And they lost big.
But for a team that always expects to win and is after the Vince Lombardi Trophy and nothing else, the only kind of losses are disappointing ones.
Journeying up to the treacherous CenturyLink Field to take on the familiar Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship, they had the tools to get it done, but they just couldn't execute. At the end of the day, it was the 49ers team with growing pains that showed up, not the one that revolutionized the way NFL coaches look at offense.
On top of being a team that just wasn't ready yet, it was self-inflicted wounds that would largely contribute to this loss.
More often than not, the 49ers' fiercest competitor is themselves. With that being said, we're going to take a hard look at the team's last game of the season and reflect on where it's at going forward. Here are the postgame takeaways from San Francisco's NFC title loss.
Everything that hindered the 49ers in 2013 came back to bite them in one game:
- Turnovers (which they can’t afford)
- Marshawn Lynch, “The Beast” (who has been their kryptonite)
- The elements at CenturyLink Field (which have been tough for a sensitive offense)
- Hard-charging 100-yard rushers (that will win momentum)
- Questionable play-calling on offense (Only 11 carries for Frank Gore, bad situational calls)
- Colin Kaepernick staring down receivers (leading to interceptions)
- In-game injuries (removing key players from the game)
- Carlos Rogers (who is targeted and exploited regularly)
- And, of course, the dreaded inability to score in the red zone (which always comes back to bite them)
Without trying to be too cliche, it really was the perfect storm. Everything that’s ever been known to affect this team—particularly this year—reared its ugly head. And as these issues began to pile up and spiral out of control, the game began to slowly unravel for the Niners.
As they approach this offseason, they won’t have to look through too much film to see what they need to correct.
Forty-niners signal-caller Colin Kaepernick remains an explosive playmaker, but he is a far cry from the finished product when it comes to being a quarterback.
Since he first stepped into the lineup, we've been dissecting what he can and can't do. Not for no reason of course; this was Jim Harbaugh's handpicked guy. The talent the ex-player and QB guru would tie his pro coaching career to.
And Kap has done some fairly remarkable things during his brief tenure. But this game—and this playoff run—proved this is still not totally his offense. It's still best as a power offense that functions through running back Frank Gore and an O-line that imposes its will.
Frankly, Kaepernick is still growing as a quarterback, and perhaps it was the coach and coordinator's fault for thrusting too much on him too soon. Because he is advanced, it's easy to forget that inexperience can be a killer. It's clear he still has a lot of room to grow.
He can’t stare down receivers.
He has to have better situational awareness.
He needs to learn to spread the ball around. He has to get better at reading the field and throwing to his backs. He can't hesitate between running and throwing. He can’t hold the ball away from his body in the pocket (or running). He has to have an internal clock. He needs to get better at the two-minute drill. He needs to work on his mechanics, so throws don't get away from him.
And he has to learn to take what the defense gives him.
As you can see, this once picturesque player who weaponized the quarterback position actually has some time to put in if he is to live up to his potential. In this upcoming year or two where the 49ers look to transition out of the Frank Gore era and into more quarterback-driven offense, Colin Kaepernick is going to need to take serious strides.
Whether it’s their philosophy, personnel or game plan, the Niners must dedicate the upcoming offseason to modifying the offense.
Nothing else really needs remodeling.
The defense is basically maxed out, doing everything it can possibly do and then some. The special teams unit is up to par, looking like one of the top units in the league. And together, those phases are efficient, winning the field-position battle and providing the offense with plenty of opportunities.
Yet the offense continues to underachieve, probably more than any one unit of any of the 32 NFL teams if you juxtapose the talent to the output. They’re consistently a bottom-five-ranked unit with play-calling issues that become especially problematic in the red zone.
We praise the coaching staff for its brilliance and innovation, but they’ve pulled back on the reigns significantly since 2011. They’ve got plenty of top picks, depth at every position and a premier offensive line, and they play like a second-rate offense in rebuilding mode.
As a result, they put too much weight on the defense, until it eventually snaps in the late third or fourth quarter.
Three years, two completely different quarterbacks and a bundle of new weapons and they’re having the same issues. However drastic, it may be time to rethink some things. The Niners cannot afford to waste what may be Justin Smith and Frank Gore’s last year in 2014.
Desperation mode may be coming this offseason.
The San Francisco defense is nearly impermeable.
They have one of the more stalwart units in the league, and after three-plus years of solid output, they’re arguably the best in the NFL.
With their four All-Pros, this linebacking corps is second to none. Not only are they four of the scariest roughhousing defenders in the NFL, but they’re also all complete linebackers who are as technically proficient as it gets.
A group like this is hard to come by—maybe once every two decades.
And rush linebacker Aldon Smith, the team’s sack specialist, has become a player they can’t perform without. His ability to attack the quarterback is unparalleled. Hitting on a pick like that and embedding him in this unit will do wonders for this team in the long term.
Every elite team needs a star pass-rusher.
Not to mention, that’s the added bonus. Really, it’s the perfect execution down-to-down by all-world defensive tackle Justin Smith and his linemates because it's the foundation of everything. And this year, the secondary evolved into a top-five grouping, boasting new stars at cornerback and safety.
The 49ers also have some promising up-and-comers who should save them money next season.
Free safety Eric Reid and cornerback Tramaine Brock look like building blocks on the back end. And of course, defensive linemen Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial will carry over next year, while gifted young outside linebacker in Corey Lemonier adds will be in Year 2.
Overall, this entire defense is in great shape, right now, and five or so years down the road. The 49ers have talent all over, and they’re well-coached. With all the money, talent and contracts tied up on that side of the ball, this unit will keep them in contention for some time.
This isn’t news, or even a takeaway, but it’s fair to say that the rivalry has been ramped up another notch after this one.
This one was as physical as any of their recent battles, and it had a memorable second half. There was a ton of action and back-and-forth, with momentum changes and cheap shots peppered in throughout.
And once again, for a third straight meeting, 49ers players were severely injured against this Seahawks team, which really makes you begin to wonder what’s going on at the bottom of some of these piles on game day.
Tight end Vernon Davis was missing for some time, as were running backs Gore and LaMichael James, but the notables were left guard Mike Iupati (ankle) and inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman (knee).
Combined with the injuries and overall carnage, the last sequence of events and postgame that followed was just juiced with raw emotion. After Bowman’s horrific injury, which left the team shell-shocked, it was looking to rebound. The 49ers unit had a tremendous goal-line stop on fourth down and managed to get one last possession for their offense.
With Kaepernick at the helm, San Francisco followed that up with two notable plays to extend the drive, but that was cut off with a costly throw to Michael Crabtree into double coverage—a game-ender.
Shortly thereafter, a post-play outbreak occurred between two of the team’s star players in Crabtree and Richard Sherman. The wideout and cornerback exchanged jabs after the play, as well as verbal barbs in front of the media.
Kassim Osgood, Dan Skuta, Ray Ventrone, Michael Wilhoite and Darryl Morris may have been the best collection of roster fillers in the NFL.
These are the core players who made up the famed “Tony Montana Squad” for San Francisco, running down kicks and punts.
This was an area that needed to be addressed in the offseason, and it was, to a T. As a single unit, it's been stellar in the players debut together. But most of these guys came to San Francisco on one- or two-year deals, so the Niners will have to bring them back or decide who is replaceable.
Considering the 49ers are one of the league’s true three-phase teams, this breakthrough should not go ignored.
Kassim Osgood has been so great as a Special teamer for so long!— Jayson Braddock (@JaysonBraddock) January 20, 2014
The 49ers have proven they can beat any team in the league.
They consistently rock one of the best records in football and have evolved into one of the best road teams there is. The fact that they haven't won a title may indicate that they need to take a closer look at their roster and get more detailed with their team building.
Having said that, playing the Seahawks twice, maybe three times a year now is becoming a bit of an headache, and the Niners may need to make it a point to respond in the offseason. Anyone following the series knows that Seattle's physical, lengthy defensive backs in particular have given them their most significant advantage on game day.
That, coupled with San Francisco's red-zone woes, may lead general manager Trent Baalke to draft a tall wide receiver who can push back.
Offseason priority for the #49ers: Add 2 WR's, rehab Bowman. NFL's priority: get your officials and rulebook in order.— Damon Bruce (@DamonBruce) January 20, 2014
If that play by Richard Sherman—along with the failed RZ attempts—didn't make the #49ers realize they need a big WR, I don't know what will.— Dylan DeSimone (@DeSimone80) January 20, 2014
Say what you will about his sideline antics or coy, off-put demeanor in front of the media, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is one of the special coaches in this league.
While they are not in the Super Bowl as they had hoped, San Francisco just made its third consecutive NFC Championship appearance, advancing to the Super Bowl on one occasion.
This was a perennial loser—a 6-10 squad before he showed up. While a lot of the talent was in place, he made significant systematic changes and instilled a winning culture, which is an invaluable and immeasurable feat.
Looking at what Harbaugh has already accomplished in his short tenure, it's clear to see that his dedication to winning, his focus and his drive will keep this franchise in forward motion. Moreover, this team is a piece or two away from truly dominant football (as soon as the offense catches up to the defense and special teams).
After this most recent loss, Jim Harbaugh, the steely eyed missile man who finds motivation through the harshest adversity, will find a way to make this team better than ever.
Harbaugh: "Not many people get to be in this arena. Proud of our guys for the way they fought this whole season."— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) January 20, 2014