The San Francisco 49ers finally had the team they wanted at the start of the season yesterday, and they barely escaped Arizona with their 12th win. They built a 17-point lead in the first quarter and looked well on their way to dumping the Cardinals into a plastic roadkill bin, but they were again unable to bring down the guillotine, surrendering the lead in the fourth quarter before coming back to win on the foot of Phil Dawson.
It was a great wake-up call for a team that has struggled to find its identity through 16 games and made many mistakes that nearly caused me to spend Sunday afternoons with my girlfriend.
Let's see if we can determine the kind of blunders the Niners need to avoid next year if they want to play a few postseason games in their new stadium.
Last year the 49ers let their newest toy run wild on the field, and the results were staggering. Their offense moved the ball better than it had in over a decade and nearly averaged 35 points a game in the playoffs.
Fearing for the safety of his stud quarterback, coach Jim Harbaugh flipped on the safety switch, limiting downfield runs and taking away the all-important element of unpredictability that left defenses wobbling and looking completely off balance.
While it wasn't a mistake to limit the use of the read-option, something that teams spent the entire offseason preparing for, not allowing Kaepernick to run on instinct often left the offense paralyzed. Colin stayed in the pocket longer than he should have, and at times he slid several yards short of first-down markers.
Hopefully, Jim Harbaugh will read this and do the right thing next Sunday. Or he'll do what everyone else does and drop an insult in the comment section.
I admit I didn't want the 49ers to give Aldon Smith an early vacation. But it was the right thing to do. The first and foremost concern for any team should be the health and well-being of its players. I read that in a book somewhere, and it's also something my mom taught me when I was a kid.
There's just something about winning that makes wrong feel so right.
But Smith wasn't in any physical state to play days after being arrested for drinking three or four cups of French orange juice and then crashing his car into a tree in the early hours of the morning. The 49ers defense just wasn't the same, and it showed on the field against the Indianapolis Colts, giving up a season-high 184 rushing yards and barely exerting any pressure on quarterback Andrew Luck.
The 49ers eventually did the right thing and sent Smith into rehab, but looking back, the whole situation was an unwanted controversy that contributed to the team's early-season struggles.
This all goes back to what I said in the first slide, where Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman tried to turn Colin Kaepernick into something he wasn't: a pure pocket passer.
After torching the Green Bay Packers for over 400 passing yards in Week 1, the 49ers got a little trigger-happy and barely involved Frank Gore in the offense. Without Michael Crabtree and with Vernon Davis occasionally missing a quarter or two, Kaepernick fired close to 20 blanks per game while his All-Pro running back stood alone in the backfield shaking his head.
Gore verbally spanked his coach after the 49ers' first two-game losing streak, and it's safe to say that worked out pretty effectively. Frank tornadoed his way through the next five games, and the once-stagnant offense suddenly looked unstoppable.
Then against the Carolina Panthers, the 49ers inexplicably stopped handing the ball to Gore even though he gained 60 yards in the first half. That, along with Vance McDonald's crucial drop in the fourth quarter, started the team's second losing streak of the season.
Again, Harbaugh and Roman finally learned their lesson and put the ball in Gore's hands during the final drive against the Seattle Seahawks. Hopefully, they won't forget it in the playoffs.
A game-winning handoff is just as sexy as a game-winning pass.
For some reason, Harbaugh likes to stick with something no matter how awful it is. Turtle necks. Courtroom television.
While it's true that the 49ers were experiencing a receiver shortage earlier in the year, it's baffling why Kyle Williams was allowed to start for so long. Honestly, Bartolo Colon would have been an upgrade.
For the season, Williams caught 12 passes for 113 yards, averaged 5.1 yards per punt return and led the NFL in fair catches. During one four-game stretch, he caught a single pass for all of 14 yards. With Jon Baldwin, Marlon Moore and Quinton Patton on the roster, the 49ers had to make a switch. Why didn't they?
Were they afraid of losing Williams' 10 receiving yards per game? Maybe all those horrific special teams gaffes were priceless. I just like him to make them on another team.
We've seen it time and time again this season. The sight of Colin Kaepernick frantically waving his arms and yelling audibles at the line of scrimmage as the play clock dwindles down to the final seconds. On Sunday the 49ers were whistled for a delay of game penalty during the game's final drive...on a play that came after a timeout.
Despite the criticism and the little notes stuffed into the suggestion box that Harbaugh never reads, Jim has refused to implement any changes, sticking with a system that fails to get the quarterback into any kind of rhythm with the offense. Unless you count the midseason exhibition game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in England, there hasn't been one game where the offense has been in a steady flow for all four quarters. After jumping out to a 17-0 lead yesterday, the Niners didn't score on eight consecutive drives.
You'd think that losing a Super Bowl would convince you to try something different.
Besides Bud Light.