As the final seconds ticked off of the clock yesterday, Olindo Mare's last kick sailed through the uprights and any real hope of the 49ers making the playoffs this season went right out the window. Make no mistake kids...barring a miracle of unprecedented proportions (highly unlikely, as the utterly pathetic Minnesota Vikings laid an egg in Glendale last night), the resident heroes of our beloved 49ers are going to experience the playoffs the same way the rest of us are...on the couch, flanked by chicken wings, beer, chips and other assorted playoff party fodder.
Many of those I spoke to yesterday afternoon...from my overly pessimistic pal Nate to my perpetually optimistic father and everyone in between...have intoned to me the same sad sentiments: the 49ers are terrible...awful...unworthy of victory...patently underwhelming. It probably wouldn't be a stretch to guess that many of you reading this right now agree with them. If you do, you'll likely be surprised by what I am about to write: you're wrong.
That's right folks...the 49ers are not awful. They are not terrible. They are not pathetic, underwhelming, in need of a roster purge, coaching change, or administration shift. What the 49ers are is very talented...and completely unbalanced. Let me elaborate: in their efforts to become the offensive juggernaut that we, the impatient majority, have been screaming for since the team was blown out at home by the Falcons, the powers that be on the 49er sideline have committed one of the cardinal sins of coaching...they have allowed themselves to become one dimensional. In spite of all the 49ers mistakes and missed opportunities yesterday afternoon, they were still in a position to win the game in the 4th quarter.
So, if the 49ers can pass the football, why didn't they win in Seattle? Alex Smith threw for 300 yards and 2 TDs and no picks...so what happened? What happened is this: the 49ers found out that their 1st round draft pick in 2005 is good enough to be their starter for the foreseeable future...and discovered that one-dimensional teams do not win football games.
Last week, I stated that shifting to a full blown "spread" offense was a bad idea. Why? Because losing to the Seahawks can be boiled down to one play...and three yards. The offense that was able to run up 356 total yards yesterday couldn't pick up 3 yards when it had to. If the 49ers pick up that first down, they would have had the option of stretching the field, or running out the clock and getting the game into overtime and a chance to win the game.
Going to the spread gave the Niners explosiveness...but it stole from them the ability to run the ball. Explosive passing attacks have a time and a place in the NFL...and that time and place is not backed up inside the 5-yard line, or throwing long on 3rd and 3. Throwing the ball 45 times yesterday showed everyone watching that Alex Smith is for real...but it prevented the running game from developing any rhythm...and that prevented the Niners from running the ball effectively when they had to. Frank Gore is an amazing running back and one of the best offensive players on the team...and giving him 9 touches on the ground against a defense as bad as Seattle's is inexcusable.
But...running doesn't win football games
I know what you're thinking: "But AJ, running doesn't win football games...I've heard sports media pundits say so." Well...the sports media pundits are wrong...kind of. You see, most will point to the fact that of the NFL's 5 best rushing teams, only one (the New Orleans Saints) has a winning record. What they fail to mention is that of the NFL's 5 worst rushing teams, only two have winning records. The necessity of a running game has far less to do with a team's overall rank among the leagues elite than it does with down, distance and situation. Top ranked running teams may not win football games...but teams that win can run the ball when they have to.
You see folks, when a team is backed up inside its own 5 (a place the 49ers seemed stuck for most of the 3rd quarter against Seattle), conventional wisdom calls for an offense to pound the rock, and with good reason. Running plays don't yield sacks, are less likely to result in turnovers, and keep the clock moving. Yesterday, the 49ers final offensive play came on a 3rd and 3 with 39 seconds left on the clock. A first down could have killed the clock altogether or at least given the 49ers another 3 downs to try winning the game. Instead of leaning on a high percentage run, Alex Smith threw long to Josh Morgan...and the pass fell incomplete.
Folks, having success in the running game means committing to moving the ball on the ground...at least some of the time. If the 49ers plan on winning any of their remaining games, yesterday's loss should serve as a lesson...the running game may not be the crux of their offense...but there will be times when they need to rely on it. Without choosing to at least establish a presence on the ground, the 49ers are leaning on their passing attack to win games in the clutch...and allowing defenses to prepare for it.
So...should the Niners pass 50 times a game? Run 50 times a game? Neither. The 49ers should balance their attack. Does that mean running 30 times and passing 30 times? No. It means not abandoning the run altogether...but rather using it in conjunction with the pass to improve the success of both. The 49ers are not good enough in the air to rely solely on the pass...just as they are not good enough on the ground to rely solely on the run. There is one way that this team can reverse its fortunes in games like yesterday's loss to Seattle...and that is with balance.
The 49ers are not a bad football team. On the contrary, the 49ers are a talented team that is just beginning to become accustomed to the latest iteration of its offense. The 49ers are a team on the rise, and yesterday, they discovered that their quarterback is good enough to perform well in a hostile venue. The Niners also discovered that while their passing game is good enough to keep them in close games, they'll need to balance it with a running game to win them.