As I write this, it's the morning after.
Needless to say, I didn't sleep well. I tossed and I turned, lost in the same haze that started as soon as that ball hit the turf. When I awoke for good, my first thought—absurd, but sincere—was hope.
Hope, that I'd merely been dreaming.
That thought, of course, was fleeting, and I quickly accepted the awful truth. That's not to say that I faced
it, though. I prepared for work, in silence. I decided against my usual choice of ambient noise—the incessant chatter of sports radio. I avoided it, as I expect I'll avoid it for weeks to come.
See, they'd be talking about the Super Bowl. I didn't want to hear about that.
When I arrived at work, I sat at my desk and went through my usual routine. But I couldn't focus. In responding to a supervisor's e-mail, I answered a question that wasn't the one he had asked, and I had to send a second message, apologizing for the first.
At about noon, I noticed something somewhat alarming. I was just sitting there, but my heart was racing. Not in an imminent-heart-attack way; I clearly wasn't in any medical distress. But I couldn't get my heart to slow down.
That's when I was struck by a shocking realization. I was feeling something I'd felt before, but not since I was dumped by my first crush, in seventh grade. I never thought I would feel it again; I guess I thought I'd outgrown it. But nevertheless I was feeling it now.
My heart. My heart was broken.
It's not like we hadn't seen a crushing defeat like this before. Indeed, losing a late fumble that leads to a last-play field goal by the Giants in an NFC title game? Been there. In a significant respect, though, this was entirely new.
Roger Craig was a borderline Hall of Famer, our all-time leader in yards from scrimmage, an essential contributor to three Super Bowl titles. He had a textbook hold on the ball, but the ball was struck by a well-placed helmet, and simple physics took care of the rest. "I don't know that he could have really helped it," said Erik Howard, who wore the helmet in question. "It was just timing. When somebody sticks a helmet on the ball and in your rib cage, it's hard to hang onto it."
If anyone had the right to let us down, it was Craig. But that's not even the point. Some fumbles are forced by great plays, and Craig's certainly was. Sometimes you've just gotta credit the defense.
There's no such grace for Kyle Williams.
I won't pretend that I foresaw disaster when I heard that Ted Ginn would be unable to play, but I definitely registered concern. Though many fans seem to think that anyone with speed can be a return man, the phrase "return specialist" exists for a reason. Returning kicks, especially punts, is a tough, important, and dangerous job, and though Ginn leaves a lot to be desired as a wide receiver, he's one of the best returners there is. I was worried about plenty of things going into the game—the Giants' receivers, their pass-rush, even the weather—but the loss of Ginn was high on the list.
Williams was drafted to be, primarily, a return specialist. But he hadn't won the job, and he'd taken only a handful of returns in his two pro years. At a tough, important, and dangerous job, he was a back-up, and an inexperienced one at that.
In this most crucial of games, it showed.
At least on punts, he never looked like he knew what he was doing. A fair catch with no one around. A reckless diving grab. And, of course, wandering into the path of a bouncing ball, for no discernible reason, and then failing even to notice that the ball had grazed him. I take it on faith that we had no one else who was reasonably prepared—that Williams still gave us the best chance for a clean return. But as our D heroically forced punt after punt, we just continued to flirt with disaster.
And in overtime, disaster struck.
It's nice to see the Niners close ranks around Williams, especially with the awful invective being hurled his way. But facts are facts, and the standard boilerplate—"The game didn't come down to Kyle Williams," etc.—is simply false. Sure, with our receiving corps ravaged by injury, our offense was generally abysmal. But our two touchdowns would've held up. The Giants scored 10 points after halftime, and Williams was responsible for each and every one.
Let me be clear. Anyone who wishes any harm upon Kyle Williams is a vile, contemptible slug. But every other player did enough for us to win. Of all people, Kyle Williams defeated Superman. Kyle Williams cost us the Super Bowl.
The good news is, as goats go, Williams is a convenient one. A common maxim is that "injuries are no excuse" for coming up short, but I disagree. Indeed, injuries, to important starters, are a great
excuse. I've used 'em to justify plenty of painful playoff defeats. Whether it was Montana being injured in '86, Young being injured in '96, or Hearst being injured in '98, the absence of a capable back-up at a key position is an extraordinarily versatile rationalization. After all, especially these days, no team can have good back-ups everywhere, and usually you don't know that you've got a bad one until he finally gets into a game. Until he gets onto the field and hurts you.
In this instance, though it's cold comfort, the rationalization works. Mind you, I'm not talking about any alleged injury to Williams. (The rationalization isn't that
versatile.) The Niners of 2011 lost the NFC title game, because they couldn't replace the injured Ginn.
So I'm sure that someday I'll be able to step back and express my appreciation for this magical year—for how we came out of nowhere, for how far we got, for how bright the future remains. That day, though, is not today. After we defeated the Giants in November, it was Super Bowl or bust. And after we magically beat the Saints, and after the Packers magically lost, it just looked like nothing could stop us.
We might have more talent next year, or the year after. But there will always be plenty of talented teams. What we might never recapture is the magic. This was our moment
, dammit. No matter how many titles we win, this will always be the one, the moment we carelessly fumbled away.
Unquestionably, this was one of the Niners' greatest seasons ever. But sadly that greatness is doomed to be tainted, for all time, by the ugliest ending we could've imagined.
And literally, my heart aches.
By: Dan B.
Date: February 17, 2012 at 12:29 PM
Comment: I just got out of bootcamp...bootcamp is in many ways completely terrible. Of all my days in bootcamp my worst was the day my 3rd RDC informed me we lost in OT....I died a little inside. I don't remember the march back, it was like I was in a daze. This is the first time I've been able to even look at this site since graduating. It's been just too painful to visit.
Date: January 27, 2012 at 7:10 PM
Comment: I still feel like crying. I go a few days feeling better, and then it hits me again. This was our time dammit! I'd like to know why they didn't tell Williams to just let the ball fall where it may, and don't touch the damn thing. I agree with what Steve Young said this week... The first three mistakes Williams made were inexcusable. I don't mean him harm, but I would like to see his name deleted from the roster for sure. I <3 The Niners
Date: January 26, 2012 at 11:38 AM
Comment: There are various reasons the 49ers lost. And they did LOSE. They weren't beaten. I choose to point to the coaches. The 49er coaching staff is obviously as good as any team in the NFL. But like even the greatest players, they too can have a bad day.
I have two main questions/gripes--Why was Williams repeatedly given so much responsibility in a game where he was mistake-prone time after time? Why didn't they play it safe as they had with their first-string offense all season? And, even more glaring to me, why didn't they use Frank Gore more? He was having an excellent game in both running and pass-catching. He's been playing injured for the last half of the season, but in this game he was doing his thing against an excellent Giant defense. In a game where the passing plays were not working (plenty of blame to go around), and the 49ers could not get a first down, HOW COULD THEY NOT PUT THE BALL IN FRANK GORE'S HANDS?
In one, very quick, post-game locker-room snippet Gore was definitely upset/sarcastic when he was asked if he thought the running game was working. If any of you recorded it take a look. Only Crabtree's complaints were publicized. Not Gore's.
It's on the coaches.
Date: January 26, 2012 at 11:18 AM
Comment: After the game, my first and only facebook status message said: "Heartbreak, thy name be Kyle Williams."
... Very well written article, and nothing could be more true: This was our moment.... =/
Date: January 26, 2012 at 2:34 AM
Comment: I Don't Care Wat Nobody Say, Kyle Williams Should Be Cut!!! Not For Fumbling The 1st Punt But For Trying To Trick The Referee Into Believing The Ball Never Touched Him!! Don't Get Me Wrong Da Game Was There To Be Taken By Alex Smith & He Didn't Step Up But He Didn't Put Us In a Compromising Position!! Kyle Williams' Two Fumbles Directly Attributed To 10 Giant Points & In Closing Da Reason Dis Hurt So Bad Is Because We Didn't Lose Cause We Got Flat Out Outplayed....We Lost Dis Game Ultimately Because Of Kyle Williams!!! & To Be Honest I'm Happy For Our Future & I'm Proud Of Our Season In Its Entirety But All I Can Sit Here & Think To Myself Is He Really Fumbled Da Ball.....TWICE!!! So Close Jeff!!! So Close!! I Still Haven't Watched Sportscenter & Da NFL Network Had Da Nerve To Replay Da Game Last Night, I Almost Threw Up In my Mouth & By Da Way Jeff, I'm In Jersey....In Da Heart Of Giant Country!! I Think I Speak 4 All Of Us Wen I Say We're Not Gone Be Happy Til We Sign a Big Name Free Agent Receiver!!! I Prefer Vincent Jackson Or Colston Wit a Slight Possibility Of Bowe....Wat You Think Jeff??
By: 9er in AZ
Date: January 25, 2012 at 7:56 PM
Comment: Does anyone know why Spencer (CB) wasn't used instead of a rookie Culliver (CB)? They got a TD on an inside slant. Maybe, Spencer might have taken that away....forced an outside/shoulder throw. Is Spencer in the doghouse?
By: gary boesch
Date: January 25, 2012 at 7:05 PM
Comment: I was literally heartsick also. As a niners fan from the late 60's, I have seen and been thru this before, with Brodie, and I ALSO TOSSED AND TURNED thruout the night, waking up and trying to get over the loss and still not wanting the reality of it all - IT HURT!!!! As we are only fans, the team feels worse than we do - thanks for putting your feelings online as for all niner faithful it is very painful - so as we go - it is life whether it fits or not - god bless niner nation - the team feels worse than us and it is a great TEAM!
Date: January 25, 2012 at 4:09 PM
Comment: Like you Jeff -- I began to get very concerned about the play of our punt returner in the second half. I had to leave the room and go out into the garage, to the other TV, where I was soon joined by my brother-in-law (a Cowboys fan). I leaned over to him at halftime and said, "you watch, our punt returner is going to kill us in the second half." He laughed and dismissed it as nervous chatter, adding that we had nothing to worry about. Yet, every time Kyle Williams lined up in punt formation, I would lean over to my brother-in-law and tell him, "this is where he kills us." When one punt glanced off his knee, my brother-in-law blamed me for causing a self-fulfilling prophecy. In turn, I told him, "he's not done yet. The most critical error is yet to come." He still didn't believe me. Not until the very end. When Kyle fumbled that punt, he leaned over and said simply and sadly, "you're right." I know that Harbaugh believes in team, team, team. But that belief cost us big-time. I'm as sick as you are, but finally able to visit the Webzone again. But I can't turn on KNBR or any other sports station. Not until baseball season.
Date: January 25, 2012 at 10:30 AM
Comment: Alex Smith is a long-term QB as far as Colin is developing. We all see Alex's ability to run, throw, and make desicions. Some like it, others have to deal with it. We need WR's and that's a fact. Braylon Edwards as tall as he was came up very short and was sadly money thrown away. We need a consistent go-to guy. We need a T.O./Jerry Rice combination of receivers AGAIN!!! If we can get our hands around some then Alex Smith will play better. Kyle Williams can get deep and can beat safeties while doing it. Alex just needs to work on his go HELLA DEEP throw. If we can get that going then for sure we'll see the SB next year.
P.S. KYLE it is your fault but don't sweat it. You'll be back next year in good health (: GO NINERS!!!!!!!!!!
Date: January 25, 2012 at 9:27 AM
That was very well articulated. I think you did well to paint the picture of how most Niner fans felt after that unbelievably painful loss. I agree that this comes down to KW. There is no other way to frame it. I hate that he is being threatened as much or more than I hate that we are not going to the SB. I cannot and will not watch the SB this year nor can I even bear to watch SportsCenter or any other show that might talk SB. I'm sick. Sicker than I was sitting in my seat at the '92 NFC Championship Game. Sicker than in '83, sicker than in '90, sicker than EVER! This was our magical year much like it was for the SF Giants in 2010. It came down to the gaffes (plural) of one guy and that HURTS bad!
Date: January 25, 2012 at 7:54 AM
Comment: I'm with you Jeff. To get so close and fail is a kick in the gut. But at the beginning of the season, I had no expectations of making it to the NFC Championship. So I guess we all have to be thankful for a remarkable turn-around in this franchise.
There are some glaring deficiencies on offense, and I can't wait to see Baalke/Harbaugh jump on this with a full off-season and no lockout. The 2011 defense was completely changed over from the previous season, and I expect the same to happen to the offense for the 2012 season. Let's get 'em next year!
Date: January 24, 2012 at 10:11 PM
Comment: Alex Smith is not the long-term answer. His long term should have been over a long time ago.
It is so sad to see how low this once-great franchise has sunk to consider an Alex Smith as their franchise QB.
Date: January 24, 2012 at 6:44 PM
(1) I look forward to your columns weekly, and it sucks this season ended 2 weeks too early. Keep writing.
(2) If I was told at the start of the season that we'd make the playoffs, I'd have been happy. But, having achieved so much, there was MORE. Were we flawed with offseason adjustments to make? Yes. Even with that we had a WIN against a great football team and gave it away. We were, sorry, ARE, that good. We had a moment to seize and Kyle let the game slip, twice. That's a fact.
(3) In closing, my heart is still broken. People criticise Alex, well, I say he's protected the ball, made the big plays, and truthfully, it was enough to win. I saw him miss Kyle big once, but guess what? It happens.
Moral of the story: Kyle tossed the game, but we win and lose as a team. That's life. We should have SEIZED the moment, and didn't. I'm sick to my stomach and won't watch the Super Bowl, because in my mind I will know that whichever team wins will be holding our rightful #6. I'm still not over it. We left money on the table and there's NOTHING I hate more than that. The fellows worked hard and weren't justly rewarded. We're a championship football team. #Faithful
Date: January 24, 2012 at 5:49 PM
Comment: I feel ya on the pain level. But to pin blame on KW is silly. I admit, he wasn't my favorite person for a few hours, but it passed. If Gore had fumbled I would've perhaps felt the same way. Did he go out there and fumble on purpose? No. And remember:
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena...who strives...who spends himself...and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
Date: January 24, 2012 at 4:25 PM
Comment: Kaplan, great article, really takes how i feel. what really upsets me is that ok you can fumble and it happens, part of the game. though his fumble was a pretty flimsy one. but the part that really pisses me off is that back in grade school and high school they teach you that if you get a punt either play it or get the heck away from the ball. it's just football common sense like look both ways before crossing the street. i mean how dumb are these players that they can't figure out the simple easy rules to playing. no one asked kyle to do calculus's equivalent on a football field, just 2+2. that is what kills me. how dumb he is. am i wrong to say that he should be cut? how can you justify bringing him back? it's not like he made huge contributions during the year or is an integral player. ok i'm out, rage is building up too much. thanks for your articles again.
Date: January 24, 2012 at 3:28 PM
Comment: Good article. I feel the same way, bad loss, but they surpassed my expectations this year. Hopefully we have the magic this team had next year. With a more explosive offense.
Date: January 24, 2012 at 2:12 PM
Comment: Mine too, man! It's like '90 all over again, at least for me as I try to grapple with the whys. Still, we're going to get better as this is Harbaugh/Baalke's first year. It reminds me of the '83 team being beaten by Washington on a bogus PI call on Lott. They won with a FG and lost to Marcus Allen and the Raiders in the Super Bowl. We came back in '84, better than ever, 15-1 and beat Dan Marino's Dolphins. It can happen and we have a strong nucleus especially on D. We WILL be back to the Dance and make it to the SB next year. I feel ya man as it still stings badly. Time to scout the Senior Bowl. Have a great offseason and look forward to more of the articles, my Niner Bro. Take care!
By: Stephanie Double-You
Date: January 24, 2012 at 1:15 PM
Comment: The author took the emotion I felt from my heart and put it into words. I'm still heartsick, but it's getting a little better day by day. This was our moment, lost through a fumble. This is going to be a long-ass offseason and I will watch the Super Bowl knowing it should've been the Niners there :(
Date: January 24, 2012 at 1:04 PM
Comment: Wow...that's a lot of drama. My son and I were both bummed they lost...but, also have to tip our caps to Eli...he was a real warrior. Our guys really tattooed him in the 2nd half, but he got up every time and continued to make plays. Despite that, it was a great Niner season...much greater than any of us could've anticipated. The future's bright...so long as Harbaugh/Baalke address the receiving corps, OL (depth), and re-sign the key FA's like Snyder, Smith, Brooks, Goldson, Rogers, Spillman, Costanzo, etc. I also have to think the team's success could well make the 49ers much more attractive to potential FA's. I have faith the Harbaugh/Baalke team will have another good draft. I think there'll be plenty more moments for this team...with Harbaugh's leadership and getting Alex a considerably better receiving corps. You need to continue to add talent, and I have every reason to believe this team will get better. You also need to have a little faith this year's success is just the tip of the iceberg...
Date: January 24, 2012 at 12:28 PM
Comment: Jeff, great article, like you I did not manage to get a good night's rest. It's been two days now and the harsh truth is that KW was the Giants' MVP, he singlehandedly gave the best chances to the Giants to win not the 9ers, and no matter if he has had little practice, if you are in the pros you just can't make the punt muff as he did, to drop it while catching it is one thing but getting in the way is another, and I hope he will not be a 9er player again.
Today my heart is still broken and it's even harder when you are a fan abroad as you have to take the cheap shots from people at work for how we lost :(
Hope next year we will get to win all the playoff games, and time will help get us through this.
Date: January 24, 2012 at 12:02 PM
Comment: all we need is to pay the wizard of oz to help our Kyle get a brain, and Alex Smith some heart and courage.
Date: January 24, 2012 at 10:09 AM
Comment: It is so heartbreaking knowing you were not beaten by your opponent, but instead you beat yourself. This game came down to the BS "forward progress" call and KW's fumbles. When you have a defense like ours that is playing lights-out, holds the opponent to 10 points and forces punts, you can't ask them to defend a short field after they just did their job. Those additional 10 points should have never happened.
Date: January 24, 2012 at 10:01 AM
Comment: Thank you Jeff for all your articles this season. You are a terrific writer and i appreciate your work and the time and effort you put in to write every week. I wanted this win so bad, wanted it more than anything else in the world, not just for the 49ers, not just for me, but for the entire 49er Faithful like yourself. I am proud of this team and their accomplishments this year but I am completely heartbroken. I hope to read more of your articles as Draft Day 2012 approaches. Take care.
Date: January 24, 2012 at 9:30 AM
Comment: I expected Williams' teammates to close ranks and say the "right" things. But the cold, hard fact is that he DID cost the 49ers this game and a SB berth. I've always hated that rationalization, "well if we would have done this or that..." Understandable. But utter BS. Everything that happened prior really doesn't matter, what matters is the situation NOW, when the game is on the line. It was Williams who was in the breach, and he failed. In an epic way. I don't hate the guy, but I do hope to NOT see him in a 49er uniform ever again. Let's be clear, it wasn't JUST the fumble, or the muff. There were the fair catches with no one around...he did that TWICE in the game. There was the idiotic dive to field a punt. There was the drop on the reverse, a play that had the Giant DE on the backside way out of position, not holding contain...that play was primed for some nice yardage. The guy has a low football IQ...another example is his KO return in the Dec 24 Seahawks game, where he slipped and then didn't know the play was still live, and only a fortunate call reversed his fumble on that play.
By: Dallas Niner Fan
Date: January 24, 2012 at 9:21 AM
Comment: Jeff, Sorry, I would like to comment but my stomach still hurts too much.
By: M. Horner
Date: January 24, 2012 at 8:14 AM
Comment: At least Mike Singletary isn't the coach anymore. Man did he suck. I'm sure he was sitting in front of his TV thinking that he would have gotten the team to the Super Bowl.
By: Terry B.
Date: January 24, 2012 at 8:13 AM
Comment: I knew we were in trouble the minute everyone started dubbing Smith "Alex the Great" and the long-term answer at QB. Alex always responds the same way whenever it's declared that he's finally over the hump. A 46% completion percentage and 1 of 9 on third downs? Did we start Tim Tebow? Franchise QBs need to step up in big games, not leave the game in the punt-returner's hands.
Date: January 24, 2012 at 7:35 AM
Comment: I came out of my hole of sorrow to say I enjoyed all your articles this season Jeff. Thanks for covering the Niners. Now back into hiding.
Is it next season yet?
Date: January 24, 2012 at 7:27 AM
I always look forward to your articles throughout the season and to be honest I had not expected or realized you were going to write one after what was the most heartbreaking loss I have ever experienced as a Niner fan. Your article just explained why my heart aches as well. Thanks for giving my feelings words, now maybe we can all heal and get ready to win it all next year.
Although I know, as you do, that this past year will always feel empty because someone stopped the music prematurely. Sigh.
Date: January 24, 2012 at 6:56 AM
Comment: Normally I hate your column, but one thing I have learned is that you really care for this team and that is admirable and something i can relate to. I will never say anything bad again... at least not until next season.