49ers edge Seahawks, but their offense remains a work-in-progress
SAN FRANCISCO -- Should one play change our opinion of this team? Will a single snap alter the 49ers' trajectory, come January?
You've already seen it a score of times: with the entire field at Candlestick Park in shadows, the clock under five minutes and the 49ers trailing by a point in a contest they'd elevated, in their minds, to a playoff game, sawed-off Seahawk-killer Frank Gore took a handoff left, cut back hard to the right and went 51 yards before he was run down by cornerback Richard Sherman. It says everything about Gore, and his football intellect, that he went down in bounds, to eat clock.
His heroics -- and the inspired play call by offensive coordinator Greg Roman and the superb execution by the Niners offensive line -- set up the field goal that won the game for San Francisco 19-17. It was a hard-fought, ugly win against what looks suspiciously like the NFL's best team (sorry, Broncos). It puts the 49ers in very good position to secure a wild-card playoff berth.
And it swung on Gore's run. But a question remains. Should that play undo the conclusion that had been so hard to avoid right up until No. 21 found all that daylight: This offense, as currently constituted, doesn't look like it's ready to power any kind of postseason run.
Yes, Seattle is a ferocious defense. And wideouts Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham have only been back in the lineup for a few weeks. And quarterback Colin Kaepernick is adjusting to his transformed role this season as more of pocket passer. All that said, moving the chains continues to be a monumental struggle for this unit, particularly against teams with winning records.
I'm thinking of one possession in particular. Early in the fourth quarter, San Francisco takes over on its own 13. The third quarter has been an offensive wasteland -- the previous possessions have ended with, in order:
Kaepernick tackled for a seven-yard loss.
Kaepernick intercepted by Byron Maxwell.
Kaepernick sacked for minus-11 yards.
Thanks to the suffocating play of a defense that limited Marshawn Lynch to 22 second-half rushing yards and Russell Wilson to 55 passing yards in the final two quarters, San Francisco clung to its two-point lead. Now, with 12:36 left to play, the time had come for the offense to pull its weight, to give the defense a blow. They needed to get points from this possession. More specifically, Kaepernick needed a signature series from this game. Tight end Vernon Davis had described this clash of NFC West rivals as "a statement game." For his own confidence, and to bolster the confidence his teammates have in him, Kaepernick needed to make a statement.
He scrambled for eight yards. Kendall Hunter moved the chains on the next play. Kaepernick missed Boldin by several yards, then completed a three-yard pass to his fullback. On 3rd-and-17, he had no chance as Seattle's Clinton McDonald rampaged up the middle with shocking ease and sacked Kap for a nine-yard loss.
Not all his fault. On McDonald's sack, the Seahawks only rushed four. Someone blew an assignment up front. But the scenario has been repeated in each of the Niners' four losses this season -- all against the sort of playoff-caliber opponents they'll be seeing next month. The 49ers have been given the ball in the fourth quarter with enough time on the clock to win or tie the game. On all of those occasions, the moment was too large, the pressure too stifling.
In light of that, Sunday's victory can be viewed as a watershed moment for this club. It came back in the fourth quarter and won. But the statement was made by Gore, not Kap. As much as they love the soulful warrior of a running back, what 49ers fans are starved to see, in those circumstances, is No. 7 making chunk plays of his own, gouging defenses with vertical throws.
"Well, everybody does" want to see that, agreed right guard Alex Boone after the game. "We'll be all right. Remember, that's a great f------ team we just beat. There's a reason everybody's talking about them."
"It's going to happen," said Davis, anticipating a breakout game by Kaepernick against a top-tier defense. "At the right time. It's still early. We've still got time."
Come to think of it, Kap had driven the team methodically down the field for a dramatic touchdown as the clock wound down. He had made a statement. He'd simply made it at the end of the first half. Russell Wilson had tortured the 49ers with two long completions -- one for a TD -- to a backup tight end named Luke Willson. Meanwhile, it seemed to have slipped Roman's and Kaepernick's minds that San Francisco has a decent tight end of its own in Davis, a 2009 Pro Bowler.
Finally, capping a masterful nine-play drive late in the second quarter, Kaepernick spied Davis on a crossing route, then slung him a fastball, low and outside. Davis snagged it in stride for an eight-yard touchdown. That was pretty much the Niners offensive highlight until, as Boone put, "G-Ro started dialing s--- up -- he was on fire!"
Nothing about the Niners offense could be fairly described as "on fire" on this day. But Boone was right, Greg Roman chose an inspired moment to pull out the play that resulted in Gore's longest run in three years.
Was it a brooch on a warthog, disguising and distracting from this offense's bigger problems? Or was it giant step for a team that scrapped and hung tough and found a way to win?
The answer is yes.