False Start: Lack of Emotional Control Buries San Francisco 49ers in Opener
The season opener could not have gone much worse for the San Francisco 49ers Sunday afternoon in the Emerald City of Seattle.
Largely considered to be the consensus favorites to win the NFC West division, the 49ers entered Quest Field looking to avenge the only divisional loss they suffered last year (a 20-17 thriller that brought an end to a late-season playoff push for the 49ers).
Instead, they were soundly defeated 31-6 in Pete Carroll’s Seattle debut, after having dominated every facet of the game through much of the first half (except the scoreboard, of course).
The biggest issue was a lack of finish, a disheartening fact when you consider that “Finish” has become the offseason mantra of the 49ers.
Despite that prominent focus, the 49ers could not finish on Sunday. They could not finish blocks. They could not finish plays. They could not finish drives.
This all led ultimately to their inability to finish a game they dominated early on.
The biggest impediment was a lack of emotional control. Emotions can be a powerful thing in sports. If harnessed correctly, they can fire you up for a big game or help spur a late comeback.
But if you let your emotions take control of you, catastrophe can result. I doubt anyone would argue that the season opener was indeed a catastrophe for San Francisco.
In recent years, the 49ers have been guilty of letting circumstances beyond their control affect them adversely, allowing bad calls or tough breaks to get under their skin and rattle them out of their game plan.
Given the demeanor and swagger of the team throughout the offseason and preseason, I thought that perhaps they had finally matured such that this would no longer be an issue.
Unfortunately, Sunday’s opener showed the same immaturity and emotional fragility that has so plagued the team through the recent dark days for the franchise.
You can blame Alex Smith (and if you are a typical casual fan you probably will). You can blame Nate Clements.
You can blame Mike Singletary or Jimmy Raye. You can blame the referees.
You can blame the loss on anything you want, but an ounce of composure in the face of early adversity in this game could have yielded a very different outcome.
Here is a look at how emotions got the better of the 49ers in Week 1:
The 49ers entered the games high on themselves. They had big expectations for the season. They were favored to win.
They were eager to avenge a December 2009 loss that cost them a shot at the playoffs.
After an undefeated preseason, they were brimming with confidence and were determined that they could push the pace and impose their will on the game.
This attitude may have led the 49ers to make some strange decisions that cost them heavily.
Despite insistence that the team wanted to alleviate the work load on Frank Gore, backup running backs Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon never saw an offensive snap.
Gore’s production was heavily limited by a lack of leverage on the part of the 49er offensive line, but the team continually insisted on a persistent rushing attack in key situations, which met with minimal if any success.
This stymied three early red zone opportunities, turning a possible 17 or 21 first-half points into just six.
By contrast, the Seahawks quickly realized they were not having success on the ground and spread the offense. The move resulted in 31 unanswered points.
The 49ers need to be willing to adjust their game plan and offensive approach to adapt to the nature of each game. They have the offensive weapons to do so.
On Sunday, they just lacked the willingness.
You would have to be comatose not to be excited for the start of 2010 season, but the 49ers seemed a little too excited.
Some might glance at the final score and make the assessment that the 49ers were guilty of looking past the Seahawks to a looming Week 2 Monday Night matchup with the World Champion New Orleans Saints. If you watched the game, however, that clearly was not the case.
If the 49ers were guilty of anything, it was not caring too little or being under-excited for the opener, but rather being over-excited.
The 49ers looked at times like they were trying too hard, playing too deliberately, and forcing things. They were trying to win the division in Week 1, rather than just winning the game.
This affected both defensive and offensive execution. Trying to make big interceptions, Nate Clements and Tarell Brown bit badly on hitch routes and pump fakes, leading to two huge passing plays and 14 points for Seattle.
Alex Smith did not play as badly as his statistics suggest or his pundits will claim, but he was guilty of over-throwing some key passes which cost the 49ers the opportunity to continue drives and put points on the board.
You cannot clinch a playoff berth in the first few weeks of the season, but you can lose your opportunity to do so.
The 49ers need to temper their enthusiasm and sharpen their play to ensure this does not happen again.
Things started well for the 49ers.
Nate Clements recorded a big interception on the first play from scrimmage of the game and the 49ers looked to have capitalized on the turnover with a quick touchdown several plays later when Alex Smith found wide receiver Josh Morgan along the right edge of the end zone.
Pete Carroll challenged the catch and won and after two predictable plays for meager yardage, the 49ers settled for a field goal.
The four points they squandered seemed to hang with them into the next drive, as Coach Sing opted to go for a fourth-down conversion attempt from inside the 10 rather than adding three points to the board.
It is arguable that had they taken the field goal, they would have been better able to react to the Seahawks’ first score, since they still would have held the lead 9-7.
Instead, the first three drives led to just six points and the late score by Matt Hasselbeck staked Seattle to a sudden lead. That was when things began to snowball.
Disappointment gave way to panic after Seattle broke the shutout with just over two minutes to play in the first half.
While the 49ers had left as many as 15 points on the table, they still seemed in control of the game until the aforementioned Nate Clements gaffe resulted in a 35-yard Mike Williams reception to set up a Matt Hasselbeck bootleg touchdown run and a 7-6 Seattle lead.
Though they trailed by just a point, the 49ers looked like a team desperately behind the eight ball. They forced the issue on their ensuing possession, hurrying plays and letting execution slack.
A catchable ball ricocheted off Michael Crabtree’s pads and landed in the hands of Jordan Babineaux.
Tarell Brown then bit hard a double move by Deon Butler and Seattle was suddenly ahead by eight points, 14-6.
The 49ers were within one score at the half and received the ball to begin the second half.
But Michael Crabtree and Alex Smith failed to connect on a third-down pass that wound up in the arms of Marcus Trufant, who returned it past a shocked cadre of 49ers for a touchdown.
The 49ers still had plenty of time to mount a comeback, but continued to play as though every offensive play had to go for a touchdown and every defensive play had to yield a turnover.
This led to a quick 49ers punt and a steady Seattle drive for their fourth unanswered touchdown.
The 49ers exhibited frustration in several instances. These all had detrimental effects on their ability to win the game, in a variety of ways.
The first critical instance was a blatantly botched call by the officials, when the 49ers had stopped the Seahawks three-and-out after taking a 6-0 second quarter lead.
Nate Clements defended Deion Branch on the play, and nearly had his second interception of the game.
Clements would have had that interception were it not for Branch holding Clements by the right hand and impeding his progress toward the ball.
The 49ers were relieved to see the penalty flags fly, but instead of calling Branch for offensive pass interference, the referees flagged Clements for defensive holding.
This gave the Seahawks their first offensive first down of the game and cracked the secondary’s burgeoning confidence, leaving Clements visibly angry, and the rest of the defense more focused on the bad call than stopping the Seahawks on the next play.
Clements’ frustration probably contributed to his decision to attempt to jump a later route against Mike Williams, leading to a 35-yard reception and the Seahawks’ first score.
After opening the second half with a Seahawks interception returned for a touchdown to expand to the lead to 21-6, the 49ers quickly punted the ball back to Seattle.
Dashon Goldson immediately gave the Seahawks improved field position, knocking John Carlson needlessly to the ground on a first down play where Matt Hasselbeck had badly overthrown his tight end.
This gave the Seahawks 15 yards and put them well on their way to their fourth answered touchdown.
Frustration certainly got the better of the 49ers throughout the game and led to their demise in a very direct way.
After exhibiting too much emotion in many negative ways, the 49ers failed to show much fire when it could have helped them.
The Seahawks scored their fourth and final touchdown less than five minutes into the third quarter, leaving the 49ers more than 25 minutes to climb out of a 22-point hole.
However, the 49ers played more like the deficit was 42 rather than 22, and even the fiery Coach Sing seemed reserved to the fate that everyone in red and gold apparently thought was inevitable.
The 49ers were perfectly content to dink and dunk, settle for meager gains, and play with an utter lack of interest and resolve after falling behind by more than two scores.
None of the captains showed much resolve in trying to right the ship, and the team just collectively bowed to the circumstances.
The 49ers will likely face more adversity and need to mount a comeback or two if they want to live to see the playoffs (and beyond).
If they cannot shake the strange, fatalistic, self-pitying pallor they showed on Sunday, it will be virtually impossible to achieve their publicly-stated goals for the season.
Coach Sing did call a special team meeting upon the return to the Bay Area the night of the game, and apparently was very critical of Alex Smith and Michael Crabtree.
Perhaps this is an indication of the resolve the 49ers will need to carry them through the rigors of the 2010 season, but on Sunday it sure looked like the team simply quit.
What Does the Loss Really Mean?
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In the big picture, the outcome of the opener does not mean that much.
It is certainly better to win than to lose, and a loss against a division opponent, the failure to avenge the only division loss of last year, and the embarrassment had at the hands of a team that was a notable underdog are all disheartening, but ultimately all Sunday’s loss means for certain is (despite my hopes) the 49ers will not go 19-0-0 in 2010.
Call it wishful thinking, but this loss could be good for the 49ers. Coach Sing thanked the Seahawks for handily beating the 49ers in his post-game press conference and said the loss was “good medicine.” Such a perspective makes sense.
The 49ers have been told for more than six months that they are slam-dunk favorites to win the NFC West and return to the playoffs.
The undefeated preseason which was largely devoid of key player participation did no favors in keeping the team’s ego in check.
Being publicly humbled against an opponent everyone suspected had no business beating them could bring reality back into perspective for everyone involved with the team.
The players will learn they still have to perform at 100% each and every down. The captains will learn they need to take control in critical situations.
The coaches will learn that they need to know when they need to adjust their game plan. If the 49ers really want to be great, the onus is on them to make it so.
Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that this experience came at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks, the same opponent against whom Coach Sing publicly chastised Vernon Davis in 2008.
Could this experience humble the 49ers the same way Davis was humbled in October 2008, forcing them to set their bravado and ego aside and learn to do what it takes to win?
The brilliant Bay Area media sure doubts it, as the likes of Raj Mathai and Gary Radnich are already casting next week’s match up with the Saints as all but unwinnable.
But more realistic fans will realize that if Coach Sing can use this loss to its fullest motivational potential, it could be the best possible thing to happen for the 49ers.
They need to learn to control and use their emotions above all else, and they need to figure it out quickly.
Monday’s game will be another emotionally-packed battle: home opener, Monday Night, Super Bowl Champion Saints, Jerry Rice’s number being retired.
The 49ers need to take Sunday’s game for all the medicine and lessons it provided, and get ready to face the Saints.
With Coach Sing working his motivational magic, I expect them to turn it around.
Keep the Faith!