I really have no desire to write this. I haven’t read or listened to any game recaps, and I don’t really intend to. But enough people have told me they enjoy reading these things that I thought perhaps some of you would be looking for it, and besides, if you’re going to crow after a victory, you have to be able to face the music after a defeat. Still, I have no intention of wallowing: I’m going to hand out a few quick awards, and then I’ll do a bit of a season post mortem at the end.
The Bryant Young Award (Inspiring Player Who Suffered a Gruesome Injury): NaVorro Bowman
As I’ve said a couple of times in this space, Bowman was the best player on the team this season. From his complete destruction of the Rams in a critical Week Four matchup, to his epic interception return TD in the Candlestick finale, to his week-in, week-out dominance, he was consistently the team’s best playmaker on either side of the ball all season. He made another brilliant play in the fourth quarter of yesterday’s game, tearing the ball out of Jermaine Kearse’s hands on the one-yard line for what should have been a key turnover. Of course, the incompetent officiating crew blew the play dead, meaning there was no turnover (this ended up being moot, as Marshawn Lynch fumbled on the next play). Even worse than the unconscionable call was that, after he stole the ball, a Seabitches player rolled onto Bowman, twisting his knee in gruesome fashion and reportedly tearing his ACL. Even worse, when Bowman was carted off the field, Seattle fans threw popcorn at him from the stands.
Now, let me say, I have no bias against Seattle. It’s a city that gave us Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and Gary Payton–Sean Kemp alley-oops. The Pike’s Market is cool. The cascades and Puget Sound are lovely. I have good friends who live there, and I have enjoyed my visits. But Seattle football fans? You are the worst kind of degenerate pieces of shit. Please go hang yourselves with your Columbia raingear, you fucking assholes.
The Emmett Smith Award (Most Hated Opponent): Richard Sherman
I haven’t watched his now infamous postgame interview, and I have no intention of doing so. What’s the point? All I really have to say is that I hate that this fucking dickbag was the guy who made the game-deciding play. As my brother Juanito likes to say: Life is pain.
The Box of Chocolates Award (You Never Know What You’re Gonna Get): Colin Kaepernick
It’s hard to know exactly what to say about Kaep’s performance. He ran for 130 yards, giving him his second career 100-yard playoff rushing performance (the same number as every other quarterback in NFL history combined). And it sure seemed that the Niners’ entire offensive game plan was “Kaepernick will run around and make something happen,” to which I have to say, just because your quarterback is Randall Cunningham 2.0 doesn’t mean you should have the same game plan the 1990 Philadelphia Eagles did. Kaep kept the team in the game, especially given that there was no running game at all. (Hey, let’s just have Frank Gore run straight up the middle for no gain again! More on the offensive coaching below.) On the other hand, he did throw two key fourth quarter picks. I’m not really going to blame Kaep for that final throw—as my attorney said to me this morning, if he throws that ball a foot higher, we’re celebrating the best kind of win—except to say that he threw at least two other interceptions this year on the same sort of play, a back-shoulder pass that he underthrew. And the first interception was a carbon copy of the near pick-six he threw in the Wild Card game at Green Bay; the only difference was Seattle’s linebacker caught the ball, and the Packers’ linebacker didn’t. It was a mixed bag of a performance by Kaepernick, in what was a mixed-bag season. More on this in this in a minute.
Overall Rating For This Game (On a scale of Zero to Twelve Anchors, in honor of San Francisco’s favorite beverage): 0 Anchors
At least I get to have my Sundays back for a few months.
Yesterday’s loss was a bitter one, and it leaves a lot of questions about where the team goes from here. I hesitate to say the Niners are at a crossroads here, but we may be rapidly approaching something like that. Teams have much shorter championship windows in the salary cap era, and San Francisco has been the best team in football, cumulatively, for the last three years. And yet, they haven’t managed to win a Super Bowl, because Kyle Williams couldn’t catch a punt, they couldn’t punch the ball in from the five-yard line against a tired Ravens defense, and Kaepernick underthrew a ball by a foot. Actually, check that last one: Does anyone believe that Seattle, so dependent on it’s home field advantage, could have won games at Green Bay, Carolina, and San Francisco to make it to the Super Bowl? I will go to my grave believing the Niners had the more complete team this year, and if the officials hadn’t made that apocalyptically horrible penalty call on Ahmad Brooks in the New Orleans game, we would have had home field and would have beaten the Seabitches and won the Super Bowl.
The first question, then, is, how long will this team’s window remain open? The Niners have most of their core players signed to long-term deals already, and they have a little bit of cap space to work with, but Anquan Boldin, Donte Whitner, and Tarell Brown are all key free agents the team has to make decisions on. Moreover, they have benefitted the last two years from having Kaepernick on his rookie deal. Last year is the final year of that contract, though, and Kaep is going to be up for an extension that is going to seriously alter the team’s cap situation.
How much will a new Kaepernick deal go for? That remains to be seen. It won’t be as big as the disastrous Joe Flacco-level contract he would have gotten if they’d won the Super Bowl and he’d been the game’s MVP, but Kaep’s agent will be able to say that he’s taken a team to the Super Bowl (and he would have been that game’s MVP if the Niners had gotten five more fucking yards) and the NFC Championship in less than two full seasons as a starter, and there are all sorts of advanced statistics that indicate Kaep was better this year than his traditional numbers would suggest. On the other hand, the team can argue that Kaep was inconsistent, that he didn’t put up the numbers that his contemporaries, like Andrew Luck, did. For what it’s worth, I think Kaep was better this year than most people gave him credit for, and I maintain that some of the criticism he’s received is at best ageist and at worst racist. (How much less criticism would he get if he didn’t have tattoos?)
At any rate, the team is probably not going to have a ton of wiggle room to make improvements. And what improvements would they need to make? To me, the two key areas are, once again, the secondary and the receivers. Crabtree came back and should be at full strength next season, but can they afford to bring Boldin back? How much does the 33-year-old receiver have left in the tank? His game’s built more on toughness and hands than on speed, so maybe more than some guys his age would (the best-case analog I can come up with is Cris Carter, a similar sort of player who stayed effective until he was 36). But what kind of contract will he be looking for? And even if the Niners manage to hold onto him, they could sure use a speed receiver (the only stretch-the-field guy they’ve had the last few years has been their tight end, Vernon Davis).
And on the other side, of the ball, can the team improve the secondary, which has been the defense’s weak link the last couple of years? Whitner has been a great run defender and big hitter, but has always been a bit shaky in coverage; what sort of offers will he see as a free agent? Carlos Rogers makes a lot money and by the end of the year was the team’s third-best corner; might he be a candidate to get cut? (With visions of that 40-yard fourth-down touchdown dancing through my head, I’m inclined to say yes.) Can the team re-sign Brown, who put together a solid year? Is Tramaine Brock a legit starter? (I’m inclined to say yes, but how sure are we?) Eric Reid certainly appears to be a foundational piece, but this is the unit the team could most stand to upgrade—and don’t even talk to me about Chris Culliver coming back. When I close my eyes, I still see him staring at the back of Jacoby Jones’ jersey in the Super Bowl.
There are also questions about the backfield: How many more years can Frank Gore fight off Father Time? I love Gore as much as anybody, but he’s got just one year left on his contract, and NFL running backs tend to lose a step without warning. Can Kendall Hunter handle a bigger role? Will LaMichael James ever be a real contributor? The team probably needs to start planning for life after Gore.
Finally, perhaps the biggest question, is what happens with the coaching staff? Harbaugh has two years left on his deal, and it’s pretty obvious he’s going to be angling for an extension that makes him the highest-paid coach in football? Does he deserve that? Three straight NFC Championship Games is a pretty positive argument, but the team has played questionably in a few big games, and Harbaugh is known for being difficult to deal with. Where will Trent Baalke and Jed York draw the line? What’s more, while it’s hard to imagine a better job than the current Niners situation, Harbaugh is also known for being a restless type. Would he jump ship for a team that gave him more control? I don’t see it happening this offseason—there are no desirable jobs left—but it bears watching moving forward.
And then there’s the Greg Roman question. Many Niners fans have conflicted feelings about the team’s offensive coordinator. I am not one of those fans. I was frankly hoping he would get a head coaching job somewhere, because I am pretty disappointed with the offense. How does a team with the weapons the Niners have struggle so badly in the Red Zone (a problem for three years running)? How many times can they send Gore running straight up the middle when it’s clearly not working (how about trying a sweep, guys)? I’ve heard that the Niners would send Kaepernick to the line of scrimmage with three plays called, a possible explanation for all the clock management problems the team had this year (way to make things easy on your young QB, guys). For a guy that’s supposed to be an offensive mastermind, Roman sure seemed to put together a pretty vanilla offense this year. Where was the creativity? How about trying a fucking screen pass once in a while?
This wasn’t a bad season. This team battled through injuries, adversity, and bad luck, and was a very real championship contender. But they didn’t get it done. They should contend again next year, but how many more chances will they get? Having come up short three seasons in a row, the best analog for this team is the early 2000s Donovan McNabb–Andy Reid Eagles, who never quite got over the hump. That sucks.