A day later and after having read pretty much every recap on the internet (Note: that second part definitely isn’t true—the internet is big), I still don’t really understand what happened on Sunday. At no point during that game did I think that the Niners were going to win, and yet somehow the score at the final whistle was Niners 26, Eagles 21. Let us delve into the strangeness.
The Jerry Rice Award (Most Dominant Player on the Field): The Defense
After last week’s depressing loss, I blamed the offensive line and the secondary in equal measure, noting that not only were our DBs not holding up in coverage, but our front seven wasn’t generating any pass rush, further hanging those DBs out to dry. Well, our O-line still sucked today, but what a difference a week makes for the defense. Vic Fangio’s unit held an Eagles offense that came into the game averaging more than 30 points per game to ZERO POINTS (Philly’s three touchdowns came on a blocked punt, a pick-six and a Darren Sproles punt return). What’s more, the Niners didn’t allow the Eagles to even cross midfield until Philly’s penultimate drive—and on that very drive, the D stood up to its greatest test, stopping the Eagles on the one-yard line and forcing a turnover on downs to preserve a tenuous 26-21 lead.
The numbers are staggering. Nick Foles was 21 for 43 for 195 yards and 2 picks, and looked terrible. Shady McCoy, probably the best running back in the NFL now that Adrian Peterson beats children, had just 17 yards on 10 carries. Philly had just 213 total yards, barely more than half of San Francisco’s—and it’s not like the Niners offense was exactly a well-oiled machine in this game. For the first time all season, our secondary looked good—especially Antoine Bethea and Perrish Cox, who picked off Foles’ final pass and also came up with an insane fumble recovery in the second half. And while the Niners only had one sack, they generated a ton of pressure on Foles, thanks to beastly performances from Aaron Lynch, who looked good in the Aldon Smith role, and Justin Smith, who crushed Foles on Bethea’s interception and generally looked like the monster we’ve come to know and love.
Does this mean that the 49ers defense is back to the dominant level we’re used to seeing? Fuck if I know. Frankly, it’s very possible that the Eagles, despite the gaudy stats and 3-0 record they brought into this game, actually suck. I’m not sold on Foles, and as Grantland’s Bill Barnwell pointed out, “The Eagles’ three wins have come over the Jaguars and two teams whose only wins are over the Jaguars.” (Note: Indy won yesterday, so that’s no longer strictly true.)
Still, after the second-half debacles of the last two weeks, it was an encouraging performance.
The Jekyll and Hyde Award (Schizophrenic Player Whose Inconsistent Performances Are Probably Going to Put Me in the Grave): Colin Kaepernick
The pick-six Kaep threw to Malcolm Jenkins was one of the worst throws you’ll ever see. It was Romo-esque, a throw that has you screaming “NO!” the moment it leaves his hands. But then again, the throw to Frank Gore—on which Kaep scrambled nearly to the left sideline, then turned and, off the wrong foot, across his body, fired a ball all the way back across the field to a wide open Gore—is also a throw that has you screaming “NO!”, a throw that basically no quarterback at any level should ever make. And that one turned into a 55-yard touchdown. Am I going to give you a GIF of that play? You’re goddamn right I am.
Just sheer insanity. The truth is, Kaep looked like shit for a lot of this game. There was a guy in the bar where I watched the game who started calling for Alex Smith. (Note: That guy is a fucking idiot.) Some of these struggles are on Kaep, and some of them are on the offensive line, which gave up four sacks and seems like they maybe don’t like their QB, because otherwise why are they letting the large men on the other team hit him so much? But he did get some help from players like Gore—who rushed for 119 yards in addition to that awesome TD—and our next award winner.
The Dwight Clark Award (Player Who Makes an Insanely Athletic, Clutch Touchdown Catch): Stevie Johnson
I was a huge fan of the trade for Stevie Johnson this offseason, and while he only caught one ball today, it was a HUGE catch. Midway through the third quarter, the Niners drove deep into Eagles territory, but looked like they were once again going to stall in the red zone and settle for a field goal. But on third down from the twelve-yard line, Kaepernick rolled left and saw Johnson in the front corner of the end zone. He zipped the ball high and to the outside, where the defender would have no shot at the ball. Really, no mere mortal wide receiver should have had a shot at this ball either, but Johnson reached up and caught it, somehow keeping the tiptoes of both feet inbounds. Touchdown.
Ye gods, what a catch. That’s what we got for a fourth-round draft pick, y’all.
The Reverse Emmitt Smith Award (Most Beloved Opponent): Randall Cunningham
I don’t feel particularly strongly about the Eagles, but I must admit a slight soft spot for them, because the late ’80s, early ’90s Eagles employed my favorite non-49er of all time, the great Randall Cunningham. Randall was an evolutionarily superior quarterback, a freak athlete who ran for more than 900 yards in a season, who once had a 91-yard punt in a game, who would leap over defenders to get into the end zone, bounce off linebackers to throw touchdowns. Just watch this video:
Watching Randall play was like watching a video game come to real life (and his character in Tecmo Bowl was the most dominant player in that game, save perhaps the immortal Bo Jackson). I loved Randall so much that when I was a kid I had a No. 12 Cunningham Eagles jersey—and I’ve never even been to Philadelphia. One of the reasons I’m such a staunch Kaepernick supporter is that when Kaep is playing well, he gives Niners fans a little taste of what it’s like to have the Cunningham magic in our lives. Keep scramblin’, Randall.
The Al Davis Award (dysfunctional football team): The Santa Clara Raiders
Not all my thoughts on this game are happy. As I’ve mentioned several times, the offensive line was not good. The pick-six, not good. The blocked punt and the Sproles punt return for touchdowns? Not good. The ten penalties for 80 yards, not good. The wasted timeouts—especially the insane Kaepernick timeout on fourth down before a punt—not good (though the wasted timeouts in general are a trademark of the Harbaugh 49ers). The decision to run Gore straight up the middle on third-and-five when the Eagles still had one timeout, thus letting Philly get the ball back with a minute and a half left? Not good. There was still a lot of Santa Clara Raiders behavior in this game.
Overall Rating For This Game (On a scale of Zero to Twelve Anchors, in honor of San Francisco’s favorite beverage): 4 Anchors
A loss in this game would have put the Niners at 1-3, further burying them in the NFC, and would surely have incited a cacophony of howling among Bay Area fans and media this week. So it’s good that didn’t happen. On the other hand, I’m still not sure this team is actually good. It’s possible to make the playoffs by simply sucking less than other teams, but that’s not really a good way to go about trying to win a Super Bowl.