It’s been three full days. It’s time to come out from under the covers and read about what went wrong – and some of what went right – for the 49ers in the 23-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.
Here’s an abbreviated review of the game’s key elements after watching both the broadcast and the “All-22” film, which provides a bird’s-eye view of the game.
Let’s start at the end, with the fateful and much-scrutinized throw to Michael Crabtree. Both Seattle safeties were to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s left on the play. Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and Quinton Patton all ran routes to that side of the field. Patton hung around in the flat as a safety valve. He was open, but a throw to him would have gained maybe 5 yards. Kendall Hunter, who replaced Frank Gore for the final five plays, ran a short pattern that also would have resulted in a minimal gain.
All of this meant that Crabtree was lined up one-on-one with Richard Sherman to Kaepernick’s right. Kaepernick saw this right away and acknowledged afterward that he had no doubt where he would throw the ball. The question is, was it the right read? Against any other team, the answer is yes. If you have a top pass catcher like Crabtree in single coverage, you throw his way.
Sherman’s remarks after the game – and obnoxious as the delivery was, they were worthwhile ones – essentially asked why the 49ers would stay away from him throughout the contest but try to attack him at the most critical moment? It was no fluke that the Seahawks had safety help on one side of the field and left Sherman alone on the other. They did that all season, and Sherman won the rare instances in which teams challenged him. He led the league with eight interceptions in the regular season.
Going after Sherman was, at best, an aggressive move and, at worst, an exercise in bad judgment. Being aggressive is what the 49ers – and most of the time, their fans – like about Kaepernick. It’s what separates him from his predecessor, Alex Smith. He threw a daring pass to a trusted but well-covered receiver, Boldin, in the third quarter that resulted in a touchdown. The ball went through safety Earl Thomas’ fingers into Boldin’s hands.
The bottom line when it comes to Kaepernick’s final throw of the 2013 season is that he made a calculated and aggressive gamble against Sherman and he lost the bet.
• There’s been a lot of hand wringing about Gore, who averaged just 1.3 yards a carry. On five of his 11 carries, he either was held for no gain or dropped for a loss. That’s typical early in games. The difference is that Gore didn’t break anything big later in the game like Marshawn Lynch – he averaged 2.8 yards a carry in the first half – did for the Seahawks.
• The Seahawks’ longest offensive play was a 51-yard pass from Russell Wilson to Doug Baldwin. It was a vintage Seahawks play in that Wilson had to scramble from pressure, created some room and spotted Baldwin streaking down the middle of the field. What had to be exasperating for the 49ers when they watched the play later is that they had it covered. Both Donte Whitner and Eric Reid were deep. But they seemed to be captivated with what was happening with Wilson 50 yards away and allowed Baldwin to run between them.
• There were other mistakes, including on special teams. LaMichael James hadn’t had a muffed punt since Nov. 25 but nearly had a colossal one early in the game that a teammate recovered. The 49ers also gave up three kickoffs for a combined 109 yards, including a 69-yard return by Baldwin. In a tight, defensive game, those are the type of plays that prove to be the difference. On Baldwin’s return, Phil Dawson’s kick appeared to be low and the Seattle blockers simply got a helmet on the 49ers’ Darryl Morris and Dan Skuta, who were closest to making a play.
• The player of the game was Seattle safety Kam Chancellor, who had one of the two interceptions of Kaepernick. Chancellor is the Seahawk who knocked Vernon Davis out of the game in Seattle in 2012. The 49ers are very aware of where he is. He thumped Davis again Sunday, dislodging the ball in the process. He also caused Crabtree to alligator-arm a short pass on the 49ers’ final drive.
• For the 49ers, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Glenn Dorsey stood out for San Francisco. The Defensive Player of the Year award could come down to Bowman and Sherman. You probably know who the winner would be.
• From the shoulda-woulda department: On third down in the third quarter, Kaepernick did a marvelous job of escaping the Seattle defense and buying time as he ran to the right sideline. His last-second throw to Gore or Boldin – both were in the vicinity – was too low and fell incomplete. If he had looked further downfield, he would have seen Patton streaking across the field from the other side with no safeties behind him.
• On the first play of the 49ers’ final drive, James took the handoff, ran wide and seemed prepared to throw it back to Kaepernick. It’s a good thing he didn’t. Linebacker K.J. Wright sniffed out the trickery and didn’t pursue the play like the 49ers had hoped.
It was a gutsy call at that point in the game, one that would have been legendary had it worked. The Seahawks probably were suspicious of why James got his only carry at that particular point in the game and knew something fishy was afoot. You have to wonder if Gore had been given the ball whether the Seahawks’ antennae would have been raised. Gore, of course, may have been dealing with a broken finger on his right – throwing – hand at that point. And that may have been why James got the call.