The division now stands as anyone's for the taking with the 2009 San Francisco 49ers under Mike Singletary losing to the Houston Texans last Sunday inside Reliant Stadium 24-21 and landing at (3-3) on the season which resonates with an offense stuck in neutral yet again under its fifth straight offensive coordinator in Jimmy Raye. Throw in a sudden dash of yet another quarterback in the injury maligned Alex Smith who was called in to help resuscitate a dying offense and you have a melting pot of potential despair.
Coming off a restful bye week after suffering a staggering loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the consensus was for the players to comeback eager and willing to avenge the terrible loss that had shaken all of them to their very core. The Houston Texans had a pre-Halloween trick or treat waiting for us when we took the field in the first quarter as on their very first offensive play of the first quarter Shaun Hill was sacked for a loss of six yards by Mario Williams who came straight at Hill completely unguarded by left tackle Joe Staley. It was the beginning of the end as I watched this opening drive sputter and spat until it was left lifeless.
Then after the sack and facing 2nd-and-16 the 49ers choose to run the ball which only produced two yards leaving them with a third and long and an incomplete pass to Vernon Davis forcing them to punt. The 49er offense went 0-3 in conversion of third downs within the first quarter under Shaun Hill and the conservative game calling of Jimmy Raye.
With great field position at the Houston 39-yard line Texans quarterback Matt Schaub drove his Texans down to the 49er one yard line for Texan running back Steve Slaton to score the first touchdown to make it 7-0. Slaton carried the ball 18 times for 67 total yards and one touchdown, but was held to 1.7-yards a carry because of our ability to stuff the run. Shaun Hill would go on to be sacked yet again due to the poor play of the offensive line. Killer penalties in this quarter from offensive holding to false starts played a role in our demise.
As the second quarter came into play with the bright sunshine beaming down halfway into Reliant Stadium from the heavens above, a Houston Texan punt was muffed by 49er wide receiver Arnaz Battle in which the ball was fumbled away and recovered by Houston at our 10-yard line where Matt Schaub hit Steve Slaton on a nine-yard touchdown grab to make it 14-0 Texans. With 10:40 left to play in the half a sense of urgency was at hand for us to manufacture something to cut the deficit in half.
The Houston Texans defense was ferocious as it nullified our running game with Frank Gore back in the lineup. They were prepared to take away the coveted running game embodied by Mike Singletary in limiting Frank to 13 carries for a mere 32 total yards and 2.5-yards per carry. In fact only 59 total yards were allowed on the ground with quarterback Alex Smith accounting for 16 of them. In essence the Texans dared Shaun Hill to beat them with his average arm and he was unable to convert many of his throws into completions.
Shaun Hill was 6-of-11 for 45 total yards and was sacked twice for a loss of 13 total yards and had a quarterback rating of 64.6. In a pivotal drive in the midst of the second quarter he was maligned by a false start and offensive pass interference calls that went against us. Matt Schaub started his next scoring drive from their 22-yard line where he hooked up with his tight end in Owen Daniels for a 42-yard touchdown pass to make it 21-0 Houston which they carried in at halftime. It was beyond devastating at that point and had all of 49er nation nervous to see a season so bright with anticipation relegated to reliving an offensive nightmare all over again.
Eleven first downs to our three in the first half and five penalties levied against us for a loss of 28 total yards with our average field position start at our 20-yard line and Houston's at their 41-yard line. What was so unbelievable was the inadequacy of the offensive line to establish any sense of dominance at the line of scrimmage. The heart breaking three and outs and endless penalties and a turnover to boot were all so self-mutilating, something uncalled for in Mike Singletary frame of mind football.
The suddenly the curtain opened with Alex Smith being named the starting quarterback and taking the field. The sense of timing was urgent in having to find something or someone to lend a spark to this lifeless offense, and Mike Singletary made the move in hopes his once treasured first round draft stud would make a fire out of nothing.
At our 37-yard line Alex Smith with a spread out offensive scheme began the drive that culminated with a 29-yard touchdown to Vernon Davis to make it 21-7 Texans and the help of two penalties on Houston. Then the 49er defense began to stiffen and forced time of possession back into the 49ers hands. Rookie Michael Crabtree's debut cannot be overshadowed by everything that went on here this past Sunday. Everyone from fan to every broadcaster and analyzer in the NFL doubted that Michael would be of any kind of real assistance being out of training camp and five regular season games into the fray.
Yet he competed and executed despite all the hype all around him with six passes and five completions for 56 yards and an 11.2 yards average per catch. He has incredible hands for latching on to the ball and hauling it in even under intense duress and pressure. I am excited about this young receiver and look forward to seeing what Alex Smith can get out of him having stayed back in Santa Clara during the bye week to work exclusively with him.
The third quarter ended with Houston leading 21-7 but momentum swinging in our favor as Alex Smith entered the fourth quarter on a third quarter drive from our 34-yard line pushing to the Texans 14-yard line where he connected with Vernon Davis again to make it 21-14 Texans. The Texans then answered with a drive that culminated with a field goal to make it 24-14. Alex Smith looking cerebral in his newly spread-out version offense of the Urban Meyers days at the University of Utah drove the offense down the field from our 27-yard line to connect with Vernon Davis a third time from the 23-yard line to make it 24-21 Houston.
Time would not be so kind as the clock was eaten by the Texans hoping to force a mistake. With 1:38 left to play Alex Smith incurred a devastating delay of game penalty setting them from a fourth and five to a fourth and ten with 36 seconds left to play. Alex looked to Isaac Bruce but was intercepted and the game was over. The dramatic and extraordinary comeback by Alex Smith was breathtaking to say the least, but could this have been the same under Shaun Hill with a spread out no holds barred offense initiated on his behalf? This is one question I'd like to see answered.
If Alex Smith is the real deal that is yet to be determined as we travel to Indianapolis to face the top rated Colts under Peyton Manning. The 49er offense seemed to click but that was because Jimmy Raye suddenly threw out the art of conservatism. Yes we were forced to throw the ball to try and even the score that is understandable, but could it have been done with Shaun Hill at the controls in these varying spread-out formations as he was more accustomed to towards the tail end of the 2008 season?
For now Alex Smith looks and feels like the hero. But history always seems to have a way of repeating itself with this guy? He is injury prone, he has ball handling problems, he has difficulty in escaping the blitz, he has had accuracy and route identification problems and he has ultimately failed to live-up to his first round draft status of 2005. Only time will really tell with Alex Smith. I am hopeful but outwardly cautious that this could be a long season all over again for an offense still stuck in neutral on third downs and keeping Frank Gore's legs standing upright on the ground with 100 plus yard games to talk about the very next day. At (3-3) we have a lot to still be concerned with.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.