Article Title: Misery in inches and yards.
One game out from the division leading Seattle Seahawks the 2006 San Francisco 49ers traveled to the Edward Jones Dome to face the St. Louis Rams for the second time this season. This was a game the coaches and the players had prepared for with great expectations to change the ever-downward spiral of road depression the 49ers are so accustomed to.
With: 29 seconds left in the game St. Louis Rams quarterback Marc Bulger hit wide receiver Kevin Curtis in the end zone to negate the four point lead coveted by San Francisco 49er head coach Mike Nolan for the game concluding victory 20-17 Rams.
San Francisco 49er fans are outraged and completely infuriated at the context of this game. Some have legitimate complaints and questions for this coaching staff and the personnel it oversees.
To be standing on the brink of something truly special to have a shot at maybe winning our division and watching it disintegrate right before our very eyes is very frustrating and ultimately heartbreaking enough for those that clung to that tiny bit of hope.
From careless mistakes to missed opportunities to bad officiating once again, we suffered the gauntlet of misfortunes all over again that we are so familiar with on this season. Of the five victories we hold within this division all have been won on our chests with great perspiration and shallow beats of the heart cavity.
We have won games by very small margins and lost even larger than life has to offer us. Yes we are a young aspiring football team ravaged from the fangs of the dreaded salary cap from bad administrations gone by, but there comes a time in any development that you have to say; “enough is enough.”
Frank Gore’s ankle contusion thought sprain in the fourth quarter of this game was devastating to our focus. Because it seems to me that our team is dysfunctional in so many ways when he is out of the lineup for any great length of time. He came out of the game and Maurice Hicks was inserted along with Michael Robinson on a critical third-and-one play from the St. Louis seven-yard line with (4:20) left in the game.
When Michael Robinson was stuffed just short an inch from converting a first down, the decision to not go for it on fourth down and a mere inch rested with Mike Nolan. In fact when you look at the replay and the spot of the ball again I feel we were robbed yet again by the same Robin Hood officiating crew we had when Philadelphia came to town.
Prior to this situation back in the first quarter on a St. Louis Rams offensive drive at midfield, Marc Bulger connected with veteran wide receiver Torry Holt being shadowed by 49er cornerback Walt Harris.
Walt Harris was able to reach around and punch the ball out as Holt cradled the ball and turned to go up field. The ball was clearly fumbled in all aspects of vision and Harris picked up the ball and ran 50-yards into the end zone for a would-be touchdown, only to have it stripped away by a challenge which reversed the call as Holt never having possession.
Nothing about this call makes any sense. Again it seems like a big dark cloud hangs over this team with league officiating crews, this one in particular. It is enough to make anyone sane to be insane. Seasons are reversed because of bad calls and everyone on the team including its fans are the ones that suffer the most.
Going back to the fourth quarter and the fourth and inches situation at the St. Louis Rams seven-yard line one has to contemplate rather Mike Nolan really made the correct and only call he could have made. Was it illogical to go for it with just one inch to go, staring into the end zone for a possible touchdown?
So many of us wanted Mike to make the bold and brash statement that we are fully capable of securing the first down and putting seven points up on the board, rather than settling for three.
But when you analyze where we were at and what we had seen from the St. Louis Rams the questions about the call became more defined. In the heat of the moment the heart says to, “go for it,” but the mind is racing to justify it as well.
The greatest show on turf being the prolific tandem of St. Louis Rams wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt makes you beg to differ on this as well. Because in all conscience you have to believe that these two lethal offensive weapons combined with the running ability of a Steven Jackson can ultimately put up any number of points at any turn within the games framework.
I knew this as the call was being decided. What are we doing not going for it? Doesn’t Mike know what these St. Louis Rams are capable of offensively? Why not instill some form of confidence in our offensive line and just go for it, go for the kill?
But the facts of the matter were these: Frank Gore was injured and not coming back. Michael Robinson had already failed to establish a first down already. The St. Louis Rams would be behind by four points making it necessary for them to convert a touchdown to win. Our defense was still capable of stopping them based on what they had done in three straight victories thus far.
There you have it folks. Justifiable evidence that Mike Nolan based his decision to kick a 24-yard field goal rather than take a risk and botch any kind of lead at all. Many 49er fans are unforgiving of him on this call and his poll numbers show a dramatic drop in popularity with his fans based upon this call.
Some of us brand Mike Nolan as being too conservative, but others see him as an analyst of practical situations and bases his decisions on what is presented to him on the field and from experiences. In my personal opinion I feel Mike Nolan made the best analytical decision based upon what he had for information and from the way the game was being played.
“I thought we’d been playing well, go up by four, they’d have to score a touchdown,” Nolan said of his reasoning on going for the field goal. “The game dictates a lot of decisions. If it was as clear (a decision) as saying 4th-and-1, you go for it, everyone would do my job, and it’s not. The three points makes it a touchdown game. I wouldn’t change anything. I would like to see us get it on third down.”
Going up 17-13 with 3:54 left on the clock was still a risk. Anyone would be dumb to think otherwise in doubting what St. Louis Rams quarterback Marc Bulger was fully capable of doing with the offensive firepower he always has at his disposal. The victory in this game hung in the balance upon the arm sleeves of our defense and almost four minutes to play was way too long.
Like a magician even after being sacked for a loss of 10-yards by veteran defensive end Bryant Young, Marc Bulger drove his team for 80 total yards down the field with the assistance of a delay of game penalty to annihilate that four point lead and win this one 20-17 with 21 seconds left to play in the game.
I was disgusted by the play of 49er nickel back Marcus Hudson and not getting up off the pile of humanity as the clock ticked away and a penalty flag was thrown. He made a careless rookie mistake and when you look at the replay evidence clearly shows him taking his time to get up.
On this offensive drive of 3:27 from Marc Bulger the Rams even converted on two fourth-and-one situations on the very legs of Steven Jackson who accumulated 121 total yards on the day for a 5.3 yard average per carry and a 36-yard scamper for a touchdown all on top of that.
In other words, we got “jacked up,” by Steven Jackson in every literal sense, because we couldn’t stop the run like our defense had been doing in three straight victories. He legitimized the St. Louis Rams victory in this because our defense against the run wasn’t executing the way it should’ve been.
Steven Jackson managed to roll-up 103 of his rushing yards just in the first half alone. On top of that he caught nine total passes for another 71 yards. He was every bit of a Frank Gore in this game except he was on the wrong team.
“He’s no world-beater by any means,” defensive end Marques Douglas said. “He’s a cut-back runner. He predicates (his runs) on what the defense does. We have to focus on playing sounder defense.”
Frank Gore had another outstanding day on his own but was depressed following the game and rightfully so after losing to the St. Louis Rams. Frank carried the ball 21 times for 134 yards for 6.4 yards a carry and one touchdown. He spoke to reporters in the locker room and was frustrated with his injury that prevented him from returning to the field.
Another damaging penalty that we incurred right before halftime was on a St. Louis Rams offensive drive with 32 seconds left to play and Marc Bulger threw a pass intended for Torry Holt when 49er cornerback Walt Harris intercepted the ball. The call was negated after a penalty flag was thrown for 49er defensive end Roderick Green was ruled for defensive offside.
Yet even earlier in the game a controversial move on Mike Nolan’s part in allowing wide receiver Arnaz Battle to be the punt-return specialist with a broken hand over Brandon Williams proved to be costly. Although he seemed to catch the punt it was instantly punched out from being insecure in his hands and later set-up the 36-yard touchdown run by Steven Jackson.
I cannot for the life of me understand this decision rather it be Mike Nolan or not. I can’t imagine it being a logical move to entrust ball security to someone that has an injured hand already prevalent? Why not allow Brandon Williams assume that role he is accustomed to and has played fairly consistently?
Even though Arnaz Battle was capable why take even further risks? I have a lot of respect for Arnaz Battle and his athletic capabilities and he had a good game with three receptions for 36-yards in this game, but I believe we really were pushing the envelope too far on this particular situation that could have been avoided.
Alex Smith completed only 13-of-25 passes for 148 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Although he wasn’t sacked pressure was everywhere you could’ve imagined especially on the right side where bumbling right tackle Kwame Harris was positioned yet again.
The mediocre statistics that Alex Smith is accomplishing on any given game are becoming more of a concern for me as a fan. I do believe he is progressing just not fast enough in terms of where he should be. He does manage the game well and is able to sustain drives a lot better with a stronger and healthier offensive line.
But his ability to complete more passes and become more of a clutch-type of quarterback are legitimate concerns for me at this time. We need him to connect to more receiving weapons and utilize the tight ends in Eric Johnson and Vernon Davis more. Now both tight ends had receptions in this game with Johnson even securing a touchdown, but it hasn’t been consistent enough to materialize into game changing points.
With Vernon Davis back in the starting lineup after being out with his injury, we can hope that he’ll be the offensive weapon Eric Johnson has been inside his absence. I would hope that this administration would pursue talks even further in securing Eric Johnson over the long term.
I also want to mention that I’m impressed with the signing of an extension for fullback Moran Norris for three more years. He is a definite asset to Frank Gore’s success on the field with his devastating lead blocks. I am hopeful that he’ll try and become more versatile with catching the ball and be the all-around fullback I coveted in Fred Beasley whom I miss to this day.
With New Orleans on the map the sky is still serene with faint hopes of climbing above the .500 barometer to stay competitive right till the end of this season. The high-octane powered offense under Saints quarterback Drew Brees will be a hefty opponent to overcome with a secondary still defined by legitimate weaknesses.
The ability to assert pressure on him next Sunday will be mandatory if we are to have any chance at all in this game. On top of that Alex Smith has to step-up and make more completions to save the wear and tear on Frank Gore’s legs that we all know is becoming more apparent as the season enters its final stages.
Obviously we can’t win a passing game against the New Orleans Saints but we have to do more and compile more yardage then we have been. Time of possession will be critical and we won’t win this game with just Joe Nedney. Let’s hope we all know this collectively.