Reality bites, and we all try to duck it, but it is there in our faces and we must acknowledge it.
That is the lesson rammed home by a Christmas eve 42-13 shellacking by a division opponent on the rise: the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks controlled the game from the first kickoff and did not allow the 49ers a touchdown until the last two minutes of the game—probably out of sheer concern for a second-year coach and quarterback about to go home with their tails between their legs.
And it was Coach Jim Harbaugh's 49th birthday. Some birthday present.
The Hawks were superior in every phase of the game, including special teams play. A stronger defense, more efficient offense, superior coaching and a more prepared and amped-up team outclassed and out-muscled the 49ers.
The 49ers are not the strongest team in the NFL, the NFC or even in the NFC West. The Seattle Seahawks now hold that title.
The future is that the 49ers will meet their nemesis again in the playoffs. The result is now predictable.
Changing Horses Midstream
Colin Kaepernick, the much-touted wunderkind to whom Coach Harbaugh gave the keys of the Niners offense midseason, looked like an outmatched rookie. His bullet passes fell to the ground. His speedy feet were suddenly made of mud. The crowd noise clearly rattled him. Oh, and yeah—it was raining.
There was some questioning of Coach Harbaugh's decision to bench Alex Smith after he was held out for a couple of weeks with a concussion. It is not normal in the NFL to replace players because of an injury. The old Wild West adage that one must get right back up onto the horse that threw him pretty much rules in the NFL.
Also, the prospect of switching the leader of a winning team midseason was noted to be unusual, especially in light of the adage, "if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it."
Also, switching quarterbacks midseason tends to throw a team off-kilter, damage player morale and interrupt the timing between quarterbacks and receivers and the offensive line and running backs.
Alex Smith, a quarterback on the verge of winning the top spot among all NFL quarterbacks in efficiency with just seven more passes, was suddenly benched in favor of the younger, more athletic—and more unproven—Kaepernick.
That decision now looks to have been foolhardy.
There is a reason that these decisions are usually made after the season is over. Teams need time and practice to acclimate to the new quarterback’s throws. Receivers need time to learn how the passes will come, where they'll be and at what speed. The new quarterback needs to learn where his receivers will be and when they will be there. The offensive line needs time and practice to get used to a new quarterback’s rhythm.
All of this needs to be practiced until it becomes automatic—muscle memory in action.
Depth, Depth and More Depth
Also of major note is the lack of depth at the defensive front line. Once Justin Smith went down to injury, the line lost its leader, its soul and its ability to stop the opposing offenses. Aldon Smith, sack maven deluxe, was rendered impotent without Justin to help set up sacks. In the 49ers' Dec. 17 win against the New England Patriots, Tom Brady made three touchdowns almost immediately after Justin left the game.
It is also true that the defensive front stays in the game for almost every play. That tires and wears it out. The players need to be spelled from time to time. They need competent backups.
The Hawks rookie quarterback, Russell Wilson, scored almost at will by handing off to Marshawn Lynch for long bursts and passing with almost comical ease. The Hawks ran roughshod over a highly touted defense, making 11 of 13 third downs, with one being a kneel-down at the end of the game.
The Hawks showed they had better players, a deeper bench, better coaching and a better 12th man in the stands. They are also peaking at the right time in the season.
Injuries did play a part, but mostly after the tenor of the game had been established in the first drive of the game. It is also an NFL truism that injuries tend to occur more often when a team is losing. Injuries will, however, have a major effect during the playoffs. Even currently injured players who return to play will be dinged—a bit slower, a bit "off their feed."
The Niners have their work cut out for them. They need to draft and dip into free agency to strengthen both the defensive and offensive lines. They need more depth at cornerback. And they need a competent backup for quarterback after a weakness was exposed by Kaepernick's indecision and inefficiency in the face of a competent defense.
One can safely assume Alex Smith will not be a candidate for that demeaning position.
The 49ers need to target the strengths of the Seahawks, just as the team of the 80s had to tool up to the strengths of the Dallas Cowboys.
The airy belief that the high-flying Niners were on their way to the Super Bowl this year was blasted away Sunday night. They are not ready for prime time yet. Close, but no cigar.
The emperor wears no clothes.
Just wait until NEXT year.
The 49ers, my favorite team, WILL recover and come roaring back.