Nothing went right for the San Francisco 49ers this past week.
Last Sunday, they had their worst effort on the young season looking absolutely pathetic in every facet of the game in a 49ers-poised-for-another-long-season">31-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Despite commenting that Jimmy Raye would remain on as the offensive coordinator in the post-game press conference, head coach Mike Singletary made the right choice in changing his mind less than 24 hours later, when he relieved Raye of his duties and replaced him with quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson.
This reversal called Coach Sing's integrity and decisiveness into question as people speculated the team might be losing trust in the once-beloved head coach.
This speculation gained momentum on Friday, when starting strong safety Michael Lewis—upset at the prospect of being phased out of the starting role in favor of rookie Taylor Mays—left the team and demanded his release.
As far as the media was concerned, Coach Sing's house was in disarray. His players and coaches could no longer trust him. He was desperately grasping at straws and trying in an almost certainly futile effort to salvage a season that had once been awaited with such optimism and had gone so horribly awry.
What was worse, the 49ers were facing the prospect of transitioning to a new offensive coordinator, dealing with the on-field absence of a starting defender (and the major off-field distraction that came with it), and trying to right themselves from an 0-3 start all while preparing to face the Atlanta Falcons on the road—a team that pummeled the 49ers 45-10 in San Francisco last season.
It would seem the 49ers were destined for an absolute thrashing on Sunday in the Georgia Dome.
Said thrashing never materialized.
The 49ers showed promise on offense, stretching the field and sustaining drives against one of the better defenses in the league. They scored on their first possession, and while it was their only offensive tally of the day, the play-calling overall seemed much more logical than in the previous three weeks.
The special teams proved special on Atlanta's second drive, blocking a punt attempt from the shadow of the Atlanta goal line, which rookie Taylor Mays made a great play on to come down with the ball in the back of the end zone for the 49ers' second touchdown.
The first quarter ended with the 49ers leading 14-0, and despite some poor tackling at times, the defense nearly made the lead hold up for the victory against an offense that was supposed to be dangerously explosive. The Falcons continued to find opportunity after opportunity on offense, but the 49ers continued to hold them to punts and field goals.
With the score 14-13 inside two minutes, cornerback Nate Clements intercepted a Matt Ryan pass and looked to return it for the game-sealing touchdown. Clements failed to watch his back, and we all know the rest.
The loss is unquestionably disheartening, but where does it rank among all-time 49er disappointments? One could argue right at the top of that list.
How can that be possible? Surely the team has faced a more devastating defeat than this, right?
The lone loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1984, the game against Seattle last year, and the 1991 NFC Championship game against the New York Giants immediately come to mind as potential contenders, but none of these losses were truly as crushing as today's 16-14 defeat.
The loss to the Steelers in 1984 kept the 49ers from being the only 19-0 team in league history, and the key to the loss was a very questionable defensive penalty that allowed the Steelers to score the winning touchdown. But while this loss did prevent some measure of history, it did not prevent the 49ers from reaching their ultimate goal, as they still became one of the most dominant Super Champions in history.
The loss to Seattle last year basically ended any hope of the 49ers reaching the playoffs, and the game looked imminently winnable late in fourth quarter. But the key Frank Gore fumble occurred with the game tied, not with the 49ers holding the lead, meaning even had Gore held on to the ball, the 49ers may still have lost.
Losing a chance to become the first team to three-peat as Super Bowl Champions in 1991 was perhaps most terrible, especially when you consider that the game was in hand until Roger Craig's fumble allowed the Giants to drive for the winning field goal. But the 49ers were coming off back-to-back titles, not a seven-year playoff drought with a pained and hungry fan base. Winning would have been great, but the streak had to end eventually.
Today's loss seems to have a leg up on all these games in the devastation department. The 49ers were trying to right an 0-3 start against a tough opponent in a game that would have meant so much to the team to win. They had victory quite literally in hand until Clements' late fumble on the interception return. But perhaps most crushing of all was the fact that the 49ers were prohibitive underdogs.
Nobody expected them to compete, much less win. Therefore to play such an inspired game in the face of such adversity and strife and to come so close to a victory that they could almost literally feel it, just to have it ripped away the way they did gives this loss that extra edge that just may set it above all others in the annals of 49er history.
The loss does not preclude the 49ers from postseason play, but it makes the prospects significantly more gloomy. It is dangerous to have a big-picture view in the face of an 0-4 start, but it may actually be advantageous here.
If the 49ers can manage a 6-2 record over their next eight games, they should be back in position to contend for the division crown. The 49ers' schedule gets significantly more manageable moving forward and they proved today they are capable of a 6-2 stretch (or perhaps even better). They must find a way to press forward and make this plan a reality, overcoming what might have been their toughest loss ever.
Coach Sing deserves all the credit in the world for the way his team played today, and anyone still calling for his head should do everyone a favor and stop watching football. His job should be fully secure through the end of the year. However, if Coach Sing's hard work, focus, and motivation do not start to yield tangible returns soon, I would not blame him for walking away.
Keep the Faith!
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