Despite nearly jumping out to a 3-0 record (if it weren't for the late heroics of Brett Favre) the now 2-1 San Francisco 49ers have an alarming trend through their first three games.
Each and every week this season, the 49ers have forced a turnover on downs late in the game only to punt the ball away and give their opponent another chance with the football.
In their huge Week One upset (in Arizona) over the defending NFC champion Cardinals, the 49ers forced a turnover on downs with 1:51 remaining in the game. Instead of mixing up the play calling to ice the game with a first down, the 49ers ran the ball all three times and took just 43 second off the clock before punting. Fortunately for San Francisco, their defense was up to the task against a rusty Kurt Warner.
Furthermore, the same scenario occurred in the 49ers home opener against the Seahawks. Even though San Francisco had this game much more in hand, (leading 23-10 at the time) the offense still couldn't muster a first down. Rookie running-back Glen Coffee ran the ball three straight times and the 49ers held onto the ball for just 23 seconds before punting it away.
And finally, in this past week's heart-breaking loss in Minnesota, the 49ers should have had the game won. With just 1:49 remaining, cornerback Dre Bly knocked down Brett Favre's fourth down pass attempt and the game appeared to be over. If the 49ers could have gotten just one first down, they would have been 3-0.
However, instead of going to either Isaac "Mr. Reliable" Bruce or the man of the day in Vernon Davis, (seven catches, 96 yards, two TD's) the 49ers ran the ball three straight times (again, for the third game in a row) and were forced to punt. Granted, making sure no plays went as incomplete passes meant the 49ers forced the Vikings to call all three of their timeouts. But in all honesty, is giving Brett Favre another chance with the football the way to win a football game?
The drive in which the 49ers needed just one first down to win the game, the offense went three and out. By running the ball all three times, San Fran took just a miniscule 20 seconds off the clock. Favre and the Vikings now had nearly a full 90 seconds (1:29 officially) to move down the field and score a touchdown.
Needless to say, the Favre led Vikings managed a miraculous game-winning 32-yard touchdown pass with two seconds remaining. But the drive should never have happened. Although 49er fans like myself have blamed safety Mark Roman for falling over in coverage on the winning touchdown and others have blamed the prevent style defense during the entire Vikings' drive, the one to blame is offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye.
To be fair, we don't know how much input head coach Mike Singletary gave on the play-calling for his offense's final drive, so the blame may be spread amongst both offensive coordinator and head coach.
Either way, the decision to run the ball three straight times on the final drive was a clear-cut example of why the 49ers lack a killer instinct.
Now it is understandable to run the ball in that situation in games where the defense is clearly playing at the top of their game. However, on Sunday in Minnesota, the 49ers defense wasn't playing at the same level as the first two games of the season. Plus with Frank Gore injured, the running game wasn't at the top of it's game either. But the passing game, led by Shaun Hill and Vernon Davis, had won this game for the 49ers.
Hill had been clutch in the fourth quarter by driving the 49ers down the field and Vernon Davis was a machine inside the redzone catching both 49er touchdowns. Conventional wisdom would be to allow your hot players to put the finishing touches on a victory by letting them make a play.
Instead of running the ball three straight times with rookie Glen Coffee, (who the Vikings weren't going to let gain a first down) Raye and Singletary should have put the game in the hands of Shaun Hill. Whether or not he finds Bruce or Davis, a short high-percentage first down pass would have sealed the game.
With Brett Favre on the sideline, the safest way to win the game is by keeping number four off the field. With the Vikings known for a stellar run defense, did the 49er coaching staff really think Glen Coffee would be able to gain 10+ yards on three straight carries?
Especially on third-and-six, did the 49ers expect Coffee to gain the first down on a run up the middle? Where is the play action? If the receiver isn't open, take the sack and you still force the Vikings to waist their final timeout.
The facts are simple. The 49ers have played three games. In every single game they had a lead in the fourth quarter. In every single game they had a chance to ice the game with a first down. In nine out of nine plays to ice the game, the 49ers ran the ball. In zero of the first three games have the 49ers gotten that first down and hence have yet to finish a game with a Shaun Hill kneel down.
Now in all honesty the 49ers arguably have a better defense than offense, but that doesn't always mean the offense has to play it safe. With a future-hall-of-famer on the sideline as the opposing quarterback, your offense needs to have that killer instinct to keep him off the field.
Yet the 49ers play calling at the end of the Viking game showed they weren't playing to win the game, instead, they were playing not to lose.
However, as the great Herm Edwards says, "You play to win the game!"
If the 49ers want to continue winning football games, they are going to have to find a killer instinct. Regardless of the fact that most fans have already given San Francisco the division title, continued lack of finishing will allow both the Cardinals and Seahawks to sneak up on San Francisco.
Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and the rest of the injured Seahawks will be back healthy before we know it and they will continue to be a force. Plus with the best pair of receivers in the NFL, nobody should count out the Cardinals at this point in the season.
Even though it is still early on in the NFL season, the 49ers failed miserably on an opportunity to open up a two-game lead over both the aforementioned teams. If San Francisco had held onto their victory in Minnesota, they would be 3-0. Both the Seahawks and the Cardinals are currently 1-2.
Despite it being only Week Three, a full two game lead would have been extremely beneficial. Especially considering the fact that the 49ers have already beaten both Arizona and Seattle, an extended division lead would already be extremely difficult for fellow NFC West teams to overcome.
But what's done is done and the 49ers cannot think in the past, they have to move forward. And in order to move forward, they have to find that killer instinct. That instinct which will enable them to start finishing off football games.