Monday, November 24, 2014

The Level of Competition

I wrote last week about yesterday's 49ers/Washington matchup holding all the potential of a Trap Game, particularly given the way the 49ers have had the annoying habit of playing down to the level of their opponent. Washington came in to San Francisco with a record of 3-7 and hadn't looked good in weeks. The 49ers were coming off a pair of uneven, but effective road victories and sat at 6-4. What should have been an easy win was anything but, as the 49ers offense continued to stagnate for a majority of the afternoon and they nearly let the game slip away because of it. It took a clutch late drive led by Colin Kaepernick, punctuated by a clutch catch by Anquan Boldin and finished by a clutch Touchdown run by Carlos Hyde for the 49ers to escape with a 17-13 victory.

The game wasn't on in New York—mysteriously, CBS was carrying the game for reasons I'm not quite sure of—so I was relegated to Gamecast for most of the proceedings. I say most, because let's face it, it's just not so conducive to track an entire NFL game on a computer screen that doesn't consist of actual video. Therefore, I only know what the lines on the screen tell me, and what it told me is that the 49ers once again failed to smash the proverbial flea with the proverbial sledgehammer and it very nearly bit them in the ass.

Things started off well enough for the 49ers, but then again, the 49ers have been starting games strong all season. Aldon Smith kicked things off by registering a sack on Robert Griffin III on the second play of the game, and after a punt, the 49ers tore down the field, as Colin Kaepernick hit Anquan Boldin for an 18-yard gain and then a 30-yard Touchdown that put the 49ers ahead.

After that, nothing. The game dissolved into a series of punts and mistakes by both Quarterbacks, but it was the 49ers that seemed to be making the costly errors. Carlos Hyde fumbled on the first play of the 2nd Quarter and Washington took over, but did nothing with the ball. It wasn't until midway through the Quarter that they broke through, as a drive predicated mostly on the running of Alfred Morris ended in the End Zone as Morris punched the ball in from a yard out to tie the game. The 49ers appeared primed to not respond at all, but just as the clock was running out in the half, Kaepernick, who'd done little of consequence since the Boldin score, hit Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree for a pair of long gains to set up what of late has been the offensive specialty—a Phil Dawson Field Goal just as the clock ran out.

The second half was a similar shit show. On the 49ers second possession, Kaepernick was intercepted on a deep throw intended for Boldin. Washington did nothing, and only when Aaron Lynch was flagged for Roughing the Passer on Washington's subsequent drive did they manage to mount any sort of yardage and their drive ended with a Field Goal that tied the game 10-10.

It was clear that the team that ended up getting a break would be the team that would break through, and when Frank Gore for the second week in a row uncharacteristically lost a Fumble deep in San Francisco's end, it appeared Washington had the break as their ensuing possession resulted in a Field Goal that gave them a 13-10 lead with 7:48 to go.

So, that was what the 49ers were faced with. In a similar situation against the Rams 3 weeks ago, the 49ers got themselves in position to score and, after eschewing a tying Field Goal instead watched as Kaepernick fumbled the game away on the 1 yard line. Now, after an afternoon of pretty much stagnating, the 49ers needed to come up with a big-time drive and score a Touchdown and put Washington in their place. Things didn't look good after Kaepernick was sacked on the first play of the drive, but somehow he got his act together, completed passes to Boldin and Davis and Gore plowed through to convert a 4th down and keep the 49ers afloat. On the following play, Kaepernick found Boldin in traffic over the middle and Boldin, who continues to make big plays in big moments, caught the ball in traffic while delivering a helmet-splitting hit to Ryan Clark, who went for the knockout and instead not only knocked himself out but got flagged for unnecessary roughness in the process. The additional 15 yards set the 49ers up inside the Washington 20. Kaepernick hit Boldin for another 10 yards to set up Carlos Hyde to score on a 4-yard run to put the 49ers ahead for good.

Washington couldn't move the ball on their ensuing possession, and after spending their time outs on the 49ers possession, Griffin was sacked by Justin Smith in the game's final moments and fumbled the ball away to Ahmad Brooks, and the 49ers were able to kneel on the ball and get the hell out of there with an unnecessarily difficult 17-13 victory.

At the beginning of the season, after a wildly inconsistent and unimpressive showing in the Preseason, Herman Edwards, the legendary motormouth who now pundits for ESPN, was talking about Colin Kaepernick and basically said that Kaepernick played lousy in games that don't matter, and really well in big games, using the preseason and last year's Playoff game in Green Bay as examples. The argument as he put it made no sense, but I understand the point Herm was trying to make. Kaepernick has been totally mercurial this season. He had great games against Dallas, Philadelphia and St. Louis, and even when the 49ers lost in Arizona. He made some key throws in New Orleans and again late in yesterday's game. But in general, he hasn't had a good season. For every good game he's had, there's games like Chicago, or Denver, or winning efforts yesterday and against Kansas City and last week against the Giants where he played poorly and the defense ended up winning games for them. He hasn't performed at the lofty level he set for himself when he took the league by storm two years ago and found himself in a Super Bowl after 10 games. It makes you wonder just how much trust the 49ers can continue to have in him. It's frustrating because the talent is there, but he continually plays down to the level of his opponent, or, as Herm was trying to say, the magnitude of the game. All too often, when it comes down to the 49ers playing a game against a Washington, or a Gnats, or the Rams, Kaepernick ends up having one of those annoying games where he tries to run out of trouble and either takes a bad sack or, worse, forces himself into turning the ball over. The numbers he's generated don't look bad on the surface—2,615 yards and 15 Touchdown passes are on pace to surpass his figures from last year with 5 games to play—but dig a little deeper. While he's only thrown 6 Interceptions, he hasn't yet played Seattle, who was responsible for half of the 8 picks he threw last season, and his completion percentage lies at a barely passable 61% (yet is somehow higher than the 58% he set last year). More alarming are the sacks. Last season, Kaepernick was sacked 39 times for losses of 231 yards. This season, and again, remember there are still 5 games to go, two of which are against Seattle, he's been sacked 34 times for losses of 227 yards, and he's fumbled 7 times, losing 4 of them (both numbers surpassing his totals from 2013). Whether it's been an over-reliance on his legs or an inability to read through the progression of his receiving options without panicking or trying to force a bad pass, he's not taking the next step.

The point is, he's not performing at the level expected of him, and I'm sure he'd be the first to admit that himself. And what's most frustrating about this is that this is a guy who's won multiple Playoff games, and multiple Road Playoff games in his first two seasons as a starter, and in those games, he's been a primary reason that the 49ers won those games. Need I remind you how he routinely eats the Packers for lunch, even in Green Bay? Need I remind you that he threw for over 300 Yards in the Super Bowl in his 10th career start, and nearly led the 49ers back from a 22-point deficit? These things actually happened. This isn't as though we're talking about some flash in the pan, he's proven he can be successful playing his game at this level. Too often, though, we get performances like yesterday, where he's not completing passes, he's taking too many sacks and he's throwing bad interceptions, and it takes a last-gasp drive to save another embarrassing defeat. Or you have a game like in New Orleans, where he saves his ass by completing a desperate heave on a broken play. And then the next week, he could go out and throw for 300 yards or run for 100. There seems to be no happy medium here. There's no particular consistency to his performances this season. It's making the 49ers rather nerve-wracking to follow this season, because they certainly have the talent to be a Championship-caliber team (and on Defense, they play as such).

Somehow, in spite of all these struggles, the team has managed to will their way to 7-4 going into a Thanksgiving Night showdown against the Seahawks at home. Since I tend to spend my Thanksgivings in an environment where I'm likely to get glowered at if I put on the TV, I'm setting the DVR for this one. But I have no idea what the hell kind of performance I'm going to get out of the 49ers on this night. Seattle has certainly had their own troubles this season; they also sit at 7-4 and have had plenty of internal strife and offensive woes. But these two teams certainly don't hold back when they face each other, and they're going to meet twice in the next three weeks and these matchups will quite likely go a long way in determining who will continue to play come January.

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