San Francisco 49ers

NFC Championship Loss Shouldn't Define 49ers' Tumultuous Season

SEATTLE, WA - JANUARY 19:  Cornerback Richard Sherman #25 of the Seattle Seahawks talks with the referee after being called for an unsportsmanlike penalty for taunting wide receiver Michael Crabtree #15 of the San Francisco 49ers late in the fourth quarter during the 2014 NFC Championship at CenturyLink Field on January 19, 2014 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Chris TrapassoAnalyst IJanuary 21, 2014

It was Super Bowl or bust for the San Francisco 49ers this season—or was it? 

Well, based on last year's result, it'd be easy to assume Jim Harbaugh's squadron would deem anything less than hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the conclusion of the 2013 campaign a failure, but a few unfortunate and unforeseen developments altered San Francisco's path to the promised land.

Much of Colin Kaepernick's out-of-the-blue emergence in 2012 was thanks to blossoming wideout Michael Crabtree

The two established an amazing rapport amazingly fast, and it was part of the reason why Kaepernick threw for 266 yards per game with four touchdowns and only two interceptions last postseason. 

But when Crabtree tore his Achilles tendon in May, things changed...for the worst. 

Although Kaepernick did his part in the youth movement at quarterback setting the NFL on fire a season ago, the injury to Crabtree rightfully set off some forewarning alarms about the quarterback.

After all, 93 of Kaep's 272 attempts (34.1 percent) as a starter—including the playoffs—went in Crabtree's direction in 2012.

And, unsurprisingly, Kaepernick regressed without his favorite, most comfortable target:

("Accuracy Percentage", per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), accounts for dropped passes, throwaways, spiked balls, batted passes and passes where the quarterback was hit while he threw the ball—factors that hurt the quarterback's completion percentage but don't help show how accurate they are.") 

As if the lost of Crabtree wasn't destructive enough, pass-rushing specialist Aldon Smith's off-field issues erupted once again, which caused him to miss five games. 

Take away a 19.5-sack defender from any defense, and it'll hurt, even if it just means it hinders development from being great to becoming elite, which is the route Smith was clearly on. 

The absences of Smith and Crabtree just might have been the difference in the 49ers winning the NFC West and getting home-field advantage in the playoffs and going 12-4 and handing over the divisional crown to the Seattle Seahawks.

Comparing Colin Kaepernick's 2012 and 2013 Seasons
PFF Accuracy PercentageCompletion PercentageYards Per AttemptQB Rating
201276.062.48.3298.3
201369.458.47.6991.6
Pro Football Focus and ESPN

Would a NFC Championship Game in San Francisco have been enough of a boost for Kaepernick and Co. to reach the Super Bowl again? 

The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos are built to overcome a rash of injuries to critical players—they have the ultimate luxury of veteran franchise quarterbacks running the show.  

Even the Seahawks suffered some big injuries during the 2013 season, but, frankly, Russell Wilson's slightly ahead of Kaepernick in the developmental process—it showed this year, and it showed on Sunday. 

That truth made the Crabtree injury exceptionally devastating for the San Francisco offense and Kaepernick himself in 2013.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Now, the 49ers lost only one major contributor from the 2012 Super Bowl team—safety Dashon Goldson during the free-agency period.

That's important to remember, and it shouldn't necessarily give the 49ers a total "pass" for their failure to reach the Super Bowl this season.

However, if your never-changing expectation for any team not starting a rebuilding process is that improvement in the win-loss column and ultimate seasonal result are musts, then San Francisco's season was a failure. 

It's simple as that. 

In theory, you wouldn't be crazy with that thinking. 

But, to me, while San Francisco is undoubtedly in "win-now" mode, because of the massive impact Crabtree's injury was bound to have—and did have—on a young, still-maturing quarterback, a last-second defeat in the NFC Championship Game shouldn't define the 49ers' somewhat tumultuous season as a "loss." 

 

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