In each on the Niners’ four losses, one play or moment stood out as emblematic of the sad sack affair the season has become. In the first it was a short touchdown pass, better placed by the aging, balding Matt Hasselbeck than any toss Alex Smith had on the day. The second saw Smith lead a game-tying drive that had “he’s finally getting this whole quarterback thing” written all over it, only to have Drew Brees make the event seem mundane with a game-winning march to answer. The enduring image against Kansas City was Mike Singletary franticly calling timeouts, urging his team to a meaningless touchdown in the waning seconds. It was an absurd spectacle while it was happening and every time you think back to it there is a sense that if you keep thinking hard enough perhaps the Singletary’s reasons for it can shine through. They never will.
But Saturday’s gaffe, Saturday’s sad little moment pushes the season to a whole new level.
Nate Clements fumbled interception return was simply ridiculous and embarrassing. He should have secured the ball, probably should have simply gotten down or stepped out of bounds. The score would do less than simply having possession (the Falcons would have got the ball back with all three timeouts in a one-score game). Instead Clements becomes a symbol for this team that can’t get out of its own way and alternates humiliating blowouts to average opponents and gallant performances undone in the waning moments.
It all leads back to the main lesson of this first month of the NFL: we were tricked by this 49er team. Every mechanism of their expected ascendance to the playoffs only made sense if you ignored reality and softened the edges so the picture looked rosy.
To start, the main argument that the Niners would take their division rested on them staying mediocre or slightly improving and the other three teams simply falling apart from age and general terribleness (see last year’s Rams for that second part).
Every year there are surprises in the NFL and in this case the surprises did not have to show much. St. Louis looked decent, the Cardinals managed to win games and even cobbled together Seahawks have shown life.
The Niners on the other hand are struggling defensively (falling from fourth to 27 in points allowed) and the offense is looking as bad as ever.
It starts, as it always does, with one Alex Smith. Many arguments have been thrown out defending the man, pointing out that quarterbacks always get more than their share of blame for losses and that Smith needs help from everyone around him. But this points to the real problem.
Smith needs a lot of help from strong receivers, runners and defenses all so his team can be mediocre.
Sure he looked solid at the end of last year, but the kid has always been a top pick with limited skills. His play still reflects the Urban Meyer spread offense he ran in college, with its rollouts, improvised throws and simplified decisions (at times he weirdly resembles Tim Tebow freelancing outside the pocket). In the NFL that won’t work and it really won’t work when Smith is inaccurate.
In four games he has seven picks, and four of those picks were tipped balls. Some would blame receivers, bit it ain’t easy to catch passes that are too high or rocketed at the shoulder of a target. Throw in Smith’s odd penchant for rolling into open space and trying to hit receivers who haven’t turned back to the ball and he is what he’s always been; a passer with a 68.9 rating who throws check downs too quickly and has little hope of ever leading a successful team.
We sort of ignored this in the offseason. Imagining that a second year under Jimmy Raye would make him something he wasn’t: good.
Instead Raye was tinkering with an absurdly simplistic offense that suffered from a split personality due to the presence of Smith and Frank Gore.
Singletary wanted Gore as a workhorse and encouraged a gameplan that featured plenty of runs from the power-I formation aimed between the Niner offensive tackles. Gore is averaging 2.7 yards per carry out of the I-formation. He is averaging 3.3 ypc on runs up the middle with a long of eight (and those runs have accounted for nearly half his carries).
This would be a surprise if the 49er ground game had been constantly prolific in past years with Gore, but it wasn’t. Since 2007 it has not ranked better than 25th in yards or 11th in average per run.
This was all ignored. The fact that Smith is only comfortable in a spread and Gore needs to run out of a conventional set was put out of mind. The fanbase let itself believe the problems would just disappear and the head coach’s boisterous confidence just fed it.
Even today Singletary told the KNBR morning show his team was “Excited” and “Ready to roll.”
But the reality of 0-4 and all those crushing moment has come down pretty hard. That’s the problem with letting yourself get tricked, you feel pretty stupid afterwards.