiver Kyle Williams lost a critical fumble on an attempt to return a punt whilst in Giants territory, after yet another heroic stand by the 49ers defense.  This was actually Williams’ second lost fumble of the evening, the first having resulted in an eventual touchdown that gave the Giants a three-point lead.  With the second fumble resulting in the game-winning field goal, Williams’ gaffes were, effectively, ten points gifted to the Giants.

Let’s get one thing perfectly straight, though:  The Giants were the better team on Sunday.  The scoreboard said it all:  20-17 in OT, Giants over the 49ers.  The game film will show how they did it.  Their offense was miles ahead of the 49ers’.  Defensively, they did a brilliant job of not giving San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith any open receivers.  And on special teams, they came up with two game-changing turnovers.

When the 49ers win, they usually dominate in at least two of those three phases.  You can count on their defense to limit the damage the opposing offense can cause at the very least; in many cases, the championship-caliber defense was also very good at taking the ball away from the opponent and giving the offense extra possessions.  The Niners’ special teams units have also been stellar in terms of converting field goal attempts into points and creating favorable field position through great punting and punt coverage.  Moreover, the 49ers special teams kick return units have also been effective all year long.

In last night’s NFC Championship game, though, the 49ers’ strengths were neutralized, and their weaknesses were magnified.  Defensively speaking, the Niners actually played very well, especially in the second half of the game.  Where in the first half the Giants had obviously found their match-up advantage in WR Victor Cruz up against 49ers CB Carlos Rogers, San Francisco did a great job limiting the damage in the second half.  The 49ers started mixing up their coverages in the second half, and Cruz was only able to catch two more passes thrown to him after a monstrous first half performance that saw him pull down eight passes from Eli Manning.  Moreover, the Niners’ pass rush also made their adjustments, finally overcoming the Giants’ effective pass protection and scoring brutal hits and sacks on the Giants quarterback.  And, as expected, the Giants’ dual-threat running attack was ineffective.  The only “negative” thing to say about the 49ers’ defensive unit was its inability to get a turnover; I have to say that that was more a testament to Eli Manning’s excellent decision making and accuracy on his passes than any specific failing by the 49ers defense.

The 49ers’ special teams units were steady and unspectacular.  Kicker David Akers converted his only field goal attempt, and punter Andy Lee was solid with his punts.  Kickoff/punt coverage, as usual, was very good at stopping the Giants’ return men from getting big yardage on their chances.  Indeed, the only true black marks for the special teams units were Kyle Williams’ two critical errors.

On offense, the 49ers’ biggest weaknesses were exposed and exploited by the Giants.  Alex Smith looked harried for most of the evening.  Except for three big plays — two long TD bombs to tight end Vernon Davis and a long gain by halfback Frank Gore — the 49ers’ passing game was atrocious.  For most of his pass attempts Smith had nobody open, especially in the desperate second half when the offense needed to convert on third down.  Consequently, he pulled the ball down and ran for positive yardage.  Gore and his backup, Kendall Hunter, also had a productive game running the ball.  It’s just a pity that the 49ers didn’t seem to be willing to get more from their ground game.

It’s easy to look back in hindsight and point to all the blown chances, but the fact is that the 49ers still led the Giants before Kyle Williams let a rolling punt graze his knee for his first fumble.  That was a huge, avoidable mistake (return men are coached to get away from the ball if a punt/kick isn’t caught) that resulted in the Giants’ wresting the lead away.

The 49ers struggled mightily to tie the ballgame after Williams’ first big error.

Unfortunately for them, and for the 49er Faithful, Williams’ second error was the proverbial kill shot.

49ers

Although the season ended on such a sad note, the 49ers have much to be proud of.  This year’s team fell short only in the way it didn’t fully repeat a glorious moment from its own history, but this still has been a magical season.

For this fan, starved of not just playoff appearances and playoff victories, but of just plain ol’ good football, the San Francisco 49ers’ 2011-2012 season gave just so much joy.  And the Niners’ success is all the more gratifying since it came the right way:  Through hard work, determination, guile and cunning, and smarts, the 49ers exceeded all expectations.  All I wanted from this year’s team is a sign that it is back on the right track, after almost a full decade of ineptitude.

Jim Harbaugh’s arrival really has been the difference.  Even given the handicap of having next to no off-season with which to install offensive and defensive systems, Harbaugh and his staff still got the maximum from this team.  It’s hard to imagine any other coach and coaching staff getting as much performance and achieving the same results as they have this year.  Despite the loss in the championship game, this coaching staff still deserves to be covered in glory.

The players, too, deserve a lot of congratulations and gratitude from the fans.  Speaking just for myself, this team is composed of very likeable men.  They played together the whole year, and even in their darkest hour they rushed to protect and nurture the man whom many have held singularly responsible for their moment of failure.  Coach Jim Harbaugh proclaimed, almost from the onset, that his team is a squad of blue-collar workers, and it is an appropriate and accurate portrayal of this year’s 49ers.  They worked hard, they worked together, they covered for each other, and never ever resorted to petty finger-pointing when things didn’t work out.  I can honestly say that I like all of these 49ers, which is something I can’t say about the organization’s last Super Bowl-winning team.

49ers

So what does the future hold for the 49ers?

I think that there is a very strong core, a super-stable foundation already in place.  If any good came out of losing in the NFC Championship game, it’s that the Niners cannot hide their weaknesses any longer.  There is a dearth of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, so I suspect that’s the weakness that the team will seek to shore up first during the off-season.  The team needs a pair of reliable receivers to complement their two aces, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis.  I think the quarterback position is solid, and Alex Smith has already expressed his desire to stay; Coach Harbaugh has repeatedly said he wants Alex back, so I wholeheartedly echo his sentiments.  The offensive line is likewise good and will likely further improve.

Defensively, it’s a matter of convincing a few known contributors to stay despite free agency looming.  Linebacker Ahmad Brooks, cornerback Carlos Rogers, and safety Dashon Goldson all made big plays all year, but all three will be free to sign with whomever they want once the new league year begins in March.  The dream scenario would be if all three stayed with the team, and Rogers and Goldson have both said they want to be 49ers (Brooks may also have said the same thing, but I’ve not heard it); however, we’ll see how things shake out.

The coaching staff looks like it will stay together.  No complaints from me on that front.  Coach Harbaugh had been very generous with his praise for his fellow coaches, so I imagine he’d want to “keep the band together,” as he himself said.  There is a possibility that offensive coordinator Greg Roman may become the next head coach for the Indianapolis Colts, but until the Colts make their final decision that is all just conjecture.  (Coach Roman helped Coach Harbaugh groom Luck while they all were at Stanford.)

Will next year’s team take us on as good a thrill ride as they did this year?

I, for one, hope they do not.

I hope the ride lasts a little bit longer next year.

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3 Responses

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  1. Tim said, on 23/01/2012 at 23:20

    I can only echo your sentiments. Kyle WIlliams may have committed the turnovers but it was the team as a whole which fell just short, and Williams certainly did not deserve the shower of hate which has rained down on him since. Mistakes happen, and certainly the overtime fumble was just a great strip.

    I also agree that this is now very much a blue-collar team, in stark contrast to the white-collar squads of old. Deion Sanders certainly wouldn’t have fitted into this team. One or two WRs and some additional depth on offense will make a huge difference. If Harbaugh can keep the defense and coaching staff together, we can only move forwards next season. But what a surprising and thrilling ride this one has been, despite its sad and premature ending.

    • txtmstrjoe said, on 25/01/2012 at 00:00

      Well said about Kyle Williams and the flood of hateful, stupid comments he got from “fans.”

      Sometimes sports inspires so much passion that people lose all perspective. They forget that this is not life; it is merely entertainment that may, on some levels, be a metaphor for life. But that’s all it is: A metaphor, an image.

      Death threats over what is at the end of the day just a game have no place in sports.

      Kyle Williams’ comments immediately post-game and on interviews a couple of days since the game show him to be a very admirable, courageous young man. If nothing else he has shown himself to be honorable in that he admitted his mistake that cost his team the game.

      As you have said, the team as a whole lost. And that jives well with Coach Harbaugh’s explicit mantra that has become the 49ers’ self-definition of its identity: It’s all about “the Team, the Team, the Team.”

      • Tim said, on 25/01/2012 at 07:58

        I was really pleased to see Williams come out and handle himself so maturely. It would have been easy to have just run and hid, after all the abuse which had been directed from him. I hope he gets a chance to redeem himself next season.


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