Second Year and Peaking
December 21, 2006 at 5:48 PM
Inside Seattle’s Qwest Field last week the San Francisco 49ers laid anchor as if they were caught in some encircled and embattled harbor that was being lashed by a tropical storm. The torrential rains came down in literal sheets of hard liquid glass that soaked each and every player to the bone as they prepared to face off against each other on NFL Network primetime.
Up and until this game and as the fourth quarter began anew against the flooded backdrop of a religious Seahawk crowd Alex Smith in the words of his star running back in Frank Gore went from being a boy to a man inside this league.
The degree of maturity and patience that Alex Smith demonstrated and that of the coaches and players alike on and off the sidelines spoke volumes for his gradual development. No one on this team from the jest of what I saw following this game screamed for the replacement of Alex for veteran Trent Dilfer.
This was an offense that was soundly defined by its opponents as being truly one-dimensional based upon the evidence we have observed from one game to the next. Take away Frank Gore and control the line of scrimmage and you’ve won the game. The Seattle Seahawks under Mike Holmgren knew from their last outing against the 49ers all too well.
Frank Gore tore through their line and the next for 212 yards and their ears were pinned back and ready for Frank on this night up and until the fourth quarter got underway. The first half of this game was a literal joke for us offensively as Frank Gore was held effectively by the Seahawks stacking eight and nine in the box at a time to take away the corners.
Frank Gore generated just 34 total yards 14 carries with an average of 2.4 yards per carry. Alex Smith had completed only 9-of-12 passes for 38 total yards with a quarterback rating of 50.0. It was an offense without a spark of any kind as the football was hardly manageable based on the fact that it was drenched and heavy to each player’s touch.
Our offense only managed to generate three total first downs in the first half of this game and the Seattle Seahawks accumulated 12. The Seattle Seahawks struck first in the first quarter by driving from our own 44-yard line down to the three-yard line where Shawn Alexander crashed it in for a 7-0 Seattle lead.
San Francisco 49ers under Alex Smith answered back towards the end of the first half with .08 seconds left in the half by executing a field goal via Joe Nedney from 39-yards out to make it 7-3 Seahawks. I also want to point out that once again offensive right tackle Kwame Harris again registered a costly penalty with offensive holding on this drive.
“I’ve never had a game like that,” Smith said afterward. “There have been times when I’ve done well, but it was from the start. It’s never been after coming out cold like that.”
Heading into this game on a three-game losing streak gave all of us as 49er fans ill feelings of what was to come as we saw this first half play out right before our collective eyes. I saw our star running back unable to find a lane because the line was dominated by a Seattle defense bent on revenge to stop Frank Gore in his tracks.
Right before the field goal in the second quarter, the 49ers decided to reach into their little grab bag of trickery by having rookie Michael Robinson take the ball while in punt formation on fourth and five from our own 43-yard line and sprint for 33 extra yards and a first down at the Seattle 24-yard line. It was a trick play at the right time in my determination because of the offense’s inability to win time of possession and stay out on the field.
Desperation turned into panic as I witnessed throw after throw by Alex Smith miss their marks and sometimes just looked like a bad high school football game at times. Alex Smith had poor timing and was clearly inaccurate in his throwing motions to warrant anything positive. I believe that Mike Nolan saw this turning rather ugly fast and looked to execute this trick play to establish some continuity on our offense.
After connecting with Arnaz Battle for a 15-yard gain and looking in from the Seattle Seahawk nine-yard line the 49ers incurred a costly holding penalty that killed a touchdown via none other than right tackle Kwame Harris. Harris continues to justify cries from afar and aloud that he be benched in favor of Adam Snyder and or newly crowned center Tony Wragge.
Just midway through the first quarter in this game we lost veteran center Eric Heitmann to a broken tibia that has sent him to the sidelines for the rest of the season. The scary moments that followed after he was taken off the field suddenly became soothed with Tony Wragge coming into replacing him and performing at a very high level.
The San Francisco 49er defense deserves a great deal of praise for its efforts in keeping us in this game right from the beginning. It held star veteran running back Shaun Alexander to 73 yards and a 3.2-yard average per carry throughout the game. On top of that we kept quarterback Matt Hasselback in check because he completed only 20-of-37 passes for 220 yards but was sacked three times for a loss of ten total yards.
We even forced Matt Hasselback to throw two game defining interceptions to 49er safety Mark Roman and cornerback Shawntae Spencer. It was a day that had Matt Hasselback reeling with a quarterback rating of 58.4 on the entire evening.
They say patience is a virtue, one attribute I know I’m not nor do I have nearly enough like most of you. The Seattle Seahawk linebackers had effectively taken away Frank Gore’s ability to run in this game up and until the fourth quarter and the sudden emergence of a silent as a lamb Alex Smith.
“They came tough,” at first, Gore said. 'But our quarterback just opened it up. He started making (the big pass) downfield, and we kept running, kept running. And we wore them down.”
As the third quarter was coming to a close, Alex Smith from the 13-yard line connected with Arnaz Battle for a wonderful 54-yard reception that had us camped to begin the fourth on Seattle’s 33-yard line. Driving down to the eight-yard line Alex found rookie tight end first round draft pick Vernon Davis for a touchdown to make it 10-7 49ers.
It was the flagrant event that followed Vernon’s touchdown that saw a 15-yard penalty flag come out due to Vernon Davis balancing one foot on the end zone pylon and flapping his wings like a Seahawk.
His celebration in the end zone cost us, but it was a learning curve that Vernon Davis graduated from soon after the penalty was incurred. The 49ers again under Alex Smith drove from their 27-yard line down to the Seattle 20-yard line where Frank Gore broke free and scored to make it 17-7 49ers.
Frank Gore’s after jets began to get hot as he managed 110 total yards in rushing inside the second half for a total of 144 yards with a 5.0 average carry. With 1:49 left to play in the game Alex and Frank marched down the field from our 14-yard line to the Seahawk 18-yard line where Alex Smith himself ran it in to make it 24-7. Seattle with just 1:35 left to play answered back with a 51-yard drive and a touchdown to Jeremy Stevens to make it 24-14 49ers and a final.
“The boy just became a grown man today, baby,” said running back Frank Gore. “There’s a lot more to come.”
The turning point in this game was definitely the Arnaz Battle 54-yard reception. The San Francisco 49er defense was methodical, patient and unrelenting in their quest to try and win this game on their shoulders. What ended up happening though was Alex Smith making the transition from a “want to be comeback quarterback,” to a clutch quarterback of the best kind.
Now we have a quarterback that on paper is destined for greatness as long as both sides of this team find continuity and consistency. Penalties still plague us as does being able to open up the passing game once Frank Gore is neutralized for a limited amount of time.
Both Alex Smith and Frank Gore met at the summit of the mountain in their second year and are poised for greatness if they reap off of each other’s success. I still have reservations about Alex until I am convinced with more accurate passes and meaningful game time decision-like plays while the going gets tough.
Defeating the division leading Seattle Seahawks twice is a compliment I’d like to keep going into the last stages of the fourth quarter on this league’s season. Respect has been earned on our parts with this victory and a focus on Arizona this coming Sunday. The growth spurt has begun on this team and the record indicates forward progress on a season with limited expectations.
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