The 49ers on Sunday rediscovered the fight and fire that had been missing in recent weeks, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Seattle’s top-ranked defense or an injury bug that continues to bite deeply into their roster.
San Francisco took an early lead thanks to running back Frank Gore, who scored a 10-yard touchdown, and linebacker Chris Borland, who had a game-high six tackles at halftime. But both were sidelined by the contest’s midway point, and the Seahawks and running back Marshawn Lynch methodically took over in the second half, comfortably winning 17-7.
The 49ers’ loss, coupled with a win by the Detroit Lions, means San Francisco isn’t going to the playoffs for the first time since Jim Harbaugh took over as coach in 2011. It also accelerates the discussion of Harbaugh’s tenure with the 49ers.
He has one more year on his five-year, $25 million contract but is expected to move on – either via trade or his release – when the season is over. Asked if he would speak with general manager Trent Baalke and owner Jed York about his future, Harbaugh said, “I’m always available to sit down with the owner or general manger, absolutely.”
Does he expect to sit down with Baalke and York? “Yes, at some point I expect that,” Harbaugh said.
For Harbaugh’s players, there was a mixture of dismay and defiance.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who bounced back from two of the worst performances of his career, said it was hard to imagine playing the last two weeks of the season without having an eye on the playoffs.
“That is our expectation – that we are going to get into the playoffs and make a run,” he said. “To not have that opportunity this year is not something we’re used to.”
He also said he couldn’t figure out why this may be Harbaugh’s final season in San Francisco.
“It’s not something I can fully wrap my mind around – why that would be the situation,” Kaepernick said. “But he has my full support no matter if he is here or somewhere else. I hope he is back here, and I think he’s a great coach.”
Early in the game, Kaepernick and the 49ers broke free of the funk that had gripped them in their last two games. The offense certainly wasn’t efficient, but it played with purpose and passion, and it was dedicated to the running game, something the unit was accused to abandoning too quickly in previous outings.
That included Kaepernick. There were very few designed runs by the quarterback in San Francisco’s Thanksgiving loss to Seattle. On Sunday, however, he rushed nine times for 46 yards, his highest total since Week 4.
Still, it was the fifth straight game in which the 49ers failed to top 17 points and yet another contest in which the momentum of the first half – the 49ers led 7-3 at halftime – vanished in the second.
Seattle’s ferocious defense played a role. So did the fact that six of the 49ers’ eight offensive drives began inside their own 20-yard line.
Attrition may have been the biggest factor. The 49ers entered the game with 17 players – including five would-be starters – unavailable because they were on various injury lists. Five more players were forced to leave Sunday’s game, including starters Borland, Gore and Ahmad Brooks.
Early in the fourth quarter, the 49ers were nearly unrecognizable. Their running back was seldom-seen Alfonso Smith, their tight end was undrafted rookie Asante Cleveland, and the center was Joe Looney, who was making his first start at the position.
Gore left after suffering a concussion at the end of the first half. Then his understudy, rookie Carlos Hyde, was sent to the sideline because of a back problem after he was tackled awkwardly in the third quarter.
“It’s tough,” Kaepernick said. “Those are the players that you turn to in tough times to make plays for us and give the offense a lift and put us in a good situation. Not having them is a tough situation for us.”
Said wide receiver Anquan Boldin: “It is tough when you’re down the way we were. Out two backs. Down to our third center. Down to our second right tackle. So on and so forth. I think we ran out of linebackers as well … . But we’re men. We’re football players.”
Harbaugh said the 49ers’ focus the next two weeks will be continuing to play like professionals, something he said the team accomplished in Seattle.
“I’m very proud of them,” he said. “The effort was plus, plus. They fought like champs.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.