On Sunday, the Niners traveled to New Orleans to play the resurgent Saints. The Superdome is a place where the Saints enjoy a tremendous homefield advantage, and it is also the place the Niners lost a heartbreaking Super Bowl just over seven months ago.
Given the way the Niners have struggled on offense as of late, and the way the Saints have played on offense, this year, I had a bad feeling about this game. But even I wasn’t prepared for what it turned into–the most damaging regular season loss in my life of Niner-fandom, by a score of 23-20. I’m still furious about the whole thing. Why, you ask? Allow me to explain.
The Adam Walker Award (Player Whose Actions Most Led to Defeat): The Referees
First of all, I hate it when sports fans get all whiny and blame losses on the referees. In my whole life of watching sports, I have seen a lot of shady shit from officiating crews, but there’s only one game that I am 100% convinced was thrown by the referees: Game 6 of the Kings-Lakers 2002 Western Conference Finals.
Otherwise, even when the refs screw you, there are always other things you can point to. That is certainly the case here. The Niners were abysmal on offense, again. They got three of their four scores, including both of their touchdowns, as a direct result of Saints turnovers. They struggled with clock management, as always. And the series of events that led to the winning field goal … well, I’ll get to that. But I feel justifiable in my righteous fury and indignation at the bullshit fourth quarter roughing the passer call on Ahmad Brooks. With the Niners holding to a 20-17 lead, the Saints drove across midfield with less than five minutes left on the clock. On a crucial third down play, Saints QB Drew Brees dropped back to pass, and Niners linebacker Ahmad Brooks came roaring around the corner and crashed into Brees, forcing a fumble that Patrick Willis recovered. Ball game. Until the flags came in. Roughing the passer. Fifteen yards. First down. Now, I get that referees feel like they have to protect quarterbacks, but look at this still shot of the hit:
Brooks hit Brees high, but he didn’t hit him in the head. It was close to the neck, but when Brooks made contact, his arm was across the top part of Brees’ chest. The hit wasn’t late–Brees had the ball in his hands. It looked like a brutal hit, but you know why that is? Because football is a brutal sport. Ahmad Brooks weighs 260 pounds and he was running as fast as he could into another person BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT FOOTBALL PLAYERS DO. What is Brooks supposed to do, curtsy and politely ask Brees to hand the ball over? I know people probably think I’m biased because I’m a Niners fan, and yeah, I am a bit biased, but I promise you that if this situation were exactly reversed, and a Saints linebacker hit Colin Kaepernick exactly the same way, I would not be crying for a penalty. Because that was a clean hit, and that penalty was fucking bullshit. And instead of the Niners running out the clock, the Saints went on and kicked the game-tying field goal.
The Kyle Williams Award (The Other Player Whose Actions Most Led to Defeat): Colin Kaepernick
Look, I’ve been just about the most vocal Colin Kaepernick supporter on the entire planet. Anyone who suggests that the Niners would be doing better right now if they still had Alex Smith is smoking rocks. But it has to be said, things are not going real well these days. Kaepernick had another subpar outing, looking flustered under pressure, failing to get the ball downfield, and making several poor decisions (more on this in a second). He threw for just 127 yards in this game, and has thrown for fewer yards in the last three games than he did in the season opening win against Green Bay. (Remember that? Back when we still had delusions of grandeur about this season?) I can’t even tell what the problem is: Is it that his receivers don’t get open downfield? Did the team get in his head making him worry about getting hurt, neutering his running ability as a weapon? Is he not as good at reading defenses as we thought? All of the above?
Kaepernick wasn’t alone at all in his responsibility for this loss. Frank Gore dropped a pass that was almost certainly going to turn into a game-sealing touchdown, and the Niners receivers once again disappointed (the broadcast’s most telling graphic: Niners receivers are last in the NFL in catches, yards, and TDs). But Kaepernick contributed mightily to the sequence that ultimately cost the team the game. On the Niners final possession, they were pinned deep in their own territory. On first down, Kaepernick took a sack. On second down, he dropped back to pass and under pressure ran back toward his goal line before throwing the ball away. It probably should have been intentional grounding, and while he was clearly out of the end zone, he was close enough to committing a game-ending safety that you had to wonder what he was thinking. Then, on third and 19 he scrambled to the sideline and came up three yards short of the first down–in the process going out of bounds, which stopped the clock and gave the Saints that much more time to mount a final drive. Now, it’s hard to totally kill a quarterback over this–they’re constantly told to get out of bounds to avoid hits, and Kaepernick especially because the Niners have been so worried about him getting hurt–but this was a monumentally stupid play. When, on the ensuing punt, Kassim Osgood one-upped Kaepernick’s mental mistake by hitting Darren Sproles after he called for a fair catch, drawing a fifteen yard penalty and giving the Saints the ball near midfield, the final drive was a mere formality. The game was over.
The Patrick Willis Award (Lone Bright Spot in a Season That’s Rapidly Falling Apart): The Niners Defense
As much as this post is all about venting my rage about how this team has fallen apart, this needs to be said: The defense is still playing really well. They held the Saints to just 23 points (with six of those coming on late field goals) in the Superdome, a stadium in which, coming into this game, the Saints had gone 5-0 while averaging 35 points per game this year.
This continues a trend of the Niners defense continuing to play well even in losses. They only gave up ten points to Carolina last week. They gave up 29 and 27 in the losses to Seattle and Indianapolis, respectively, but both of those numbers were inflated by the defense getting tired late because they’d been on the field for too much of the game due to the offense’s inability to convert on third down and string together anything resembling a sustained drive. It’s not much to cling to, but don’t let anyone tell you the Niners defense has declined this year. P-Willy and the boys are as badass as ever.
Overall Rating For This Game (On a scale of Zero to Twelve Anchors, in honor of San Francisco’s favorite beverage): 1 bottle of Old Potrero Whiskey
Through ten games, the Niners are now 6-4. Not only is the NFC West title now completely out of a question, but the team is in legitimate danger of missing the playoffs. Carolina is 7-3, has the head-to-head tiebreaker, and is generally looking like a playoff lock and a better version of the Niners; and the Bears, Lions, and Cardinals are all also 6-4. Don’t sleep on the Cardinals: they’ve got a good defense, and the Niners close the season with a game at Arizona, where the Cards play really well. Plus, the Niners still have to host Seattle in two weeks (and I don’t care if that game is at Candlestick or on the fucking moon, if the offense doesn’t get its shit together there is no way this team is beating the Seahawks).
So, because of the frustrating way the loss happened, and because of the damage it did to the team’s playoff hopes, I’d say this is the most damaging regular season loss since the game early in the 2008 season when Brett Favre threw a desperation TD pass on the final play to deal San Francisco a devastating loss. But I think this one is worse, because as awful as that was–and god, do I hate Brett Favre, forever and always–that was a Mike Singletary/Alex Smith Niners team; nobody really believed in them. But we had real Super Bowl aspirations this year. And boy, have those gone up in smoke.
So, given the darkness of this hour, what’s the beverage of choice? A little-known fact for those who aren’t committed booze hounds: San Francisco’s famed Anchor Brewing Company also has a small distillery onsite that makes three kinds of whiskeys. And that loss on Sunday is exactly the sort of loss that will send me into a dark room, by myself, with a bottle of whiskey.
To the domepiece, y’all. Straight to the domepiece.