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A season of road kill

Dec 18, 2003 at 12:00 AM

When you think of ways to best describe the San Francisco 49ers one thing rings out loud and clear above all else. That is that the San Francisco 49ers are just plain road kill and that their (0-7) record on the road is a definite conclusion to their season in 2003.

Candlestick Park has been their only safe haven in this season seeming to almost play at a playoff level from time to time there in most all of their appearances. The energy from the fans and the nostalgia of the very confines of the stadium seem to just set up the 49ers for ultimate victory when they play there.

Consistency has been something that the San Francisco 49ers have struggled with almost from the beginning of the season. The road has not been kind to them in any sense of the word. With Jeff Garcia suffering from countless injuries as well as the entire offensive line and secondary on the defense, the 49ers have struggled to make an identity for themselves and to put a period at the end of the season in terms of success.

With so many injuries plaguing the team almost on a rotating weekly basis and questions surrounding the coaching and play-calling, the San Francisco 49ers have gone from perennial playoff contenders to bottom feeders in their very own division.

Our success at home against Arizona was but a fluke in preparation for the road game against the newly reborn Cincinnati Bengals. This was a team that we had beaten and humiliated many times before including the Super Bowls of old, yet this team has been transformed into an inspired breed of athletes that have finally bought into the plans of a Marvin Lewis.

Against the Arizona Cardinals we saw a Jeff Garcia reborn again after suffering with a high ankle sprain on the sidelines and watching from afar while his back-up in arms Tim Rattay established a new niche for himself on the team The 49ers looked like a blitzkrieg of offense passing and throwing for 496-yards in just plain old fashioned offense.

The 49er defense even played efficiently by blocking, tackling and forcing turnovers in a 50-14 head slapping of a team that had already surrendered a long time ago in the Arizona Cardinals. Jeff Garcia threw for dour touchdown passes and ran in two more as the San Francisco 49ers proved to the world that they had the offensive and defensive capability to do it all for just a brief moment this season.

But that photo moment against Arizona would be short lived as the menu again pointed east towards a road game that has spelled doom and gloom for the 49ers in six straight road games.

This was a team that had lost to the Arizona Cardinals back in October and had struggled to even hold it’s own head up in that game. But revenge was ours says 49er fans around the world as we annihilated them in true fashion back in the confines of our very own home.

Players and coaches have been driven nuts over the perplexities of winning while on the road, unable to come up with a real determination as to why they are son invariably different when playing away from home.

But at home they show a knack for being able to score and defend and to just plain make the correct decisions on a everyday basis while being right close to home. The security blanket has to be folded up at some point you’d think and the team should be able to take the game to the next level on the road as well as at home.

“It can’t help but drive you nuts,” defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said. “We know what kind of team we are, a team that shows up and blows people out. Then when we lose there’s a lapse. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“If you have an answer for me, please tell me,” Coach Dennis Erickson said when asked to explain his team’s opposing personalities. “It’s mystifying to me. We just have to go on the road and have the mentality that it’s us against everybody else and just play. To me, it’s about being focused and playing.”

The San Francisco 49ers are 6-1 at home and have outscored their opponents 219-82 while on the road right before the Cincinnati game they were 0-6 on the road, where they have been outscored 162-79. The reasons for this appalling trend seem to still be lost for words at the tips of our tongues.

Obviously the 49er coaching staff has not been able to find a true definition for this ugly setting that has taken place, because if they had we would be sitting somewhere at the top of the division rather than on the bottom.

The mentality of the team seems to change almost like overnight when a road game is approaching. Almost like the team is setting up it’s own worse nightmare scenario. When in the confines of a different environment the 49ers seem to drift away in a dream clinging for the throngs of 49er fans to appear and begin chanting.

Players seem to lose focus and inner fire to sustain their hunger to win. Execution breaks down and penalties result as well as turnovers. The game is lost because of ignorant mistakes and just plain bad karma it seems on some weeks.

“The attitude is like night and day,” Ahanotu said. “Guys are loose and ready to party and put on a show. They’re fired up. That’s how we are at home. On the road of late it’s the exact opposite. We’re sleepwalking. It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen.”

What is even more contradictory is the performance of running back Kevan Barlow. Here Kevan Barlow went out to prove himself as the legitimate heir to the throne in place of injured Garrison Hearst.

In the Arizona game he ran for a career high 154-yards and a touchdown. Barlow has longed to be the starting running back for the San Francisco 49ers but has been forced fed the two-running back formation that has been put in place for the team over the last three years.

The system of keeping both running backs fresh and injury free has paid dividends for the San Francisco 49ers over this three-year period. Former head coach Steve Mariucci believed it to be the best antidote to keeping the running game productive and effective in joining forces between Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow.

Both have yearned under their collective breaths though to be the sole starting running back because of their competitive natures to be recognized as elite running backs in the NFL.

“I do feel as though I am the future here,” Barlow said when asked about his third quarter declaration, which he followed with a remarkable 46-yard touchdown run that gave the 49ers their first 50-point effort in nine years.

“Garrison is doing a good job mentoring me and showing me a lot of things,” Barlow said of Hearst, an 11-year veteran. “He knows a lot, and I’ve been trying to learn from him. When he’s ready to pass the torch, I think I’ll be ready. My time will come.”

Garrison Hearst has been pleasant surprise to the San Francisco 49ers and has comeback from a career threatening injury that sidelined him for over two straight years. Now most recently he has been sidelined due to a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee.

After the Arizona game many players jumped on the Barlow bandwagon in congratulating him on such a fine effort and performance on the field that afternoon. Certainly 49er fans both inside and outside Candlestick Park could see that Kevan Barlow may be the real deal for the 49ers acknowledging the fact that as good as Garrison Hearst is, his playing days are really numbered after 11-years.

“Kevan did an outstanding job of taking advantage of an opportunity,” Garcia said. “We’ve seen moments of greatness in him when he plays basically just half the game. Now, to have the opportunity to play a complete game, to have the runs and catches out of the backfield, and then to step up and take on the blitzes, I think he did a lot of answering certain questions about himself.”

And then comes the road game in the snow at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati Ohio. Even though Kevan scored two second-half touchdowns in that game and rushed for 85-yards in his second consecutive start as the featured running back, and had six receptions for 66-yards, it was not enough in the 49ers defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals 41-38.

On that game’s opening drive, Kevan Barlow fumbled the ball at the Bengals 16-yard line, denying the 49ers a chance to take the lead in that game. Then, on the 49ers first possession in the third quarter, Barlow destroyed another scoring opportunity by fumbling again, this time at the end of an 11-yard run to the Bengals seven-yard line.

These turnovers proved costly to the San Francisco 49ers ending their road curse. It was Kevan Barlow that was responsible after a mind-blowing performance just one-week prior at Candlestick Park against the Arizona Cardinals. What was even more inspiring though was the way the 49ers handled the turnovers and that was to go out and keep clawing their way back into the game.

“It’s tough man,” Barlow said. “My teammates went out and fought hard. After I fumbled the ball, they still had my back, went out there and continued to score. Today wasn’t me day.”

Many 49er players consoled Kevan after the fumbles and urged him to play on and to play hard. It was a team effort to get Kevan back into the game and to help erase the mistakes from his memory.

One thing that could’ve been a factor in his fumbling was the fact as announced on FOX Sports was that the team stayed in their hotel from Friday on instead of going out and playing in Paul Brown Stadium to get a feel for the weather and all it’s elements.

Certainly Dennis Erickson is to blame for this fiasco as even Steve Young on ESPN announced that if that had been either Bill Walsh or George Seifert you can bet your bottom dollar that the team would’ve been forced out on to the field to get a feel for the elements that they would be faced with.

This is a point I want to make very clear and that is that Dennis Erickson must stop being soft and realize that it is smart to expose the players to different harsher environments because it is inevitable that they will play again in some hostile places and weather conditions.

“They were just telling me to keep my head up, shake it off, forget about it, and get ready to go to the next play,” Barlow said. “I’ve got a strong will. I’ll forget about it and bounce back.”

Still what was significant was the fact that the team came together in all this adversity and nasty weather to boot. They fought hard and worked hard at trying to break the road curse that has infected them all season long. It was the best collective effort on the road that I’ve seen all season long.

“Kevan is an outstanding back, and I know he’s taking things hard right now,” Garcia said. “But he has to understand that this is a team game. We come in here to play as a team, win or lose. We rise together, we fall together.”

Overall Game Statistics

Kevan Barlow had 18 carries for 85-yards averaging 4.7-yards a carry and a long run of 17-yards including two touchdowns. Jeff Garcia contributed also with four carries for 51-yards and averaged 12.8-yards per carry with a long run of 17-yards and a rushing touchdown. Jamal Robertson had four carries for 33-yards averaging 8.3-yards per carry and a long run of 11-yards. In all the San Francisco running game racked up 171-yards rushing and accounted for three touchdowns.

In the quarterback area Jeff Garcia was 26-for-33 with 344-yards passing and passed for two touchdowns. He had no interceptions and was sacked but once for a loss of 13-yards. He had a quarterback rating of 130.3% signaling that it was a performance that really defined winning despite the loss that really is attributed to turnovers.

Terrell Owens had eight receptions for 127-yards averaging 15.9-yards a reception with a long of 58-yards and one touchdown. Tai Streets followed with six receptions for 89-yards averaging 14.8-yards a reception with a long of 41-yards and one touchdown. Kevan Barlow followed with six receptions for 66-yards and averaged 11-yards per reception with a long of 48-yards.

Special teams were not at all that special as Bill LaFleur was ineffective and Cedrick Wilson and Jimmy Williams were unable to break a big gain. Wilson did have the workload though with seven kickoff returns for 150-yards averaging 21.4-yards a carry.

The San Francisco 49ers had a total of four fumbles with only one of them getting recovered by ourselves as Jeff Garcia had two and Kevan Barlow had two. The three that got away from us proved deadly in more ways than none, for they were the sole reason for being squeezed out by a three-point margin.

On defense Derek Smith and Chidi Ahanotu accounted for a sack together and Andre Carter another. Jeff Ulbrich led the pack with six tackles and Zack Bronson, Derek Smith, Julian Peterson and Travis Kirschke followed with four each.

The San Francisco 49ers led in first downs 31 to 23 and even third down efficiency at 67% compared to Cincinnati’s 54%. Penalties played a key role in stopping 49er drives as they had seven penalties totaling 50-yards in this game. Time of possession swung in Cincinnati’s favor with 33:11 compared to San Francisco’s 26:49.

First Quarter Game Highlights

On the first San Francisco offensive drive from their 46-yard line thanks to a facemask penalty on Cincinnati, Jeff Garcia leads a successful and spirited drive down the field to the Bengals 15-yard line. From there Jeff hands off the ball to Kevan Barlow on second down and ten only to see Kevan get popped and fumbles the ball which is taken by Cincinnati to their 30-yard line.

This turnover would then set up a successful drive for the Cincinnati Bengals under quarterback Jon Kitna who leads them from his 30-yard line down to the San Francisco 10-yard line with help from a defensive holding penalty on Derek Smith. Jon Kitna hits wide receiver Chad Johnson in the end zone for a touchdown making it 7-0 Cincinnati.

On the next San Francisco drive under Jeff Garcia the 49ers shoot themselves with two false start penalties, which come consecutively because of Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Walker. This leads us to punting the ball and Cincinnati in firm control of the first quarter.

Second Quarter Highlights

On the first San Francisco drive from their own 24-yard line under Jeff Garcia the 49ers are pushed back as Kevan Barlow is dropped for minus 4-yards at their 23-yard line. On third and long Jeff goes back to pass but a Cincinnati blitz is not picked up and Jeff is sacked at the 15-yard line for minus eight yards. During the sack Jeff Garcia fumbles the ball and it is picked up by linebacker Kevin Hardy and taken into the end zone for a touchdown making the score 14-0 Cincinnati.

Getting the ball back Jeff Garcia is determined to make amends for his fumble and starts the 49ers out from their own 31-yard line. The 49ers march down to their 42-yard line and Jeff drops back and fires to Terrell Owens who sprints it in for a 58-yard touchdown to make it 14-7 Cincinnati.

On their third offensive drive of the quarter from their 41-yard line, the 49ers reach the Cincinnati 41-yard line when Jeff Garcia drops back and fires a 41-yard touchdown pass to Tai Streets to tie the score 14-14. The Cincinnati Bengals under Jon Kitna waste no time in going back to work starting from their 36-yard line.

Here they drive down to the San Francisco 31-yard line where Jon Kitna finds Peter Warrick in the end zone for a touchdown to make it 21-14 Cincinnati, with help on illegal use of hands penalty on Ronnie Heard.

San Francisco gets the ball back with 3:20 left to play in the half at their 21-yard line and begin their drive down the field with help from their timeouts. Jeff Garcia gets the line down to the Bengal 5-yard line only to attempt a Todd Peterson field goal, which he does to make the score 21-17 Cincinnati at the half.

Third Quarter Highlights

Cincinnati from their 24-yard line comes right out of the tunnel and attacks under Jon Kitna. They move the ball down to the 49er 49-yard line when Bengal running back Rudi Johnson breaks free for a 49-yard touchdown run to make it 28-17 Cincinnati.

Unnecessary Roughness is called on Sean Moran on the kickoff and Jeff is forced to start at the 21-yard line. On this drive Jeff gets the ball to the Cincinnati 18-yard line when on a first down Kevan Barlow is handed the ball and fumbles the ball and is picked up by Cincinnati on their own five-yard line.

Jon Kitna orchestrates another great offensive drive by driving all the way down the field to the San Francisco 16-yard line where they attempt a 34-yard field goal, which is good making the new score 31-17 Cincinnati. The 49ers begin their last drive from their own 33-yard line under Jeff Garcia and the third quarter ends with them still driving.

Fourth Quarter Highlights

The San Francisco 49ers drive down to the six-yard line of Cincinnati where Jeff Garcia takes off with his feet to run it in from six-yards out to make it 31-24 Cincinnati. The Bengals get the ball back and start from their 30-yard line under Jon Kitna who marches them all down to the 12-yard line of the 49es where they attempt a 30-yard field goal which is good to make it 34-24 Cincinnati.

On the kickoff to San Francisco Dwaine Carpenter incurs a penalty for offensive holding and the 49ers must start from their own 15-yard line. Going to a shotgun no huddle approach Jeff Garcia tries to win back precious time that is running out fast. He marches the 49ers all the way down the field to the Bengals one-yard line where Kevan Barlow runs it in for a touchdown to make it 34-31 Cincinnati.

The Bengals on the kickoff and starting from their own 31-yard line answer the call by driving down to the 49er three-yard line where Rudi Johnson runs it in for a touchdown to make it 41-31 Cincinnati.

With just 2:12 left to play Jeff Garcia starts the team at their own 46-yard line and drives them down to the Cincinnati three-yard line where Kevan Barlow again runs it in for a touchdown to make it 41-38 Cincinnati.

The problem is time is running out and the 49ers attempt an onside kick which fails because the Cincinnati Bengals get the ball back and kill the clock to end it 41-38 another road defeat for the San Francisco 49ers.

Overall Game Analysis

One thing is certain Jeff Garcia will be our quarterback next year. Reasons look at his performance over the past two games and that alone will tell you why. Tim has solidified his standing as the back-up quarterback but to be honest with all of you I am tempted to look at Ken Dorsey real hard as well for next year.

“I felt really good today,” Garcia said. “I felt I made good decisions all day long. That’s a credit to the offensive line for giving me time to find my receivers and to do the proper things as far as getting the ball downfield. It’s all of us together. Today I was putting the ball where our guys could make plays and guys were making plays.”

This was a great offensive effort by the 49ers and all of those involved need to be commended despite the fumbles that should’ve been avoided and contributed to the loss overall. The San Francisco defense faltered in this game and failed to come up with run stuffing plays allowing Rudi Johnson to rush for 174-yards and two touchdowns is inexcusable.

So many times our front four has played inconsistently. Some games they show up others they don’t. For a whole we allowed the Cincinnati Bengals 225-yards in just rushing and failed to shut down their receivers as well with 189-yards in passing offense that generated another two touchdowns.

If our offense is forced to play catch-up because of turnovers that puts it at a disadvantage, and our defense is forced to take the field one too many times during this game. I feel weather played a factor in this loss as well with the 49ers under Dennis Erickson not getting practice time out in the elements of this stadium prior to this game.

I will attest that this is the hardest I’ve seen the San Francisco 49ers play on a road game. It is unfortunate it took till December for that to happen because these road games are just as important in winning as our home ones are.

I feel the coaching staff has failed in getting this team prepared for the road games we have been on. Obviously this one was a prime example of that with Dennis Erickson not getting the team out on the field for practices and drills.

Turnovers doomed this game right from the beginning and the offensive performances of Jon Kitna, Rudi Johnson, Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick as well. The Cincinnati Bengals defense and its sure handed reaction to fumbles played a big part in them winning this game. We had opportunities to squeeze the score but our defense needed to stop the running game and failed to do that resulting in time of possession being a factor against us.

Finally we have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs and our season is but two weeks from over. A sad time indeed for all 49er fans all around the world, because we started with such great expectations and very talented personnel.

It is unfortunate that we will not be seeing our team play in January. But we must look ahead already to next year with free agency that will determine our future and the NFL draft as well. Also I would like to apologize for not getting an article done last week following our victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

I had family issues including an emergency and I had work related problems that barred me pretty much from making my deadline in getting an article completed. I always try my best to get an article out every week so that great readers like yourselves will stay informed and form your own opinions as I do. Let’s really look at enjoying our last two games of the season and let’s pray for our first road win against Philadelphia for this season.

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.


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