It’s been awhile since 49ers fans have come away from a game more frustrated with the officiating than their own team.
But that was the case Sunday after the Cardinals needed a last-minute drive and a field goal as time expired to escape with a 23-20 win. The key play in the series was a 26-yard throw down the sideline to wide receiver Michael Floyd, who leaped high to snag the ball and came crashing to the ground.
Cornerback Tramaine Brock immediately popped to his feet and signaled that it wasn’t a clean catch.
“I was there. I saw it. It hit the ground,” Brock said afterward of the ball. “But I guess they didn’t have enough evidence to overturn it. … Tough play.”
Indeed, none of the camera angles clearly located the ball, which Brock insists squirted free of Floyd’s grasp as the receiver landed. Arizona ran another nine snaps before kicker Chandler Catanzaro was called in for the 34-yard game winner.
The 49ers hadn’t been this competitive on the road since last year’s overtime win against the Chicago Bears and, early on, it seemed they would fold in this one, too. Early in the second quarter, they trailed 14-0 and had gained only four yards.
But the 49ers found their long-missing fight on Sunday.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick looked more like the dynamic, early-career version of himself than he had in years. He finished 17 of 30 for 210 yards and for the third time in four outings led his team in rushing yards, including a 4-yard touchdown run that tied the score with 1:55 remaining.
“It was a play we drew up that we thought would put the defense in a bind,” said Kaepernick, who hadn’t scored a rushing touchdown since last year’s game in Arizona, a 47-7 loss in Week 3. “They allowed us to get around the edge, get in the end zone. Great feeling to be back in the end zone.”
A defense that had been on pace to set embarrassing franchise records in rushing yards and points allowed also discovered a measure of resolve. They were led by cornerback Jimmie Ward, who broke up four passes and finished with seven tackles, including a second-quarter hit on Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald that sent the veteran wideout head over heels and into his team’s locker room for medical attention.
After forcing just three turnovers in their last five games, the 49ers had four takeaways against Arizona. One came in the third quarter when outside linebacker Eli Harold ran down quarterback Carson Palmer and forced a fumble, the first sack of Harold’s career.
San Francisco also held tailback David Johnson to 55 rushing yards and a 2.9 average. That wouldn’t be remarkable except that a rusher in the previous seven games, including Johnson in Week 5, had run for at least 100 yards against the 49ers.
They’d been on track to allow 3,088 rushing yards this season, the NFL’s most in 36 years. They gave up only 80 on Sunday and are now on pace for 2,887 through 16 games.
“I think our guys were where they were supposed to be,” Chip Kelly said afterward. “I think we had the right fits. Guys battled; we were lined up right.”
So how did the 49ers manage to suffer their eighth straight loss?
While the run defense was solid, Palmer finished with 376 yards through the air. Two Cardinals wideouts – Fitzgerald, who returned to the contest, and Floyd – finished with more than 100 receiving yards.
Kelly also noted that while the 49ers were the NFL’s least-penalized team entering the game, they were flagged nine times for 100 yards Sunday as opposed to two penalties for 10 yards for the Cardinals.
Two of San Francisco’s penalties came on back-to-back plays during a critical sequence late in the third quarter that wiped away 28 rushing yards and knocked the 49ers out of field-goal position. The second call, a holding penalty on center Daniel Kilgore, had general manager Trent Baalke audibly complaining in the press box.
“We would have had an opportunity to at least kick a field goal on that drive,” Kaepernick said. “Hindsight being 20-20, that makes (the score) 23-23 in the worst-case scenario. There’s plays like that, drives like that, where we have to not shoot ourselves in the foot and be able to capitalize and put points on the board.”
Still, Kelly said he was encouraged by the effort.
“I told them I was proud of how they competed,” he said. “But they’re not handing out participation trophies in the National Football League. It’s about wins and losses.”