Amid all the noise Sunday – the collective sound and fury of the 68,000-strong Seahawks’ “12th Man,” the ugly snapping of NaVorro Bowman’s right knee, the mass breaking of a million 49ers’ hearts – did anyone hear the 49ers’ window of opportunity slamming shut?
In the three years of the Jim Harbaugh Era, the 49ers have gone to the NFC Championship Game, the Super Bowl and the NFC Championship Game again, and fallen short each time.
Valiant efforts, for sure, but was this the last great opportunity for this group of 49ers to go all the way?
After losing to the Seahawks 23-17 Sunday, squandering an early 10-0 lead, the 49ers may have blown their last, best chance of capturing the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Maybe the best way for players and fans to go right now is glass-half-full, to appreciate a three-year run that most teams would, and do, die for. Harbaugh’s first three NFL coaching years are the best first three ever.
But it’s going to be hard to shake off the bleakness that set into the 49ers in the cold, gray Seattle fog Sunday evening.
The future is suddenly cloudy. Carrying over greatness from one season to the next is a difficult trick in the NFL. Guys get old, contracts expire, the salary cap cuts up rosters like a machete, luck runs out, injuries pile up, stuff happens.
Big payouts ahead
Running back Frank Gore and defensive end Justin Smith are older and winding down.Anquan Boldin, can’t do without him, is a free agent. Colin Kaepernick will be on the last season of his rookie contract. Harbaugh will be negotiating a contract extension, and who knows how that will go? Could get contentious, considering that owner Jed York, like his uncle Eddie DeBartolo, does not lose well.
One might wonder why a coach who wears $8 khakis every day of his life would need more money, but Harbaugh’s agent will go toe-to-toe with young Jed.
The 49ers will be moving into a pretty new stadium, but with what kind of team, with what prospects?
Meanwhile, it’s time to sift through the wreckage of another beautiful season that ended ugly.
The second-guessers have lit their torches and picked up their pitchforks. The 49ers had one last gasp, going down in flames on a Kaepernick pass into the deep right corner to Michael Crabtree.
For many, it was a jolt of deja vu-vu-vu-vu. The 49ers lost last year’s Super Bowl when Kaepernick failed to connect with Crabtree on three similar fade routes into the same corner.
Yes, Crabtree was the No. 1 option on that play, and Kaepernick said he was going to his favorite target all the way, last year’s finish be damned. Tight end Vernon Davis, a touchdown machine, was open at about the 5.
“When I saw the matchup (cornerback Richard Sherman on Crabtree), I thought we were going to score on the play,” Kaepernick said, adding, “I was going there.”
– Scott Ostler, San Francisco Chronicle
Jim Harbaugh’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard-line, after the disappointment of the second-quarter touchdown reversal via replay in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game spoke Richter-scale volumes louder than anything the vaunted 12th Man of the Seahawks did all day.
Sadly, it wasn’t enough to negate the phenomenally shoddy work of the 13th Man throughout and Colin Kaepernick’s fourth-quarter follies.
As you read this, the Seahawks are likely sizing the ring fingers of every man who worked the title game in vertical, black-and-white stripes, and someone is fitting Kaepernick for goat horns that fit over his Beats.
The confidence Harbaugh’s call exuded in an offense that had come up empty so many times against the suffocating Seattle red-zone defense was exactly what every man on the roster needed, right when they needed it, and despite coming as early as it did in a game that more than lived up to its considerable hype, for a good long time it felt like the key to getting the 49ers back to the Super Bowl.
It’s why players love playing for Harbaugh, and they made damn sure they didn’t make him look foolish for scoffing at an easy field goal and what would have felt like a tenuous six-point lead.
Oh, but what the football gods give, they do seem to enjoy taking away, and when Mike Iupati suffered a game-ending injury on the play, a quiet sense of dread was ushering into the collective psyche of the Niners.
San Francisco’s inability to do much on offense for the rest of the first half and early in the second illustrated just how important Iupati is to the 49ers’ attack, but it was more than that. It erased the bulletproof swagger with which the Niners had been carrying themselves for weeks.
The Seahawks’ first drive of the second half was a massive mental kidney shot, too, as Public Enemy No. 1, Marshawn Lynch, finally started to break free. When he eventually broke through to tie up the game 10-10 and bring the electric crowd right back into the equation, the contest started anew with about 25 minutes to play.
What an excruciating 25 minutes it was.
Loo, when Jonathan Goodwin temporarily saves your ass with a fumble recovery, you know you’re in for a bumpy ride. And though Anquan Boldin belatedly announced his presence shortly thereafter with an oh-so-Anquan touchdown catch to reverse momentum, let’s be honest, Niners fans.
Did that TD settle your nerves? Probably not. Doug Baldwin’s ensuing kickoff return proved what everyone watching already knew: The Seahawks weren’t going anywhere. You simply don’t earn home-field advantage in the NFC, out of the fearsome NFC West, without being one hell of a complete team.
The same compliment, of course, can be paid to the team that entered the game on the heels of three consecutive big-balls road wins, and holding the ‘Hawks to a field goal after Baldwin’s return deep into Niners territory was elephantitis personified.
By then, though, the dispiriting pattern had been established. Back and forth, back and forth, an unfortunate call left, an unfortunate call right, bleeding cuticles all around.
– Mychael Urban, San Francisco Examiner
Two men left the 49ers locker room walking with crutches, one with a mangled knee, one with a broken ankle.
Jim Harbaugh, the head coach, was talking to the media about the game being “a 15-round fight” that his team lost in the final round.
Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback, was quietly saying he cost the 49ers a victory and taking the blame.
Patrick Willis, the linebacker, was relating how it felt to hear the painful screams of teammate NaVorro Bowman after his ghastly knee injury, explaining: “I didn’t even care where the ball was, I was like, man, get out here and come help him.”
There is nothing quite like the velvet hush and sad exit door of a losing locker room after a playoff game. And the 49ers owned that room here Sunday. Emotion overwhelmed all else, as it always does. The football details almost seemed petty.
So go ahead. Be picky. Point fingers. You might. You can.
But anyone who wants to accuse the 49ers of collapsing Sunday in the final quarter because of some flaw in their makeup … well, you should have been down on the field in the middle of the noise tornado with two football teams laying their spleens on the field and punching them until the spleens turned purple.
This was a wicked, awful, great, exhausting and horrible game for both the 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks in terms of the toll on their bodies. The 49ers lost Bowman to an apparent torn left ACL and guard Mike Iupati to a broken left ankle. And they were on the wrong side of the 23-17 score. But they did not crash and burn. The 49ers failed ambitiously.
“You don’t want to turn the ball over, but you can’t play timid,” said wide receiver Anquan Boldin. “You have to go out there and play football. And let the chips fall where they may.”
So the chips fell. The 49ers offense went for it twice on fourth down and made it. Good chip. But on defense, they over-pursued Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch and gave him an opening for a 40-yard touchdown run. Bad chip.
And with 22 seconds left, Kaepernick went for the whole casino and tossed a ball into the end zone to give receiver Michael Crabtree a chance for a winning score. But instead, the pass was batted into the air by Seattle defensive back Richard Sherman and then grabbed by Seahawks teammate Malcolm Smith. Game-deciding chip.
– Mark Purdy, San Jose Mercury News