Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Thoughts on the 2014 NFC Championship & 49ers offseason

For the third consecutive year the San Francisco 49ers literally came a few plays from either going to the Super Bowl, or winning it all. Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks was particularly brutal because of NaVorro Bowman’s devastating injury, the favorable hometown calls to the Seahawks that could have had a significant impact on the game’s outcome (I counted at least four bad calls by the two-footed zebras), and the fact that the Niners season was lost again in the right side of the end zone with an opportunity to win the game at the last seconds. Though I now admittedly straddle some nether region between cheerleader, admirer, and bandwagon fan (I don’t know what to call it; any suggestions are welcome), Sunday evening was a time I, a long-time Oakland Raider fan, had pity for Niners fans. To come so close to that shimmering shooting star only to see it slip away, yet again; it must be devastating. With my Raiders, I’ve become accustomed to knowing that they will suck so I haven’t experienced such a blow of dashed hopes since the beginning of 2003 when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ran roughshod over us in the Super Bowl (aka The Tijuana Bowl). Sunday’s third straight close-but-no-cigar loss for the Niners inevitably makes one question if Lord Tennyson was right when he wrote: “Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.”

Anyway, I’ve ruminated a bit on the loss, especially since it was such a battle with various potential turning points (which I’ll discuss here). As a fan of the game, that’s what will make the 2014 NFC Championship go down as a classic—the fact that there were several key plays that could have swung the outcome of the game. Here, in little logical organization, are some of the post-game thoughts I had bouncing around my head:

Seattle won because their secondary outplayed the Niners defensive backs.

This game produced several elements that literally decided the game, but I felt like this was the most glaring (with the exception of Kaepernick’s decision-making and game-managing prowess versus Russell Wilson’s). A couple of ways of thinking about this:

1) If the Niners defense had the Seattle secondary, there’s no way the Seahawks would have won.
2) If the Niners defense had the Seattle secondary, there’s no way Russell Wilson and his offensive unit would have scored more than 17 points (or 10 points for that matter).
3) If the Niners had a shutdown corner like Richard Sherman, they would have won.

From what I observed, the Niners front seven played well enough to win the game. They produced four sacks, one intentional grounding (should have been at least two, from what I remember) and lots of pressure on the fleet-flooted and cagey Wilson; minus the 40-yard run by Marshawn Lynch they bottled him up, too, especially in the first half.

17 of Seattle’s 23 points was on the Niners' defensive backs (I thought Fangio dialed up a brilliant defensive game):

-The long pass to Doug Baldwin to set up Seattle’s field goal in the first half seemed to be on Das Hitner, who somehow allowed Baldwin to dash past him to haul in a long pass from Wilson on a broken play.

-Sure, Marshawn Lynch and his O-line did a great job, but Eric Reid took a bad angle on Lynch in the open field that could have stopped that 40-yard touchdown rumble.

-Jermaine Kearse—another undrafted free agent wide receiver for the Seahawks—outpositioned Carlos Roger on a fuck-it, let’s-chuck-it toss into the end zone after Aldon Smith jumped offside. (Sure, Smith deserves blame for that, but a superior defensive backfield should not have allowed a touchdown like that; if it’s a pass to Megatron, Boldin, or Julio Jones, okay, acceptable, but Jermaine Kearse? Come on.)

Why didn’t Jim Harbaugh call timeout with first down from the 18 with thirty seconds to go?
It was kind of the single most important play of the Niners’ season. Remarkably, they had two timeouts left. Why didn’t Harbaugh and his eight-dollar Walmart khakis burn one to collect his team, take a breath, have that little bit of extra time to really think through what play(s) they were going to call, and what next play they would call depending on the outcome of the first down play? I know the Niners had momentum at that point; they had the Seattle defense on the run, but with a young-still-maturing quarterback in a hostile, hostile road environment, why didn’t they chill and call a timeout there?

With his talents and Russell Wilson’s poise, decision-making, and wits, Colin Kaepernick and the Niners would have won.
And they might possibly be unstoppable. But that’s not the case, which makes Kaepernick, in my humble opinion, the most intriguing quarterback to watch.

Speaking of Kaepernick, am I the only one who thinks his pre and postgame interviews are reminiscent of Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison?

It's probably the backwards hat that does it for me. But to Kaep’s credit, he took question after question after question from the media after that brutal loss. Maybe he was numb from the loss of another huge game, but I admire him for sticking in there and taking every question fired at him. Postgame interviews like these must be some form of hell.

But that said, how could Kaep have possibly thought that a jump ball to Crabtree vs. Sherman by the right side of the end zone was his best match up?
He still had thirty seconds. He still had two timeouts. He still had Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin to throw to. Why would he not hesitate to throw all his chips in on a dangerous, dangerous throw into double-coverage to his weakest receiver in terms of out-muscling a guy for the ball?

If I were a Niner fan, that level of decision-making is what frightens me the most about Kaepernick. Like Brett Favre, he has this Superman-complex where he thinks he can make every crazy-difficult throw when sometimes it just isn’t the wisest thing. Especially with thirty seconds left. On first down. With two timeouts left.

If the Niners have any hope of toppling the Seahawks next year, this is the area where Kaepernick needs to improve.

Speaking of that first down with thirty seconds left in the game, what was with Greg Roman’s playcalling in the second half?
Throughout the year many Niners faithful have continually questioned Roman’s play calling. Typically, it is critical of how Roman seemingly under-utilizes Kaepernick. In large part, I haven’t been a part of these off-with-his-head pleadings from Niners fans, but let me join that friendly discussion after this game. I’ll contribute with some questions in bulletpoint form:

• Why were their less rushing plays for Kaepernick in the second half?
• Unless I’m wrong and didn’t see this play or register it, why didn’t the Niners attempt at least one deep pass to Vernon “I’m 6’3, 250 pounds and run a 4.4 40-yard dash” Davis to keep Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor honest with their deep coverage, to help stretch the field for the Niner offense? (It’s like Roman conceded, before the game kicked off, that they wouldn’t be able to throw deep, so they played into a mostly short passing attack, which largely played into Seattle’s hands.)
• Why didn’t the offense try to exploit Boldin’s height and beastly-size advantage when he was lined up against the 6’1 Bryon Maxwell with an isolation jump ball or two? (Don’t they remember what Boldin did in the playoffs last year?)
• Remember when Roman used to run those cute jumbo formations with extra linemen and tight ends in Alex Smith’s last year? Why didn’t he try that a few times against the Seahawks defense, especially in the second half when they’re presumably a bit more tired? That could’ve negated that almighty advantage they have with their secondary composed of late-round draft finds, no, or am I dreamer?

Onward to next year:
Going into the draft, after this game I can’t help but think the Niner’s priorities are in the following order: CB, WR, and DL (Justin Smith isn’t finding the Fountain of Youth at 34). Reid’s a rookie; he should get even better. Whitner’s a smaller version of Chancellor, so if Seattle can make a strong safety like him work for a championship-level secondary, why can’t the Niners?

I think CB has to be priority. They need an upgrade at that position. If the Niners had a shutdown corner, they would have probably won this game at CenturyLink Field. They’d probably be favorites to win it all next year (albeit with their current roster). The Niners needed to hold the Seahawks to less than 20 points to win this game on the road, and they failed in large part because an undrafted free agent not named Victor Cruz but Doug Baldwin put up 106 yards on 6 catches. That’s not a worthy performance for a championship-level defense. Fact (as Brian Wilson would say). And maybe the Niners need to draft or sign a battering-ram-type running back to wear the Seahawks front-seven down? (Unless Marcus Lattimore can fill that role.)

And since we’re on the subject of how the Niners can keep pace, let alone surpass the Seahawks, I think it comes down to their drafting and development of those two positions: cornerback and wide receiver. Thus far, Trent Baalke has shown he can’t draft and develop a good wide receiver, so that’s a problem. But so far, it looks like Seattle might have a similar deficiency in that department.

But when it comes to defensive backs, sweet baby Jesus there’s a disparity between these two franchises. Seahawk GM John Schneider and Pete Carroll seem to be god-given nuclear arms manufacturers with their Legion of Boom while Baalke and Harbaugh are firing back with a Smith & Wesson. It’s absolutely fucking remarkable (Niners fans: insert your PED jokes here):

-5th round picks: Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor
-6th round pick: Byron Maxwell (who, from what I’ve seen, would be the top CB on the Niners, which is scary because he’s supposed to be their nickel back)
-Undrafted free agent: Brandon “I’m Juiced! (and It's Not Skittles!)" Browner

Only fool they really invested in, as far as the draft, was Earl Thomas with a first round pick. That’s just fucking insane, reminds me of Jimmy Johnson’s early drafts with the Cowboys. (There I go, rubbing in some more salt to the wound, right?)

The Niners need to reverse this trend or they’re going to be running second to the Seahawks for a long time.

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