Six yards from a tying touchdown and with two seconds remaining, Colin Kaepernick said he thought he saw a path to the end zone.
And after he had rushed for more than 100 yards, you couldn’t doubt his instincts. This time, however, two Dolphins defenders closed in quickly, leaving the 49ers quarterback two yards short of the goal line and his team with a 31-24 loss.
“You have to get in the end zone,” Kaepernick said. “Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to. We had a pass play called, stepped up and thought we had a seam to get in there and didn’t make it in.”
The loss was San Francisco’s 10th straight, something even the aging, woebegone squads from the late 1970s or Dennis Erickson’s talent-starved, two-win team from 2004 managed to avoid. The playoffs have long been unrealistic for this year’s team, and as the 49ers finish the season, the most compelling storyline is whether they improve enough to justify another year for the current coaching regime and starting quarterback.
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Against the Dolphins, at least, they were competitive from the opening drive, which Kaepernick ended with an 11-yard touchdown toss to Carlos Hyde, to the final horn.
Following last week’s loss to the New England Patriots, coach Chip Kelly lamented that the 49ers were so lacking in offensive firepower that once they fell behind in the second half, there was no way they could make up the deficit.
They trailed 31-14 early in the fourth quarter Sunday, but this time they didn’t fade away.
Kaepernick was the offense’s most consistent playmaker, scrambling for first downs on seven of his 10 rushing attempts. His 113 rushing yards were the most for any quarterback this season, were more than the Dolphins gained on the ground and marked the fourth time in his career – playoffs included –that he surpassed the 100-yard mark.
As a passer Kaepernick was 29 of 46 for 296 yards and three touchdowns. His 94.1 passer rating would have been higher if not for a third-quarter pass that slipped through wide receiver Torrey Smith’s hands and was intercepted by linebacker Kiko Alonso. An earlier scoring drive was halted when tight end Garrett Celek fumbled at Miami’s 16-yard line. The 49ers have lost 11 fumbles this season, tied for the league lead with the San Diego Chargers.
“I thought they competed,” Kelly said of the 49ers, who committed two turnovers to Miami’s none. “But in this league, when you lose the turnover battle, you’re not going to win … probably not going to win the football game.”
As has been the case the past three weeks, the 49ers’ defense crowded the line of scrimmage in an effort to stuff the opponent’s running game. It worked: Tailback Jay Ajayi finished with only 45 yards, his lowest output since an Oct. 9 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
But as the Arizona Cardinals and Patriots did in previous weeks, the Dolphins seemed to accept that they wouldn’t be able to run the ball effectively and gouged the 49ers through the air instead. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill finished with 285 yards, three touchdown passes and a 130.6 passer rating that tied his season high.
Perhaps the best argument for Kelly this season is that Kaepernick has seemed to improve with every start. His past four passer ratings have been above 89.6, and on Sunday his completion percentage – only 53 percent entering the game – was 61 percent.
On the final play, the 49ers thought the Dolphins would blitz from the edge, in which case Kaepernick would have thrown a quick pass to one of his receivers breaking toward the corner of the end zone. When Miami didn’t bring pressure, Kaepernick decided to keep it and run.
“We’ve got a good football team, but we didn’t win, so I’m not pleased with that,” Kelly said when asked if he was heartened by the comeback. “We’re not into that. We’re trying to win football games. You don’t get participation trophies. We didn’t win.”