When cornerback Nate Clements of the San Francisco 49ers picked off Matt Ryan's pass with 1.28 to go in the 49ers game against the Atlanta Falcons last week he went from hero to goat in a matter of five seconds. Let's review the situation.
The 49ers have a one point lead. Clements picks off the Ryan pass with a leaping grab in space at the Falcons 48 yard line. Now some might suggest that taking a knee immediately would have been the smart thing to do, however the Falcons had three time outs left and so the 49ers could not have run out the clock. Therefore, given how wide open Clements was after the interception and the blockers he had in front of him, picking up some yards to get into field goal range was the correct thing to do.
Clements easily made it to the 30 yard line after glancing to the right at Falcons lineman Harvey Dahl and realizing that Dahl could not catch him. He veered towards the left side line where LB Ahmad Brooks was running ahead of him. Roddy White was a full 5 yards behind him although Clements did not know he was there.
At the 25 yard line Clements could only see 1 Falcon ahead of him. It was QB Matt Ryan who was being blocked by 49ers LB Patrick Willis. Meanwhile Ahmad Brooks was still looking for someone to block. This was the crucial moment of the game. There was 1.25 left on the clock and Clements was the hero of the game for the 49ers.
Now if it wasn't the end of the game this would have been the perfect moment for a cutback to the center of the field which would have led to any easy touchdown. There were just two things wrong with that plan. First, the 49ers didn't need or want a touchdown at this point.
A touchdown would put the 49ers up by eight but would have given the ball back to the Falcons with a chance for a last minute drive for a game tying touchdown and two-point conversion. Second, Ahmad Brooks was in exactly the wrong place effectively preventing a cutback move by Clements.
To his credit Clements did not attempt the cutback and seemed to realize that the TD was not important at this moment. However he did not consider that he had successfully moved the ball into field goal range and that taking a knee or running out of bounds was now the best option. Instead he slowed down to stay behind Brooks and this was his fatal mistake. It allowed White to catch him at the 16 yard line at 1.23 and poke the ball away. Is is worth noting that Ahmad Brooks and Patrick Willis also failed this little IQ test as both were in position to tell Clements to get down to preserve possession of the ball. Neither they nor anyone on the 49ers sideline signaled to Clements to get down.
White, for his part, made no effort to tackle Clements but instead was clearly looking to punch the ball away. Dahl never broke stride and made a fearless dive that just beat Willis to the ball with 1.20 on the clock. Clements was now the goat for the 49ers unless the defense could stop the Falcons again however, given new life, Matt Ryan and the Falcons were not to be denied.
Clements and the 49ers got extremely unlucky on this play, but there was perhaps a two second window where a better understanding of end of game tactics by either Clements, Brooks or Willis might have preserved what should have been a well-deserved 48ers victory. Meanwhile Coach Singletary's suggestion that physical issues and not mental issues are the problem for the 49ers suggest that he may not fully appreciate that it is such moments that make or break games, seasons and coaching careers in the NFL.