At about 4:09 pm last Sunday, I was pretty steamed. In addition to having just watched the 49ers get throttled by the Seattle Seahawks, I realized that in my football fueled rage, I had consumed the last of my Glenlivet 12 year. Ugh. What a rotten afternoon.
Since I was without quality booze and the little lady was doing her best to avoid her marginally inebriated, supremely frustrated boyfriend, I did what any hardcore masochist (read: loyal 49er fan) would do: I re-watched the game. How's that for self abuse?After about three runs through the game, I've come up what I think went wrong, why it went wrong, and what can be done to fix it.
When did the wheels come off?
After dominating the first 1 ½ quarters of football, the 49ers seemed to fall to pieces late in the second quarter. The beginning of the end came on a play that should have been the 49ers second interception of the game. As Nate Clements attempted to pull in the pass, his arm was grabbed by Deion Branch. Clements erupted, and when the late flag fell, it seemed that the 49ers would be the beneficiaries of an offensive pass interference call. Instead, the call went against Clements, and the entire defense seemed to lose their composure. Later in the drive, Clements tried to jump a hitch route to Mike Williams, and instead gave up the first big play of the day for the Seahawks, setting them up at the 1-yard line. Less than a minute later, Tarell Brown made the same mistake, this time resulting in a touchdown catch by Deon Butler. Offensively, as the game progressed, it became apparent that Alex Smith was growing more and more frustrated with the lack of communication with the sideline. Late in the 2nd quarter, while under pressure, he rifled a pass to Michael Crabtree that bounced off of his shoulder and into the arms of Jordan Babineaux. Less than a minute later, the Seahawks scored their second touchdown. From there, it was all downhill.
When we get down to brass tacks, who dropped the ball? Well, kids, there is plenty of blame to go around in this one. You could start with Michael Crabtree, move on to Alex Smith, and finish up by pointing fingers at the offensive line and the secondary. Truth be told, however, if you're among those that has spent the past few days pointing fingers at individuals, you've completely whiffed on why the 49ers failed in such dramatic fashion on Sunday afternoon. The team failed because they lost their composure when the heat was on. Adversity reared its ugly head, and when it did, the 49ers folded. That stated, let's look a little deeper into the individual failures made up the whole god-awful, unholy debacle that comprised Sunday afternoon at Qwest Field.
Michael Crabtree, come on down!
For a guy that many thought was going to set the league on fire this season, Crabtree is off to an awfully inauspicious start. From his lack of playing time in the preseason to his seeming nonchalance in post game interviews, Michael is not doing much to quell the "diva" label that was thrust upon him in the 2009 draft. On Sunday he ran sloppy routes, short armed what should have been catchable passes, and seemed to be playing a step slower than everyone else. It is obvious that his chemistry with Alex Smith leaves something to be desired, and that could lead to fewer targets for him as the season progresses. However the season shakes out, based on what we saw Sunday, Michael has some work to do.
Mr. Smith goes to Washington (and Fails)
Alex Smith started out this game exactly the way many of the resident hopeful of 49erland thought he would: on fire. He was completed 8 of his first 10 passes, but seemed to fall apart late in the 2nd. While he was far from accurate on a poorly thrown (but catchable) ball to Moran Norris in the end zone, he was hitting his second and third reads frequently, looking like a capable leader early on. All of that changed when Michael Crabtree short armed a third down pass which resulted in the first 49er turnover of the game. Coupled with his evident frustration over how slowly plays were coming in from Jimmy Raye, the interception seemed to push Smith into panic mode. Once that happened, any hope the Niners had of effectively moving the ball went right out the window. Smith began to press, the Seahawks began to blitz, and the offense began running in place. Smith's confidence in Crabtree seemed shaken, and as the Seahawks dialed up more and more pressure and took away his other options, Smith became less concerned with stretching the field and more concerned with staying upright. All told, this game raised some very large, very alarming questions as it pertains to embattled QB.
Offensive Line or just plain offensive?
The offensive line was decent in the 1st quarter, and positively abysmal the rest of the game. While Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati performed as well as rookies in their first NFL starts could be expected to perform, both were hamstrung by the one thing that the Seahawks had going their way before kickoff: crowd noise. Davis and Iupati are bruisers, and both were a step slow Sunday afternoon. Why? Because it was so loud at Qwest Field that the Niners were forced to go with a silent count, placing the entire offensive line at an extreme disadvantage, especially the rookies. Any hope of building on what was a very slow start for the running game when right out the window when the Niners fell behind by two scores. Once the defense had its ears pinned back, it was all the line could do to keep up.
That Which Does Not Kill Us...
As I stated previously, what killed the 49ers last Sunday was not a lack of talent. The Niners were hamstrung by loss of composure in the face of adversity. Unlike the 49er rosters of previous seasons, this team has all of the talent necessary to succeed. It would not be a stretch to say that this is the most talented roster the 49ers have had since 2002. That stated, until the talent on the roster learns to respond to adversity as it arises in game situations, little things will continue to go wrong. Fortunately, there are solutions to what ails the Niners.
First things first, our secondary needs to stop forcing the issue in coverage. Nate Clements, Tarell Brown and Shawntae Spencer are very good corners, and they excel in man to man coverage. Clements and Brown have a tendency to gamble, though. In order to fix what ails the secondary, it will be up to DB coach Johnny Lynn and Defensive Coordinator Greg Manusky to lay down the law with their corners in order to make sure that they aren't freelancing out there instead of playing their assignments.
Next, Alex Smith needs to be given a failsafe in the event that plays aren't reaching him quickly enough. It was readily apparent that Smith was frustrated by the communication problems he was having with the sideline. The more frustrated he got, the more ineffective he became. Since the 49ers have decided that he'll be their starter come hell or high water, they need to do everything in their power to ensure that Alex is as comfortable as can be. He's a guy that does well when he feels things are in order, and the Niners need to do everything in their power to give him that sense of order. Perhaps that means installing a set of "mayday" options that Smith can fall back on when sideline communications break down. Perhaps that means giving him a wristband to help expedite the calls. Perhaps that means giving him more control over what plays are called. Whichever path the Niners decide to take, they'd better take it quickly. If they are to have any chance whatsoever when the Saints come to town on Monday night, they'll need Smith to be at his best.
Finally, the offensive line needs to generate traction. The heart and soul of this football team is none other than Frank Gore. If he can't get going, the Niners are in trouble. It is imperative that Chilo Rachal and Mike Iupati get off the ball quicker than they did on Sunday. It is imperative that Anthony Davis do a better job of holding his own on the edge. Mike Solari and Ray Brown have a ton of tape to work with, and exactly four days to get this group ready for the defending world champions. The good news is that the team's next game will be within the friendly confines of Candlestick Park, so at the very least, they'll be able to hear the snap count and protection calls, which should serve to get them off the line a half-step quicker.
All told, Sunday's game was a nice, big steaming pile of awful. There is no getting around the fact that the Niners were outplayed by a less talented team. As much as that hurts, there is a silver lining to all of this: the mistakes made in Sunday's game are correctable. Correctable or not, this team has issues, and until they are dealt with, they will keep this team from playing the kind of football necessary to win a game, much less their division. How well the Niners do this Monday will go a long way toward telling us how close they are to fixing them.
Date: September 27, 2010 at 6:24 PM
Comment: Amazing analysis. As always, on the $ AJ. Even though I'm responding late I agree with most of what you said. Now...you know I'm not a huge Martz fan, but as a coordinator I feel he was better than Raye. His ability to confuse defenses with his myriad shifts in particular (ok...maybe he also had an ability to confuse offenses too......like....the NINIERS'!). Anyhow...Uncle Doug and I wanted you to know we wish you were next to us on gameday. On a final note I'm hoping Alex's relationship with Mike Johnson facilitates a more cohesive "O". We shall see. Love ya man...and my love to little big man, "sweet C" and the kids!
By: Ryan - Alex Smith is The Future
Date: September 19, 2010 at 9:09 AM
Comment: I agree with all you said, AJ. I also noticed how everything went DOWNHILL after the botched call. I expect a lot from this team, and hope that we come around on Sunday and get some '7's' and a 'W'. It is not far-fetched. KEEP THE FAITH! P.S. Save some of the Scotch for us, buddy. 49ers Forever.
Date: September 18, 2010 at 11:38 PM
Comment: Awesome article, especially the headlines which had me laughing instead of soaking my head. Considering the subject matter, that's quite an accomplishment
Date: September 17, 2010 at 11:07 AM
Comment: New Orleans Saints Slogan: WHO DAT! Mike Singletary's Slogan: WHO DAT RAT!
Date: September 16, 2010 at 9:00 PM
Comment: Kinda changes the meaning of my the whole comment if the 't gets dropped from can't put together a running game without some sort of passing threat.
Date: September 16, 2010 at 8:10 PM
Comment: Next Monday will be better, but the damage is done. The meltdown also appears to be ongoing, so I can't tell if there will be any sort of bounce back as I would normally expect. Alex was supposed to come out guns blazing, instead he shot blanks into the air while the 49ers went down gasping a seeming last breath. We can put together a running game without some passing threat to back it up. As far as the defense goes, we were exploited by people who have been studying our guys. If they can't adjust in-game we might as well send our defensive playbook to Petie as well. I would just love to see the 49ers draft a couple quarterbacks next year. Two, in case one of them is a bust. 1st and 2nd round, no second guessing. We actually have 4 quartbacks generally considered to be huge busts. The only ones we're really missing are Matt and JaMarcus. I hate to call Alex a bust after one (more) horrible performance, but I just haven't seen 4 consecutive impressive quarters from the boy. As opposed to the massive streaks of failure he has put out there. I just can't give credibility to the excuses and fingerpointing anymore Alex. You have to do it all yourself sometimes. Even if you are on a team
By: Nadine D
Date: September 16, 2010 at 5:50 PM
Comment: I've been a 49er fan since the glory days of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. The team that played Seattle this past weekend looked like a team made of 5th and 6th graders. Alex Smith is not a great quarterback, and he never will be. When everything seems to be going wrong, why not let the new guys play. They couldn't do any worse! The analysis of this game was well-written. Now it the million dollar players could do what they should, maybe, maybe, San Francisco can hold its head up again.
Date: September 16, 2010 at 4:01 PM
Comment: I appreciate what you have to say and I too believe the loss of poise is the single biggest issue. Thanks for addressing this! I wonder if they've thought of sending Alex to a hypnotist. Joe Montana was at his best and coolest in the biggest moments. Steve Young wasn't - at first; but he developed it. So there's proof that it can be learned. (And Steve has talked many times with the Razor & Mr. T about QBs learning the importance of keeping their composure when everything is breaking down around them.) Bigger point is about the o-line. I'm sure you're right that noise was a factor. But I think you miss an important fact: 16 of Frank Gore's 17 runs were between the tackles. So there was no attempt to spread the defense wide. And with the pass to Ginn (late after the route was on) being the only attempt to stretch the field vertically, the Niners did nothing to help their o-line. No matter how well your five linemen perform "mano-a-mano", when it's 5 on 8, it gets pretty hard to get much push! (It's also probably pretty hard for rookie linemen to keep their cool when their QB seems to have lost his, but that's probably best left for another article!)
By: Dan B
Date: September 16, 2010 at 10:37 AM
Comment: I learned something this past sunday AJ. I woke up, put on the raiders game and I watched the the best runner in the game get virtually shut down by one of the worst run defenses(exception of one long run). Why is that? Because a poor defense overcompensated their weakness and commited 8-9 guys in the box. This left them open to being picked apart by the pass which made the raiders change def. strategies and then they gave up the 78 yrd run. TA-dah! And after watching our game I realized that as long as we build up/draft/sign players that are big bruising runners or run stoppers this team will NEVER flourish. Think of the top ten teams and 8 of them have immaculate passing games with little to no run game and the other two have a solid team across the board with an emphasis on the pass. Not one other team builds around the run. BECAUSE IT DOESNT WORK, not against Seattle(2.2 yac in 17 carries) Or against the raiders! Singeltary must change or leave. Learn it, hate it, live it.
Date: September 16, 2010 at 9:45 AM
Comment: Very good. You left out Raye's crappy play-calling though. He didn't get Westbrook into the game either. He needs to start being more creative with the talent he has at his disposal. I don't mean trick plays, but he has the tools to create plenty of match-up problems for people. The QB coach should have more say in the game-plan.
Date: September 16, 2010 at 9:14 AM
Comment: Precise, succinct and on target, AJ! Very well written and I fully agree. The magnitude of the loss captures the precipice between reality and expectation...my goodness, it feels like we fell of the Grand Canyon. That's why this loss hurt so much more than the Atlanta loss last year at home, similar in expectation. Still, these issues are correctable. The writing is on the wall for Coach to see. If he doesn't take heed, it will be the end of his short-lived tenure with the 49ers. I believe he will, he has done some amazing transformations in a week, like the AZ game on MNF after a loss to these same Hawks in 2008. Hopefully, we can muster the same gumption and tenacity especially at home on MNF for all to see. The spotlight is on us and we must deliver or else! Nice job!
By: STL Niner Fan
Date: September 16, 2010 at 7:14 AM
Comment: Nice article, I agree with everything you said. I also believe the team CAN recover from this - however - I dont think they WILL. This is a team that is supposed to mirror the mentality of its rough and tough head coach but for whatever reason is anything but. They seem to have the emotional equivalence of a young child. At the first sign of adversity they fold up into a little ball in the corner. I just dont get it. Smith in particular needs to shape up and deal with a bit of chaos every once in a while. NFL games are not always, in fact are hardly ever, going to go as planned. Smith needs to be able to deal with adversity in a more positive way, thats part of being a leader, which he desperately needs to become for this team to succeed. I'm so frustrated with this team that in the fist game of the season they didnt seem to correct any of the issues that plagued them last year. They had friecking 8 months to work on these issues and....nothing. To me that exposes some major flaws in the coaching staff or the very least coaching philosophy. This is why I think around week 6 or 7 we will already be talking about next season.....assuming we have one.....sigh......
Date: September 16, 2010 at 5:07 AM
Comment: Overall, good analysis. Unlike many others in the 'zone you do not seem prone to evaluating the current state of the team based upon one performance but rather - as I think it should be - calibrated on the unique conditions, challenges and opportunities for match ups each opponent offers week to week. We can recover from this - although maybe not 100% this next week. It does appear to me you are trying to build a case against 'Crabs - "On Sunday he ran sloppy routes, short armed what should have been catchable passes, and seemed to be playing a step slower than everyone else." Not sure these are fair criticisms and HIGHLY subjective, at best. For example, what is sloppy? Did you measure his routes against the yard markers, or some sort of route template? Step slower, did you time his routes with your stopwatch? Catchable? How could you know? Might have been enough to say, he and Smith are rusty, since Crabs has missed preseason. (I do not blame him, with a neck injury, unlike turf-toe where giving it a try wouldn't risk paralysis). Anyway, excellent analysis overall and I like that you offered solutions. Thanks!