Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Take Back Pride

The reeling 49ers went into Washington last night for a Monday Night matchup that ended up being billed as a game featuring a pair of Quarterbacks who were viewed as phenoms that came crashing down to earth. After lighting the league on fire last season, both Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin, III now found themselves slogging through miserable, inconsistent seasons. Kaepernick has been hampered by both inconsistency and injuries to players around him. To his good fortune, the team behind him has been strong enough to overcome this and win games. Griffin has been hampered by his own injury that he's not quite recovered from, and as such has been unable to play the type of football that made him such a sensation last year. The Redskins (a taboo word these days) have frayed around him and the result has been an ugly 3-7 record coming into Monday's game. Desperate for a win and ready to unleash their frustrations on a struggling team, the 49ers went out and did what they had to do in a 27-6 victory over Washington, ending their two-game losing streak and quelling some of the panic for a few days.

Whether or not this was truly a righting of the ship for the 49ers or just beating up on a bad team remains to be seen, but nobody's giving this win back. After a pair of middling performances that called his abilities as a Quarterback into question, Colin Kaepernick responded with one of his better games, throwing for 235 yards and 3 Touchdowns and generally looked comfortable for the first time since the Jacksonville game in London. After a slow start that saw both teams trade punts at a record pace, Kaepernick finally moved the 49ers down the field, converting a 3rd down play to Anquan Boldin, who made a great over-the-shoulder catch over hapless Josh Wilson (whom he picked on all night), and then scored on the following play as he beat Wilson again for a 19-yard Touchdown.

While the 49ers managed to get going somewhat, Washington remained flat. On their ensuing possession, Griffin did scramble for a first down, but on the following play, after being chased around by Aldon Smith, Griffin heaved a dying quail right into the arms of Donte Whitner. The image of Griffin lying on the ground may well become the enduring image of the game. The 49ers only netting a Field Goal out of the drive was a bit of a moral victory for Washington, and they made a spirited attempt to get back into the game, but a long drive fell short and resulted in a Kai Forbath Field Goal, and with the clock running out before halftime, Forbath rushed out and kicked another FG to cut the 49ers lead to 10-6.

The 2nd half got off to an ugly start for the 49ers. Kaepernick hit Vernon Davis over the middle on a 3rd down play and, while fighting for extra yardage, Davis fumbled and Washington recovered. But given a golden opportunity, Washington could do nothing of consequence. Santana Moss caught a short pass on 3rd down but was stopped short of the 1st Down by Patrick Willis, and on 4th Down, Roy Helu was stuffed for no gain by Willis and Navorro Bowman and the ball went back to the 49ers. This time, the Niners ripped right down the field with Kaepernick spreading the ball around between Davis, Frank Gore and Mario Manningham before zipping a 6-yard TD pass to Boldin in traffic in the middle of the End Zone. This opened the game up once again and allowed the defense to, as is often their wont with the lead, dig their heels in and really lay down the hammer. Washington barely managed any offense of consequence over the remainder of the game. The 49ers scored another TD following a 40-yard Punt Return by LaMichael James that set up a 1-yard score from Kap to Davis on a play where Washington appeared to sell out for a run, allowing Davis to slip into the End Zone with nobody in his general vicinity.

Kaepernick led the offense on this night, which was helpful because Washington zeroed in on stopping Frank Gore. Gore, who's struggled these past few weeks and ceded many snaps to the equally ineffective Kendall Hunter, only ran for 31 yards. It appears as though this is now the MO of teams that are playing the 49ers. As the league has adjusted to the read-option threat, the 49ers haven't called many running plays for Kaepernick. As Kap has struggled to adjust to a purely pocket-pass game, the 49ers have tried to lean more on Frank Gore and their other rushers. So, obviously, the better Kaepernick can perform, the better the chances are for the 49ers to have success because teams are naturally trying to stop the running game first and worrying less about Kaepernick passing. This could be playing with fire, since Kap has had a few strong passing games, but he hasn't done that enough to strike fear into the hearts of other teams. A large problem hasn't been ability, but simply a lack of talent around him. However, the 49ers are, for the first time all season, starting to get healthy. Kaepernick started the season with a receiving core of Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and nobody else of note. But Mario Manningham has returned healthy and now Michael Crabtree is expected to return next week and this should give the passing attack a bit more teeth. But he managed to do that against Washington, and it was good enough to get the 49ers a sorely-needed victory.

The 49ers now return home for a pair of games against divisional opponents and the results of these games should say a lot about where this team is going this year. The Rams are first, and although the 49ers handled them easily in September, the Rams have looked better of late and took out the Colts and Bears impressively the last couple of weeks. After that, our dear friends from Seattle come to town in a game that should just be a great big love-fest. It should be a very interesting couple of weeks.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Next Stop Is...

I tend not to find myself on the 7 Train during the off season. Usually, if I end up on there between October and March, it means I had some business somewhere around Midtown and I needed to get from the West side of Manhattan to the East side quickly and the 7 train is my best option (The Grand Central Shuttle is sometimes an option to this end as well, but other times, it's not).

The extension of the 7 train probably isn't much of a secret by this point, unless you're not a regular subway rider or you choose not to pay attention to the foibles of the MTA. The line is being extended from its current terminus at Times Square to a new terminal at 34th Street and 11th Avenue (for whatever reason, a proposed stop at 41st Street and 10th Avenue was not included which is kind of stupid given the area's residential boom). Currently, this is scheduled to open in 2014, although whenever the MTA says something, it's good to take it with a grain of salt. But should you find yourself at the Times Square station on the 7, you can see down into the newly-constructed tunnel which is interesting if you're into that sort of stuff (and as a Subway nerd, I include myself). All that being said, the extension affects me and probably a good number of Mets fans very little, but it's interesting to mention it because it probably ties in to the latest development I've noticed on the 7 Train.

For much of my formative years, the 7 train consisted primarily of the R36 "Redbirds," which weren't originally red but ended up that way over the course of time. These were kind of classic old-school subway cars without much in the way of modern feeling or amenities. The Redbirds were retired sometime around 2003 and the 7 fleet turned over to the much shinier R62A cars, which you've been riding to Citi Field ever since the place opened, so you know what they look like.

But if you've been on many of the other subway lines in the city, you've probably been on the "Talking" Subway cars, the new trains that have digital readouts and recorded station announcements. These cars are now slowly taking over on the 7 train. Last week, I found myself on a crosstown trip and there it was, a brand new R188 sitting there, telling me that "This is a Queens bound 7 Local Train," and "The next stop is...5th Avenue." The way these things tend to go, you see one, then you see some more and before you know it, they've taken over. What does this mean? Ultimately, not much. But with a new section of line and a new train communication system being installed on it, the arrival of the new subway cars seemed imminent. Strange as it may seem, there may be something comforting about the first time I hear "This is...Mets-Willets Point. This is a Flushing Bound 7 Express train..." when I'm on my way to a game.

Of course, tourists and newbies may still not realize that this is where they're supposed to get off.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Walking A Thin Line

I haven't read much of today's NFL headlines, although I'd have to imagine that most of the talk surrounding the 49ers today is something to the effect of "Kiss their Playoff hopes goodbye." The situation for the 49ers certainly isn't pretty right now, not after losing a tight, tough 23-20 struggle against the New Orleans Saints yesterday. At 6-4 their chances at a 3rd straight NFC West title are just about dead and a Playoff spot is certainly no sure thing either at this point.

That being said, they've managed to lose two games in a row to two really tough teams by a total of 4 points. Although teams with championship aspirations generally win these kinds of games (and the 49ers have done plenty of this over the past 2.5 seasons), it requires getting a few breaks and converting a few key plays in order to do so. Unfortunately, the 49ers haven't gotten the breaks and haven't converted the plays they needed to these past couple of games, and the result is that they've lost two straight games that they could easily have won.

The performance of the offense seemed to reflect this throughout the game. Colin Kaepernick struggled to maintain a steady rhythm. Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis were, once again, his only real weapons on offense. Frank Gore didn't manage much on the ground and the remaining pieces were a disaster. Of the 20 points the 49ers scored, 17 were the result of turnovers and the other 3 came after the Saints failed to convert a 4th down. Otherwise, though Kaepernick did a better job of avoiding unnecessary sacks than he did against Carolina, Kaepernick still was forced to throw to unreliable targets on multiple occasions with poor results, or, he still got sacked, which happened 3 times. He threw one interception, a bad throw into coverage, but although Corey White appeared destined to run it back for a Touchdown, Kaepernick hustled after White and ended up forcing him to fumble the ball out of the end zone resulting in a touchback and, ultimately a Field Goal, for the 49ers. Still, the effort overall wasn't pretty. Kaepernick's two Touchdown passes came when great field position was dropped in his lap, courtesy of 1) a muffed punt by Lance Moore and 2) an acrobatic interception by Ahmad Brooks. Kaepernick ended up completing 17 passes, but only for 127 yards, an unacceptable amount. And in the 4th Quarter, when it was imperative for the 49ers offense to eat up some of the clock, they were unable to do so.

This once again put an unnecessary amount of pressure on the defense to stop Drew Brees and company, and they did an admirable job, keeping things in control for the most part and preventing the Saints from tearing down the field like they usually do. The Saints scored Touchdowns in the 1st and 2nd Quarter, but after that, they were limited to only Field Goals, and generally the defense got the stops that they needed to get. By the 4th Quarter, the 49ers had nursed themselves to a 20-14 lead, and given the way the defense had played, forcing a turnover and a turnover on downs, there was certainly reason for optimism. But Brees connected with Robert Meachem and Marques Colston on a pair of long passes, and although the defense kept them out of the end zone, Drunken Kicker Garrett Hartley kicked a Field Goal to cut the lead to 3. It's fine to hold the Saints to Field Goals, which is what the 49ers defense did, but they received no help from the offense, and thus set up the sequence that sealed the 49ers fate on this day.

With slightly over 3 minutes to play, the Saints had driven well into 49ers territory, but faced a 3rd down play. Brees dropped back to pass but was ultimately overwhelmed by a blitz and sacked by Ahmad Brooks. Brees also fumbled the ball directly into Patrick Willis' arms. Unhappily, Brooks ended up drawing a penalty for tackling Brees around the neck. Replays showed that Brooks had Brees around the shoulders, but in this day's NFL, that flag will get thrown every time, whether it's merited or not (and in this case it probably wasn't). Goodbye Sack, Goodbye Fumble, Goodbye Opportunity to run out the clock and, a few plays later, Goodbye lead when Hartley kicked another Field Goal.

With an opportunity to right the ship and drive the field for the winning score, Kaepernick was summarily sacked when none of his receivers could get open, forced to heave the ball away to avoid another sack and nearly get flagged for intentional grounding, and then scrambled but ultimately ran out of bounds to stop the clock. On the same field in which Kaepernick nearly performed a Super Bowl Miracle just 10 months ago, he now looked like a raw rookie forced into making bad mistakes.

Punting with slightly over a minute to play, Andy Lee did what he usually does and appeared to pin the Saints deep in their own end. Except that Kassim Osgood ended up running into the Saints' return man after he'd called a fair catch, drawing yet another damaging penalty and setting up the Saints to complete a few passes, drive down the field, eat up the remaining clock and kick the winning Field Goal, sending the 49ers grumbling back to the West Coast with a galling 23-20 defeat.

We've been over the Carolina debacle enough, and after that loss, the luster vanished from the 49ers so quickly that, virtually across the board, people expected the 49ers to go into New Orleans and get their clocks cleaned by the Saints. Even if it wasn't a blowout, I don't recall many places giving the 49ers much of a chance. And no, they didn't win, but they certainly were in prime position to do so late in the game. And sure, it's easy to look at the penalties on Brooks and Osgood and the damage they did, but if the offense could have just made a few more plays instead of just capitulating, the game wouldn't have come down to the penalties.

I'm not about to write the 49ers off just yet, but their performance this season has been so uneven, I'm never quite sure which team is going to show up. Is it the team that runs the ball consistently, allowing the passing game to open up, or is it the team that forces passes and abandons the run, putting unnecessary pressure on the defense to make something happen.

Then again, they were often inconsistent last season, too. We know how that year turned out.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Frustration Game

After a week off, the 49ers appeared to be coming into Sunday's game with the Carolina Panthers on a roll. They were well-rested, coming of 5 consecutive double-digit wins and they were beginning to get healthy, particularly with Mario Manningham set to make his season debut and Michael Crabtree continuing on the mend. The Panthers looked likely to be a tough matchup, on a 4-game win streak on their own, but as a young team still trying to prove themselves, it seemed as though they were merely the upstart team that the 49ers would handle easily.

This is why it feels so monumentally jarring that the Panthers came into Candlestick Park, stood toe to toe with the 49ers in an absolute slugfest that was ruled by two defenses that just wanted to whack each other, and ultimately Carolina came away with a really ugly 10-9 victory that validates their hot streak. For the 49ers, nothing they tried on offense was able to work, Colin Kaepernick was forced into poor decisions or no decisions, Vernon Davis was lost with a concussion and after the 49ers forged ahead 9-0, the Panthers just stopped them dead in their tracks.

This was one of those rare 49ers games that was televised in New York, so I was able to watch it, and it was pretty easy to tell that the 49ers were in trouble by halftime. Multiple times, they had the ball well in Carolina territory in the 1st half only to have their drive stall and end in a Field Goal. Colin Kaepernick, who was really beginning to look like the force he was down the stretch last season over the last few weeks, regressed badly, allowing the Carolina defense to sack him 6 times and made no attempt to try to make things happen with his legs. Losing Davis hurt, as it usually does, but still, the 49ers, who continued to have a miserable rate of success on 3rd down, at least one of those drives should have finished in the End Zone. If they'd managed to do that any one of those 3 drives in the first half, the game probably would have finished differently. The last one, perhaps, was the most galling, because after Tramaine Brock intercepted Cam Newton and returned the ball deep into Carolina territory, the 49ers appeared to have a TD dropped in their laps. But they couldn't convert inside the 10 yard line and settled for Phil Dawson's 3rd Field Goal.

The game sat 9-0 at that point, and the defense had been playing at their usual high level. But even at their best, the opponent is still going to manage to put something together, and the Panthers were able to string a bit of a drive together that culminated in a 27-yard Touchdown from DeAngelo Williams. This would, ultimately, be the game's only touchdown and it cut the 49ers lead to 9-7 going into halftime.

In the 2nd half, the defenses took over. Neither offense was able to generate any sort of momentum, which made me even more nervous. The Panthers appeared to simply be biding time before they could make a play. The 49ers appeared to actually be uncoordinated. They didn't move the ball much at all, while Carolina was at least able to creep into 49ers territory, though Graham Gano missed a Field Goal in the 3rd Quarter. A Kendall Hunter fumble was discouraging, but led to no points for Carolina. More concerning was just how bad the 49ers offense looked, which was probably worse than they did in the 1st half. Finally, about 5 minutes into the 4th quarter, the Panthers got enough of a drive together to set up for another Gano Field Goal attempt, which he converted from 53 yards to give Carolina the lead and ultimately the win.

Still, I had to think the 49ers had it in them to respond. Surely, they wouldn't just fade out at home like this. But that's what happened. They would have the ball 3 more times over the duration of the game. They went 3-and-out the first time, Kaepernick was sacked creating an impossible situation the second time, and Kaepernick threw an interception to Drayton Florence the final time, which, with under 1 minute to play clinched this miserably frustrating 10-9 loss.

The offense has to shoulder the blame for this one. I know that the popular chatter among the talking heads is how Kaepernick is struggling and Alex Smith is 9-0 and maybe the 49ers kept the wrong guy, but that's ridiculous because to this point Kaepernick has played in a Super Bowl and Alex Smith hasn't, and keeping Kaepernick was a no-brainer just on talent alone. That said, because Kaepernick had so much success so quickly, it's easy to really jump on him for his failures. He hasn't looked especially great this season passing but consider that he's working without his #1 receiver in Crabtree, Davis has missed the sum total of 2 games, and ostensibly the remaining receivers he's had (Jon Baldwin, Kassim Osgood, Kyle Williams) haven't proven themselves capable of contributing. Williams, in fact, was cut altogether this week, taking the memory of fumbles' past with him. Basically, Kaepernick has been able to throw to Anquan Boldin and nobody else has been there for him in every game. And teams know this and have loaded up on Boldin. Getting Manningham back this week helped, but after missing close to a year I don't see how he can be expected to be a major factor.

Nonetheless, these are all good indicators as to why the 49ers currently have one of the NFL's worst passing attacks in spite of having some of the NFL's best talent. With a really tough game in New Orleans on Sunday, a solution to this problem has to be the focus this week. One thing missing from the game plan seems to be a more effective usage of these speedy backs the 49ers have, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James. James, who's replaced Williams as the team's Punt Return specialist, showed his stuff last postseason and Hunter is always tough. Both of them should be more factors than they are. Neither are going to take running plays away from Frank Gore, but in situations where a screen or a short pass are necessary, these guys should be looked to as viable options because they've proven they can play, but they need more opportunities to do so.

It couldn't hurt. People are jumping off the bandwagon once again even though the 49ers are still 6-3. But now 2.5 games behind Seattle, a shot at the division appears all but dead and if they don't correct their problems, a playoff spot could be in severe jeopardy as well.