Niners Lose In A Manner Most Foul

Nov 19, 2013 at 6:36 AM

"All I remember," said Drew Brees, as if he were trying to piece together the details of some long-repressed trauma, "is just getting clothes-lined in the chin and as I'm on the ground, I'm saying, 'That's got to be a flag.' " Well of course it's got to. I mean, what's the alternative? That Brees, one of the NFL's golden geese, on his field, in front of his crowd, was merely hit on the shoulder pads—nowhere near his precious chin—and fumbled away the game?

Yeah, that's the alternative. And since that can't be, then Brees must be right. That's got to be a flag.

Oh, I know. The Niners were lucky to even be in this game, let alone leading it late in the fourth. Once again, the offense had been abysmal. Short fields had provided our two touchdowns, and a fumbled pick-six had saved us another. But in this league, where every play is Armageddon, it doesn't matter how you get to the end. What matters is that you win when you get there. And Ahmad Brooks had delivered the win.

Ordinarily, I don't get involved with the officials. To me they've always been like the weather, or the conditions of the field. Maybe your opponent gets the lucky break—like the one you got the week before—but that's just the way it goes. You can't afford to worry about things you can't control; instead, you've got to overcome them. Even after the Super Bowl—when the Ravens got away with mugging Bruce Miller, mugging Michael Crabtree, and even mugging an official—I refused to give in. I wrote that "championship teams make the officials irrelevant." We didn't play well enough then, and we didn't play well enough now.

But oh, man, that quote from Brees. I just hate it.

I don't resent the league's efforts to make the game safer. Even now, the game is unimaginably violent; it amazes me that there isn't someone on a stretcher after every play. Those who ache for the carnage of generations past—who complain that the game is now nothing more than flag-football with beer commercials—strike me as unsettlingly akin to ancient Romans, screaming for blood at the Colosseum.

So no, it isn't the league's new safety rules. It's the league's mandate that the officials—who of course are tasked with enforcing those rules—should "err on the side of caution." This is where the issue is. Unless their intervention is so obviously warranted that a trained seal would throw a flag, the officials' top priority should be to stay the hell out of the way. Whether the rule prohibits headhunting, holding, or wearing mismatched socks, officials should follow a simple edict. If you see a clear foul, call it. If you don't, don't.

In other words, as Vic Fangio put it, "Err on the correct side, not on the safe side."

With all due respect to Mike Pereira, who had the audacity to assert that Brooks "clearly" struck "a blow to the neck," we've heard enough criticism to know that this foul, if indeed a foul at all, was anything but clear. Yet the officials "erred on the side of caution," and thus, in so doing, they erred, period.

But don't try telling that to Brees. As recently as five years ago, Brett Favre would've absorbed Brooks' hit, and then he would've congratulated him. Brees, by contrast, engaged in a kind of verbal flop: he escalated the hit to the flagrantly wrong "clothes-lined in the chin"—though, in fairness, he basically admitted that he might've blocked out the horror of it all—and figured, well, there must be a flag.

And worst of all, the refs proved him right, taking away a victory that the Niners oh-so-desperately needed.

But the Niners still had a chance to take it, as they'd had throughout the game. Yet for the second consecutive week, our lifeless offense was just unbearable.

Statistically, there was a modest improvement. Our total yards increased from 151 to 196; our net passing yards increased from 46 to 115; and our touchdowns increased from zero to two. But statistics aside, this performance was worse by a mile. In this game, we finally stepped off the wire we'd been walking, and plunged headlong, into the darkness.

See, last week, as bad as it was, I never stopped expecting the one big play, or the one long drive, that would win us the game. On Sunday, though, I never thought—even for a moment—that anything we did would work.

With Vernon Davis rejoining Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham, the receiving corps was finally legit, if still unspectacular. The offensive line, though still not great, wasn't the sieve that it was for Carolina. So, naturally, I've been asked: now will you blame Colin Kaepernick? If not now, then when?

I'll tell you when.

When Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman finally wake up.

Even they must see it now. For some reason, despite Manningham's return, they've continued to lead with the running-game. But with defenses now selling out to stop it, the running-game won't work until they spread the field with the passing-game. And the passing-game won't work, either, until they commit to making it dangerous.

So no more two-back, two-tight-end formations. No more runs on first-and-10s and second-and-longs. Be aggressive, for crissake. Send Davis deep to stretch the defense vertically; and send Boldin and Manningham (or soon, Crabtree) on intermediate routes to stretch it horizontally. And since LaMichael James was drafted to be the next Darren Sproles, maybe we should finally give him a try in that role; send him into the flats. Keep Frank Gore in the backfield for play-action fakes, pass-blocks, and only the occasional carry. And then we'll see if Kaepernick can go through his progressions and find an open man. I'll bet that he can. And even if he can't, he'll once again have room to run—once again unleashing that spectacular weapon, which will drive a stake through the heart of the D.

Sound good?

It should, but it should also sound disturbingly familiar. Indeed, what's so exasperating about all this is that we've been through it already, time and time and time again. In 2009, our offense flourished when we moved from an old-fashioned power-running scheme to a new-wave shotgun-spread. I implored our coach to stick with it—as did Crabtree, who noted that he "really can do something in that spread"—but the coach refused, as a season was lost. In 2010, the coach, now under fire, replaced both his coordinator and his quarterback, getting immediate results from an aggressive passing-attack. Even Gore was impressed: "It's nice to be dangerous, really dangerous." Yet once again, the coach retreated, as yet another season was lost. In 2011, Harbaugh began with what I called "the same stodgy O in a shinier wrapper," until a stirring comeback raised hope that he'd finally release his competitive violence. I made "the same plea to Harbaugh that I made to his predecessor": pass early, and pass often, so we can get moving. And Harbaugh did open things up, though his quarterback could only handle so much. And when Kaepernick took over in 2012, he carried us all the way to the Super Bowl, with the most aggressive passing-attack in the league.

And yet, incredibly, here we are again. Another season slipping away, a coach stubbornly fiddling while it burns. With any coach, it's frustrating. With Harbaugh, it's utterly stupefying.

But it's not too late. The Niners have lost to four strong teams; three are division-leaders, and the fourth is 7-and-3. The division is gone, but with our remaining schedule, we should finish no worse than 11-and-5, which should be good enough for the playoffs. And though the playoff-road would be daunting, history shows us that anything can happen there.

But history shows us something else too.

Eventually, it is too late.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Lucky Phil
    Happy Thanksgiving Everybudddy and Fu$k You Mike Singletary! (there's just something about the holidays and Mike Singletary that brings out the love for my fellow man)
    Nov 27, 2013 at 4:06 PM
    Response: Mine too. Happy Thanksgiving.
  • Ninerdawg
    Good article Jeff!! I am afraid Kap has regressed. Look at the article by Jack Hammer. There are some field shots that clearly show Kap missing open receivers, and not going through his progressions. I hope the Niners dont break the bank just yet. They need to draft a backup/starter next year, and I am a huge Kap fan. What do you think Jeff?
    Nov 21, 2013 at 11:59 AM
    Response: Sorry, Dawg; I still think that Kaepernick is the least of our offensive issues. I agree with Mike Tanier (see Terry's link): right now Kaepernick is in an "impossible situation." As for Jack's screenshots, see my response to Dallas below.
  • Steve
    With Mangini in the building you really start to wonder what his role is in this cacophony. Roman is clearly the number one target in the downfall of this offense. What baffles me though is why the 180-degree shift in philosophy? This staff took a far less talented 2011 team and implemented creative playcalling, maximizing the strengths of each player. Where is that these days? Your quote says it best and I said the exact same thing to a colleague the other day; sad thing is, I haven't said this since 2010: "See, last week, as bad as it was, I never stopped expecting the one big play, or the one long drive, that would win us the game. On Sunday, though, I never thought--even for a moment--that anything we did would work." Finding ways to lose instead of ways to win. That's a scary notion.
    Nov 21, 2013 at 8:45 AM
  • Paul
    I see it this way. Play calling is marginal at best. Don't know if Greg Roman is responsible or if he is just carrying out Harbaugh's orders, obviously the head coach is involved in the Offensive game planning. Complexity of the offense is abysmal. Other than a bunch of shifting, which uses up a bunch of clock, the niners telegraph pretty much everything they do. As far as the receivers go they are a decent bunch. I rate Boldin as good, Vernon as very good, Manningham as good, the rookie tight end as potentially very good, Kyle Williams as poor (even though he is not on the team now I don't know why he was on it). Patton (hurt) potentially very good, Crabtree very good. Running backs very good. Offensive line very good. The biggest part of the problem is quarterback, CK poor. If you don't agree then I suggest you look at some film. Could he get better? Yes. Will he get better? Maybe. What does he do wrong. Fundamentals with footwork and timing. Fails to step up or slide sideways in the pocket. Drops his eyes from the receivers and starts to move when his first option is taken away. Usually runs to his left. Is very inaccurate throwing while running to his left.
    Nov 20, 2013 at 8:53 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Jeff, Just wanted to tell you and your readers about a funny article from DJ Gallo @ ESPN. "NFL Hangover Week 11" is the column. It will offer a little hope and inspiration for the fans and the team. I had a good laugh reading it. I strongly recommend it for fans needing some good news and reassurance that the Niners Will Come Back!
    Nov 20, 2013 at 7:19 PM
  • Dallas Niner Fan
    Jeff, Check this out evaluating Kap's plays in which he missed receivers and let me know your thoughts.
    Nov 20, 2013 at 4:15 PM
    Response: Thanks for the link, Dallas. First, I would suspect that screenshots like these could be put together for almost any QB in the NFL. After just a few minutes, I found ones for Russell Wilson (, Eli Manning (, and yes, Alex Smith ( Even Tom Brady has been exposed by the all-knowing coaches tape (though the screenshots aren't provided here). ( So though of course shots like these can reveal mistakes, they don't necessarily mean that your QB is fundamentally bad. And indeed, some of these Kaepernick shots strike me as deceptive. I'm not sure what was wrong with the throw to Manningham, who was deeper than Boldin and running with a DB whose back was turned; on the throw to Gore, there were four Saints between Kaepernick and Davis; and on the throw to Davis, Kaepernick had already committed (note the cocked arm) by the time Boldin broke. But I'm not a TOTAL apologist here; those misses of McDonald and James sure look like mistakes. The point, though, is that every QB, with only seconds to scan the field and decide where to throw, is going to make some mistakes, so these shots of Kaepernick's don't impress me. They certainly don't convince me that Kaepernick has suddenly become a lousy quarterback. I just don't think that's plausible at all.
  • Terry B.
    For God's sake, Gonzola, the league is not fixed. Every team has bad calls go against them. Anyway, as Jeff said, championship teams make the officials irrelevant. We were lucky to even be in a position to have Brooks's hit matter. This offense is a joke, and we can forget about the playoffs if this is how we're going to play. Everyone owes it to himself to read the following article from Mike Tanier about our pathetic, Neanderthal offense. Money quote: "If you lose 23-20 when defense and circumstance provide 21 points, you weren't capable of winning the game." Let's not forget that.
    Nov 20, 2013 at 8:32 AM
  • Gonzola
    I like what one of the other commenters said, "The NFL is becoming more and more like the WWE (WWF for all those old schoolers)." Did anyone see the Monday night game? The league is definitely fixed. I wonder if the plan this year is for the Carolina Panthers to make it to the Superbowl? We shall see. First the low-scoring niner game and then completely shafting New England? Hmmmm.
    Nov 20, 2013 at 3:47 AM
  • karihappy
    You're my all-time favorite writer, Jeff. You always seem to snatch the thoughts right out of my head. Thank you for another top-notch article on our beloved 9ers.
    Nov 19, 2013 at 8:31 PM
    Response: Wow, Kari. Thank YOU.
  • John
    11-5? I think 11-5 is a complete miracle. I'm looking at 8-8 as a more realistic goal for this year. 9-7 could happen. No way 11-5. We easily lose to SEA coming up. I don't see how we can beat WSH on the road. They are not a great team but they play OK defense which will negate any "offense" we employ. Unless our D or ST scores 14 points we lose there too. Bucs and Rams might be our only wins left. If we are lucky. I like the optimistic approach Jeff, but let's be realistic here. This team IS NOT A PLAYOFF TEAM. We have a championship defense with a high school offense. Doesn't get it done.
    Nov 19, 2013 at 2:23 PM
  • Frank
    A lot of players are supporting Brooks...and that's good, to an extent. The way Brees' legs were split, he was probably 5 1/2 ft upright. Pretty tough to adjust your hit when the QB does that. Agree, Brees' statement is symptomatic of what's wrong with the game now. QB's and receivers (many of 'em, anyway) EXPECT to see a flag. That's just wrong. At any rate, to piggyback on Tom's thoughts, beyond what the offense should've done, the defense was seemingly defenseless to stop Brees on that final drive. They didn't even get close to him. Further, they wouldn't have been in that situation without the 82-yd KO return and Osgood's bonehead play. Plenty of "blame" to go around. The offense needs a shot in the arm, for sure, but neither the ST's nor defense are blameless.
    Nov 19, 2013 at 1:14 PM
  • Tom
    The penalty on the hit was probably a bad call but the fact is there was still time on the clock and the 49ers were going to get the ball back. All they had to do was get it into field-goal range and they couldn't do it. Couldn't even hold the ball long enough to keep the Saints off the field for their game-winner. Good teams find ways to win games like this. Unlike you, in your constant quest for big-play explosiveness, I'm a move-the-chains kind of guy. Had the 49ers been able to do that on any of their last few drives they would have won the game, and the hit, if it had still occurred, would have been meaningless as far as the outcome was concerned.
    Nov 19, 2013 at 11:27 AM
  • Paul A.
    Jeff, If not now, when? So this is the question. When he burst on the stage, he was called a transformative figure. Really! No one could live up to that standard. But maybe he would be just great, or just good or middle of the road. But no, he is absolutely abysmal. You know if only they would run more, or is that less, how about the spread, no keep more protection in, wait until Manningham arrives, no LaMichael James, just a couple of more weeks then Crabtree... Jeff if not now, when?
    Nov 19, 2013 at 8:39 AM
  • dallas niner fan
    That call was BS. That was a clean hit by Brooks and no matter what anyone says, that was a judgment call by the refs and they got it wrong. It was an insult to Brooks. (See Ray Lewis' comments). Our offense sucks, Greg Roman has no answer for when a defense stacks the box. See what the Patriots did last night against this defense, lots of quick passes and slants and a few screens. Although the Pats came up short they moved the ball and got it in the end zone. The Niners never call screens or other innovative plays. It's all plain vanilla play calling. Jeff, I am really frustrated.
    Nov 19, 2013 at 7:30 AM
  • Edd
    Well Jeff, it's just not that easy, what you suggest. They tried earlier this season to get by on their passing game, and failed miserably. First problem is that their WR's cannot get seperation. Boldin does OK if single teamed, same with VD. But that's it. Now couple that with very poor pass protection, and you cannot afford to put an extra WR in because then the defense stampedes to Kaep and he's sacked in 2.5 seconds. They NEED a fast WR period, and I'm not talking about Crabtree. Without someone to stretch the field, this offense is doomed. There was talk earlier this season about using VD as a WR. They need to try that, line him up outside and sprint away.
    Nov 19, 2013 at 7:13 AM

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