Monday, January 20, 2014

Black Hole Sun

For the second season in a row, the 49ers season came to a crashing halt when a fade pass to the corner of the end zone that was intended for Michael Crabtree fell someplace other than into the hands of Michael Crabtree. Last season, that pass fell incomplete on a 4th down play in the Super Bowl. This time, the pass was tipped by Richard Sherman into the hands of Malcolm Smith, cutting off a last-minute 49ers attempt to win the game. In a game that can only be described as piercingly intense, the 49ers were once again at the precipice of victory only to be turned away, done in by three 4th Quarter turnovers, falling to the Seahawks 23-17 in the NFC Championship Game.

This game had so many vicissitudes, so many different angles and plays that seemed key to the outcome. Losing the Super Bowl last season hurt, and certainly this game seemed awfully reminiscent of that, but for so many reason, this game just feels worse.

Perhaps it's the way it started out, which for the 49ers was great. Aldon Smith strip-sacked Russell Wilson on the first play of the game, immediately setting the 49ers up at the Seattle 15-yard line. Even though the drive went nowhere, Phil Dawson's Field Goal gave the 49ers an immediate lead and served notice that this wouldn't be the same Seattle romp as prior 49er trips to Seattle had been. Early in the 2nd Quarter, Colin Kaepernick seemed to be taking control of the game. Though he hadn't thrown much, if at all, to his receivers, and though Frank Gore was unable to establish anything rushing, Kaepernick
shrugged it all off and put the team on his back, providing most of the team's yardage with his legs, including a 58-yard dash that dazzled in terms of both athleticism and elusiveness. Kap's run set up an Anthony Dixon Touchdown that gave the 49ers a 10-0 lead. With the defense thoroughly confusing Russell Wilson and holding Marshawn Lynch in check, things couldn't have been better. But for whatever reason, you could sense it wouldn't last.

Perhaps it was the way the Seahawks stormed back into the game, first by Wilson hitting Doug Baldwin for a 51-yard prayer on a bomb that seemed to epitomize Wilson's own abilities. A busted play, Wilson scrambled around and kept things going long enough for Baldwin to sneak behind Eric Reid and Donte Whitner for a catch that set up a Field Goal. After the 49ers managed nothing in their first 3rd Quarter possession, the Seahawks responded with a healthy dose of Marshawn Lynch, who pounded and pounded and eventually broke through on a 40-yard run that tied the game.

Now stuck in the dogfight of dogfights, Kaepernick appeared to regain control of things when he hit Anquan Boldin for a Touchdown that put the 49ers back ahead. A thing of beauty, this was. We all know, by this point, that Kaepernick has the ability to run around, but rarely have we seen him run around to keep a pass play alive. But that's what he did, and his one-legged jump-throw was an absolute laser beam that just barely snuck over the reaching arms of Earl Thomas and into Boldin's sure hands. This was the kind of play that probably scared the shit out of everyone in Seattle, because clearly, the 49ers weren't folding this time. After a catch like that, I had to think to myself that the 49ers were going to find a way to do it, beat the Seahawks and go on to the Super Bowl.

Sadly, I was wrong. In a 4th Quarter sequence that featured an endless string of nightmares, the 49ers saw their lead evaporate on a counter-miracle from Wilson, their best Defensive player go down with a truly horrible-looking injury, and their season come crashing down amid a flurry of trash talk and ill will.

The Seahawks were rewarded for their gutsiness in going for the kill on a 4th down play, as Jermaine Kearse scored on a 35-yard Touchdown pass, and eventually the Seattle defense wore down Kaepernick enough to force him into some mistakes. Cliff Avril's strip-sack was recovered by Seattle and set the stage for a sloppy sequence that saw Navorro Bowman force a fumble near the goal line, recover said fumble, and then get his knee shredded in the ensuing pileup. This, for me, was truly the point when I felt the game slipping away. Though replays showed that Bowman had clearly recovered a fumble, after getting injured and piled on, he lost the ball, because, when you get injured like that, you usually aren't thinking about holding onto a football. Patrick Willis said as much after the game, because when his close friend was on the ground screaming in pain, the focus isn't so much on the ball, but his teammate. Just to make matters worse, referees awarded Seattle the ball. Somehow, after Bowman was carted off and showered with food by the classy Seattle fans, the 49ers defense kept it together, stopped the Seahawks on 4th down and got the ball back.

But, before that drive could get going, Kaepernick was intercepted by Kam Chancellor on a badly underthrown pass for Anquan Boldin. A little air under it and Boldin certainly would have caught it. By this point, the air was really starting to come out of the 49ers. To their credit, though, the Defense wouldn't let the game get away, holding Seattle to a Field Goal to make it a 6 point game with around 3 minutes to play, setting the stage for one final shot for the 49ers to win the game. This, I suppose, was all you could ask for in a game that had lived up to its billing as an all-out slugfest. And damned if Kaepernick didn't shake off the interception and the fumble and lead that drive, hitting Gore on a 4th down pass and Crabtree and Vernon Davis for gains that moved the ball down to the Seahawks 18-uard line. We'd been through this last year. It seemed almost certain that this time, things would turn out differently, as Kaepernick reared back and lofted one more pass towards Michael Crabtree in the right corner of the End Zone...

The 49ers and Seahawks, I suppose, can be best equated to the Mets and the Phillies, two teams that don't like each other and two fan bases that clash continually. A game like this could probably be best described as if the Phillies had beaten the Mets in the 2008 NLCS, had such a thing come to pass. Certainly, Richard Sherman (playing the part of Jimmy Rollins) ended up stealing the show, thanks to his tip of Kaepernick's final pass and his postgame rant, which was both classless and self-aggrandizing...but ultimately doesn't change the outcome of the game. Most people, myself included, didn't like it, and it certainly didn't win him any fans, but the over-the-top criticism and media attention he's received from it is probably just what he intended. So be it. He talked the talk, he walked the walk, now his team's going to the Super Bowl. So he got everything he wanted. Good for him. Hopefully his coach doesn't forget the Adderall when they leave for New Jersey.

For the 49ers, this is now three seasons in a row where they've been right at the precipice. And each time, they've managed to come up just a bit short in spite of the fact that they were probably the better team on the field each time. On the one hand, well, they're still a really well-built, well-coached team that's set up for an extended run of success. But on the other hand, this is now three years in a row that they've made it as far as the NFC Championship Game and didn't win the Super Bowl. NFL History is dotted with teams that have had extended runs into the Playoffs but never came away with the ultimate prize. The fear is that the 49ers of this generation might start to earn themselves that kind of a label.

The other thing that's concerning is that while Colin Kaepernick certainly improved greatly by leaps and bounds, he's still very much a work-in-progress. His performance in last night's game, much like his performance in last year's Super Bowl, was borderline brilliant, but dotted with moments of inconsistency and mistakes. In order for the 49ers to have won in Seattle, they had to play mistake-free, and they didn't. And it's magnified because those mistakes all came
very late in the game, after the 49ers had led most of the way and one more scoring drive might have made the difference. It shouldn't, however, take away from his fine finish to the regular season, and the pair of outstanding performances he had in Green Bay and Carolina. With 3 Postseason road victories, he's proven that he has the ability to be successful in a hostile environment, and he damn near did it again in the most hostile of places. But, oh, those crucial mistakes did him in again.

Kaepernick was for the most part inconsolable after the game, putting the blame on himself. His teammates, Patrick Willis in particular, would have none of it. It speaks loudly to the togetherness of this team, the core of which has managed to stay mostly intact. This season was, perhaps, the most difficult of the last three, given the peaks and valleys the team seemed to encounter over the course of the year. But they managed to make it through to late January once again. But one can never tell just how long this success can be maintained. The Atlanta Falcons can be used as a cautionary tale of this, dropping from 13 wins to 4 in a blink. Certainly, the 49ers don't seem to be a likely candidate for a major dropoff, but there will inevitably be turnover on this team. Key players like Jonathan Goodwin, Anthony Dixon and Donte Whitner are all Free Agents, as is Anquan Boldin, who was really a godsend for the 49ers this season. That's to say nothing of the impending contracts that are likely due to Kaepernick and Crabtree. Frank Gore's contract is up after the 2014 season as well, and who knows what next season will hold for the 49ers elder statesman, who unfortunately really wore down late in the season and may be nearing the dreaded Running Back Wall. Fortunately, the 49ers do have depth in Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore, but none have proven much to this point in their careers (Lattimore of course being injured all season) and so who knows if they can be trusted replacements for The Inconvenient Truth. Defensively, much of the front will return, led of course by Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. Poor Navorro Bowman, however, now has an offseason of surgery and rehab after last night's ACL injury (in another testament to Willis' leadership, he stated that he "would be there every step of the way" in Bowman's recovery).

So, another year has come to a close in disappointing fashion for the 49ers, and this one was probably the most frustrating of all. It's easy to think about the good moments in any given season and what a crazy ride it was, but it's terribly frustrating to think about what might have been. Nonetheless, it is a sadness tinged with pride when you consider just what it means to get this far three seasons in a row. I mentioned last year that each of these runs to this high level of the Playoffs is special and precious and cannot be taken for granted. I talked at the beginning of the season about the tough road of the Alpha Dog, and seizing the opportunity if they were able to make it all the way back. They almost did. Unfortunately, all it's brought them is another frustrating ending and more questions as they move into another offseason.

Maybe next year they'll get the ending right.

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