Last Sunday, in the chilly Seattle air, the 49ers' playoff hopes were dashed by Matt Hasselback and the Seahawks. Despite Mike Singletary's preaching all year long, the entire 49er team seemed to draw a blank once they stepped onto the field. This inconvenient amnesia has led to the seventh straight season without a playoff appearance.
One would think that playing against a talented team like the Seahawks, and against a former coach in Jim Mora Jr., the team would have enough incentive to take this game seriously. Add to that the fact that this game was a "must win" in order to keep their playoff dreams alive. With these pressures, how did the game strategy change so much from the last meeting? In their previous game in San Francisco, Frank Gore had an impressive 200+ rushing yards. Yet in this meeting, his one high stake carry resulted in a costly fumble.
Fans, who had been crying for a spread offense in order to showcase Alex Smith's true capabilities, were left disappointed in this match. The multi-areal weapons at are at our disposal were underutilized altogether. Suddenly, the team had switched from a one-dimensional running team to a one-dimensional throwing team by overextending Smith and ultimately putting the game on his shoulders.
The San Francisco 49er coaching staff forgot all about balance. This game featured far more passing than ever before. There were a total of 12 rushing attempts for an accumulation of only 53 total yards. Outside of Josh Morgan's roundabout run for 20 yards we really put the running game up on a shelf. Compare that to Alex Smith completing 27 of 45 passes for 310 total yards and two touchdowns for a 95.6 quarterback rating. Frank Gore, not having an offensive line to fight for him, cost him the focal point status of this offense.
Smith, on the other hand, began the game successfully by hitting his wide receivers in stride and moving the chains quickly. This mesmerized the fans and made the coaching staff spread out the offense, leaving the run as a fly-by-night alternative. Balance was never restored until it was too late. Time of possession is won by an offense that showcases the best balance between the run and the pass, and Seattle was clearly the better team at doing just that.
Costly turnovers also continued to disrupt our ability to take that next step as an elite contender. Immaturity, lack of execution and inconsistency has spelled the end of the road for us. Even plays such as a designed handoff between Arnaz Battle and the seldom used Brandon Jones on a punt return went horribly wrong simply due to poor fundamental skills. That play cost us a Deion Branch touchdown to tie the game at 7-7.
Another costly turnover occurred with 9:28 left in the game, when Gore had the ball punched out resulting in a recovered fumble by Seahawk cornerback Josh Wilson. The resulting field goal gave the Seahawks the lead at 17-14, and effectively removed the team from both this game and playoff contention.
The ridiculous officiating in this game is another topic to argue. One of the first horrible calls came as 49er TE Delanie Walker was held on a important fourth-and-goal play from the one yard line. Another was a Seahawk offensive penalty on a throw that placed them on the San Francisco 15 yard line. Deon Butler clearly pushed-off on 49er cornerback Keith Smith in order to make that catch but it was never ruled a penalty.
Clearly one can argue the officials ruled in Seattle's favor throughout the game. Fact is though, we had plenty of opportunities to put the game away and we just didn't get the job done yet again on the road. During this roller coaster season the offense took far too long to find an identity, and is still lost trying to find it.
It appears Alex Smith is becoming a lot more comfortable in OC Jimmy Raye's new scheme. However, that same theme of balance keeps popping up in my head. Raye's lack of consistency when calling plays gives me the notion that he is listening a bit too much to the player's desires rather than the bigger picture. He has to establish firm ball control by taking time off the clock both with Gore's legs and Smith's arm. While it has been a lot of fun watching our aerial weapons shake off the dust, the real problem of an inability to build a solid, balanced foundation must be addressed.
We cannot simply abandon the run game despite the glaring weaknesses on our offensive line. We have to get the line as excited about protecting Alex Smith as it is in creating running lanes for Frank Gore. Frank has to be a part of the offensive equation not only by catching a pass but by being a 100-plus yard runner again. Balance must be struck and it is this issue that must be addressed by Mike Singletary as we move forward.
The 49ers incurred eight penalties in this game for 57 total yards. This is not the signature of a well-disciplined team. True champions pay close attention to details and execution. Each individual player must buy in to the philosophy that without correcting these important details, they will never move forward. Going into this game, we actually believed we were a playoff contender against a team struggling to find its own identity. Then within a few quarters of play, we found ourselves actually being the underdogs in a contest turned ugly. Twelve rushing attempts to Seattle's 29 are clearly not enough. We owe it to ourselves to at least show an effort don't you think?
I still have faith in Mike Singletary to find the right solution in conjunction with his coaching staff. I am as disappointed as anyone in realizing we are again looking at the NFL draft as our next big night out together as fans. But we still have four games left to play and it is critical that we try and win all of them to establish momentum and find some sort of balance that works best for both sides of the offense rather than flip flopping one for another. We have to believe that Alex Smith is the quarterback of the future, draft another one to help compete, and/or look somewhere else. So far he has looked sharp, but the spread cannot be his sole comfort zone. We still need someone that helps to find that crucial balance that means control of the ball and the clock all in one.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.