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When the Niners reached "the midway point," their official website posted "the 10 best plays of the season so far." Not surprisingly, each was a play from their winning streak, during which they've grounded-and-pounded five of the league's least-threatening teams. Each was perfectly fine to be sure, but none was the play that best encapsulates the streak, that best sums up the season so far.
It happened in week six, against the Cardinals. About halfway through the second quarter.
That's when Greg Roman finally cracked.
The game was tight, due to the Niners' offensive sluggishness. Certainly their D had done its part. One pick had gone back to the Cardinals' 7; another had set us up at the 11. From there we'd gained three total yards, settling for six pathetic points. Thankfully, Colin Kaepernick had added a deep touchdown pass to Vernon Davis, but still, in essence, our D had outscored our O, eight-seven.
Kaepernick hadn't completed a single pass to a wide receiver. So Roman figured, screw it. And he split out wide our backup center, Daniel Kilgore.
Never mind that Kilgore served merely as a decoy for Davis, who caught another deep pass on his way to one of his best days ever. You could almost see Roman throw up his hands. Sure, he could've used Kyle Williams, Jon Baldwin, or Marlon Moore. But Roman knew, he could just as well have used Sourdough Sam. So screw it, he said. I'll just use Kilgore.
That, right there, was the season so far.
As the Niners' passing-game drifted nearly into oblivion, there was some suggestion that Kaepernick might be part of the problem. Certainly he didn't seem as confident or aggressive. But though stats are often deceptiveworse than lies, both damned and nothere they told the story in full. When throwing to Davis (and Anquan Boldin), Kaepernick's rating was 111. When throwing to the "Sams," it was 31.
This wasn't any secret, of course. You saw this comparison week after week. But if you thought that Kaepernick was part of the problem, you needed a simple lesson in science. When one variable stays the same, it's the other that causes the different result.
Once those receivers proved their worththeir lack thereof, in other wordsRoman did what he had to do: he turned his offense upside-down. After passing on two-thirds of his plays during weeks one through three, his O from there was precisely reversed. At the midway point, in rushing attempts and rushing yards, the Niners rank a clear #1. In passing attempts and passing yards, their rank is #31.
In other words, it's Singletarian nirvana.
Roman could get away with this, because he was facing the dregs of the league. But despite the predictable nonsense about the Niners' run-first identity, Roman had already tipped his hand. In those first three weeks, he'd shown us that he knows the truth. To compete with good teams, he needs to pass.
But, to pass, he needs receivers.
With an obvious need and a wealth of draft-picks, the Niners were rumored to be exploring a trade for Josh Gordon or Hakeem Nicks. A deal for either would've been risky, Gordon because of his off-field issues, Nicks because of his expiring contract. And in any event, their availability, as well as their price, was never confirmed to the public at large.
That said, the rumor-mill had Gordon for a second and Nicks for a third, and I would've happily paid either one. Having already earned an extra second for Alex Smith, we certainly could've afforded it. And though a deal would've come with some risk, there'd be much more risk in standing pat. The deal would cost a valuable pick, but it would guarantee a chance at the title. Going all-in with two guys from the PUP list? We might not get that chance at all.
Predictably, though, the Niners stood pat, and now we're starting to understand why. Stunningly, those guys from the PUP list look like they're gonna come all the way back.
Mario Manningham's knee injury was horrific. Back in September, it wasn't certain that he'd be able to play at all this year, much less that he'd play effectively. But by now we should know that ligament tears are nothing today, barely more serious than Kaepernick's "hangnails." With Manningham's knee now "stronger than [his] other one," he seems ready to open the Niners' world.
And Michael Crabtree's story is even more implausible. When Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas tore his Achilles in February 2011, it took him seven months to feel totally healthy, and another three months to start making an impact. The Niners are going to expect that impact roughly six months after Crabtree's injury. Yet he seems on pace to do just that.
Jeez, pass me some of that deer-antler spray, will ya?
Throw in the timely (and, one hopes, sober) return of Aldon Smithto shore up the pass-rush, the one remaining trouble-spotand something might be brewing here. A month ago, it was tough to envision us winning a game; now it's tough to envision a lossin November, December, or even beyond.
We all make plans, of course. Some are good, some are bad, and someas they sayare just so crazy, they just might work.
After the Rams game, I laid out the Niners' plan:
"The mission now is not long-term. The mission now is to hold the fort. Pick up wins however we can, pray that they're enough for the playoffs, and hope, against hope, that by then we'll have the weapons we need, to take those training wheels back off, and hopefully put them away for good."
As I said then, it wasn't a plan that seemed likely to work. It just had too many moving parts. But maybe it was just crazy enough. Amazingly, we did hold the fort. We did pick up wins, how we needed to. We're obviously on pace for the playoffs. And it seems like we will have the weapons we need. It seems like we're ready, at last, to take flight.
In the second half, we'll need to prove it. Tough tests await, and the plan still rests on a measure of faith.
But suddenly, the plan sounds good. It sounds, in fact, like the Super Bowl.