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As the title to this article indicates, that is how head coach Mike Nolan interpreted the performance of his San Francisco 49ers in the Week One 34-27 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Bottom line, as Mike Nolan indicates, the ultimate goal of this football team is to win games. It is a drama we’ve seen unfolding since he came here last year when he was hired to replace both former General Manager Terry Donahue and his handpicked head coach in the bumbling sideshow of Dennis Erickson.
The San Francisco 49ers may have been defeated in this opening game but they played hard and fought well right up till the very end, even during a period where they were behind 21-7, staring at a deficit very difficult to overcome with a team that is still green and growing.
There were dark clouds in this game and bright sunshine from time to time: a weather forecast that hung over Glendale, Arizona for the entire game inside the temperature controlled atmosphere of the new high tech stadium (with a retractable roof to boot). This is the new home of the Arizona Cardinals where fans they never knew existed suddenly showed up for the opening game because the team reinvented their tarnished image. If you look back at the old Sun Devil Stadium you’ll remember that on many occasions the opponents’ fans outnumbered Arizona Cardinal fans more times than not.
But now that has suddenly changed with a newness that the team has improvised in order to win back some of the credibility it has been starving for over the past two decades. In came the San Francisco 49ers, with stadium development plans of its own, despite the new noise barriers and played hard right up till final moments of this game.
Alex Smith showed a remarkable effort for the sophomore quarterback who started in only seven regular season games in 2005. On the opening drive every 49er fan held their collective breath as a pass to wide receiver Arnaz Battle was almost sabotaged by Arizona Cardinal cornerback David Macklin (who couldn’t hold on to it thank God). Alex Smith then redoubled his efforts on that drive and turned a would be turnover into a touchdown drive on seven plays for 79 yards and just over three minutes of play. On the Arizona 31 yard line Alex Smith looked to his first round draft pick in 2006 tight end Vernon Davis who scampered into the end zone for a touchdown and sent all of us fans flying high.
It was astonishing to watch our rebuilding team drive so quickly down the field and score against a team that is expected to challenge Seattle for the head of our division. Alex made no mistakes though. No interceptions. No dropped snaps. No fumbles. All of the rookie fears he had right up and until the end of pre-season this year, seemed suddenly vanquished as if they had never existed based upon his stellar performance in this game.
A lot that happened to him during this game could’ve interrupted that delicate balance he had in his head to keep his collective cool. He had a 52-yard touchdown pass that was reversed by an NFL official that proved to be anything but offensive holding by right tackle Kwame Harris. He also was on the receiving end of a nasty out of bounds hit by a Cardinal defensive player that resounded in a penalty flag being thrown in our favor. Alex could’ve turned into veteran Trent Dilfer and began taunting his would be assassin, but he didn’t because seeing the yellow penalty flag thrown was his way of getting even.
He does have one error and one admission of fault in this game though. He wasn’t successful in his comeback drive to tie the game and force this game into overtime resulting in our first loss in the 2006 regular season. But in the final 1:41 seconds of the game with absolutely no timeouts, he managed to complete passes of 15, 46 and 25 yards. He did it like a veteran and with intensity, whether it was spiking the ball to stop the clock or hurriedly requesting that his teammates hustle and move back to the line of scrimmage, and he showed wide-open cool, calm, and collected arm gestures.
I came away impressed by what I saw, and I know head coach Mike Nolan and the rest of the coaching staff did as well, not to mention his own players that are responsible for helping him win this football game. 2005 and pre-season be damned, Alex Smith showed us something in this first game of the regular season. Hopefully there is much more to come and more thrilling last minute plays and some victories to boot.
“There are a lot of little things that go into how you play quarterback, too, that are (about) how you are perceived by the guys around you,” 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. “It’s not just getting into the huddle, calling the play and running it. You are the leader, and you have to carry yourself in a way that makes the other guys say, 'This guy can do it.’”
Alex Smith threw 23 completions out of 40 pass attempts for 288 yards and one touchdown. The best signs of these statistics though, are the facts in which there were no mistakes attributed to his performance on this one of many weeks in the NFL. He tried to renew the mental connection he has with wide receiver Antonio Bryant right up and until the end but achieved only minimal results.
“You see the guy, he’s calming down, and I’m not saying he’s as calm as he needs to be, but his poise is coming,” said wide receiver Antonio Bryant, who attributes a lot of Smith’s growth to the tutelage of Trent Dilfer, the type of seasoned quarterback the 49ers have been looking for since day one of drafting Alex Smith and backing him up last year.
As anyone can see Alex Smith has tested positive in this game despite the games outcome. Take the fact into consideration that we turned the ball over twice which resulted in 14 Arizona points; a holding penalty (that really wasn’t) that negated a 52-yard touchdown pass, a dropped interception and a missed field goal. Despite all of these things, the San Francisco 49ers remained in this game and fought with great intensity and a desire to overcome such a huge deficit. If we can take anything out of this game it is that we are definitely progressing instead of regressing.
“The biggest thing, I think, weren’t the big passes. In my opinion, they were the little check-downs you see,” Alex, said. “Last year, it really took me awhile to get to a back, where as this year, you play a little more with anticipation, a little ahead of the game, and so in that coverage, bang, I check it quick but I am getting it to the back, and all of a sudden, they went for 10 yards instead of getting hit and tackled, where as last year, it took me a little longer.”
Antonio Bryant didn’t make a lasting impact in this game until the fourth quarter of play. Bryant, who finished with 114 yards receiving, is relied upon to be a difference maker in each and every game based on his practice habits and bond with Alex Smith. Out of the 114 yards he had in receiving, he caught 96 of those yards in the fourth quarter alone. And please remember he was the same receiver that had the touchdown taken away from him after a 52-yard completion on a bogus offensive holding penalty on right tackle Kwame Harris, who is always around when a penalty flag seems to be thrown.
There was talk of frustration during and after this game as Antonio Bryant went away somewhat annoyed at Alex Smith for not getting thrown to earlier in the game. Antonio Bryant is a very competitive athlete who relies on being fed the ball like any true No. 1 wide receiver in the league.
“Me and Alex could have been in a boxing match in the first half,” said Bryant, whose verbal leaps match the ones he makes on the field. He explained further: “Being a receiver, not being as involved as I wanted to be, I have to keep my composure. The 2002 Antonio would have been frustrated. 2003 Antonio would have thrown his helmet, but not in 2006.”
Antonio Bryant was covered for much of the game by Arizona Cardinal cornerback Eric Green, who by the way took a swing at Antonio that drew a flag in the first half. Late in the second half of the game though, Antonio drew a penalty flag for taunting after Eric Green had pulled him down by the jersey after a 46-yard completion and pointing down at him. Despite the yank by Eric Green on Antonio’s jersey from the back it didn’t matter to the official. The penalty resulted from Antonio Bryant pointing down at Green and saying a few mixed words at him.
Arizona Cardinal veteran quarterback Kurt Warner had all kinds of time to throw to his lethal targets in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in the first half. Fitzgerald had nine catches for 133 yards and Anquan Boldin four catches for 62 yards. In all Kurt Warner made 23 completions out of 37 attempts for 301 yards with three touchdowns. The aerial assault was never ending, as the 49ers were unable to even breathe on him in the entire first half of the game. That changed significantly though, with marked improvement in the second half after defensive schemes were altered.
Two of Arizona’s touchdowns were set up by fumbles made by 49ers running back Frank Gore and tight end Vernon Davis. Arizona’s Edgerrin James 1-yard touchdown run and Anquan Boldin’s 6-yard touchdown catch were the end results and ensuing deficit that we accumulated for ourselves.
But out of the darkness there was light, in biblical terms. Frank Gore was the 49er workhorse and a sure indication that he is worthy of being our starting tailback for years to come. Gore, who ran for 87 yards in 16 carries and had six catches for 83 more yards, scored on a four-yard run to pull the 49ers to 21-14 early in the second quarter. As the 49ers were down at halftime 24-14, we came back and pulled to 24-21 when Frank Gore, by then averaging 5.4 yards a carry, scored on a two-yard touchdown run. 49er veteran cornerback Walt Harris set this up when he sacked Kurt Warner on a blitz and recovered his fumble.
“When you fight for something hard, you want to gain control and you want to gain the victory,” Bryant said. “But I was loving it on the inside because they weren’t expecting a fight that late in the game. You have to give them credit because they played hard and got the win. But in those last few moments, we made it a game.”
One of the most damaging injuries to us in this game was when All-Pro left guard Larry Allen went down with a sprained MCL that will sideline him from 2-4 weeks. Veteran left tackle Jonas Jennings also suffered a high ankle sprain and left the game but went back in and finished it. Journeyman offensive lineman Tony Wragge went in for the injured Larry Allen and played very well the rest of the game as verified by Mike Nolan. Should both Allen and Jennings remain out because of the injuries, Tony Wragge will remain in the lineup. But if Jennings is able to start, sophomore veteran offensive lineman Adam Snyder will get the nod.
49er kicker Joe Nedney, who never misses, missed a big one in the opening drive of the fourth quarter from 34 yards out. But he came back to deliver hope with an onside kick with 31 seconds remaining in the game, that 49er rookie cornerback Marcus Hudson remarkably managed to recover.
“I’d love to have a team where all the young guys have got five years experience because, believe me, it would be a different outcome,” Coach Mike Nolan said. “But there were a lot of guys to be excited about. In that fourth quarter, our guys were energizing me. I was energized by them because they were in it.”
And indeed they were. The 2006 San Francisco 49ers have mistakes they need to go back and work on, particularly on holding on to the ball and minimizing fumbles. We also need to devise different pass rushing schemes and maintain pressure. Mike Nolan has indicated this and is working on this as we speak. Bright picture is that we can move the ball and limit the opponent when we are playing our best our game. We already proved that we could hang with a high-powered offense like the Arizona Cardinals are.
Keep your chins up and relish the fact that you’re seeing immense progress in action right before your eyes. We will be competitive and we will get better there is no question about that. With St. Louis approaching and the eyes of Monster Park upon them we can be successful.