You can blame Donte Whitner for jumping on the play fake from Tony Romo. It was the first offensive play for the Cowboys in overtime. The Cowboys were in a double tight end set. It sure looked like a run.
At least that’s what Whitner thought. And Carlos Rogers. And the last thing they saw was Jesse Holley running free with the ball, courtesy of a short slant that turned into a 77-yard play for a Dallas first-and-goal at the 1. A field goal later, it was over.
That play capped a rally by Dallas of 13 unanswered points. Tony Romo proved he has guts and he has an arm by rallying his team. And it was a worthy victory, except that on the other side of the field, the 49er players and staff might be spitting nails in anger.
It should never have come down to overtime. Whitner proved fallible. Good call by the Cowboys. Looking back, though, you have to say this one got away.
Like most Greek tragedies, the source of that anger is not an outside agent but one’s own actions – decisions made and acts taken that turned out in the end to be either damning or at least fruitless.
In the NFL, when you have control of the game at 14-0 and the ball, it’s time to—excuse the cliché—step on the other guy’s throat. Being up 24-14 with just under 12 minutes left, the ball past midfield, is an opportunity to—cliché No. 2 warning—put the metal to the floor.
Here are five things we learned in San Francisco’s 27-24 overtime loss to the Cowboys on Sunday.
It was the fumbled snap that he picked up on the first bounce like a shortstop looking to turn an easy double play. It should be the poster play that justifies Jim Harbaugh’s belief in Alex Smith.
The former first-round draft pick has been the subject of countless criticisms both local and national about his worthiness as an NFL quarterback. Poor plays, poor decisions and not enough guts have been the essence of the diatribes.
And then there’s the snap from Johnathan Goodwin that flicked off Smith’s hands late in the second quarter. It’s a 7-0 game, and the Cowboys think they’re getting control of the 49er offense. And there’s Smith with his back to the defense as he hunts down the bounding ball.
All Smith did was pick up the ball with a one-handed scoop that would have made Cal Ripkin proud, turned to his right and outran his pursuit. He kept his eyes downfield and saw Frank Gore heading toward the goal line with a linebacker in pursuit.
Smith’s throw was perfect, and the defender had to hit Gore to prevent a TD. The pass interference call set the ball up at the 1 for an ensuing Gore TD run.
That play, as well as four strong, accurate throws to his left that went for first downs, combined for quarterback play that was solid, within the player’s limits and capable of winning many NFL games. Yes, he threw an interception that led to a Dallas TD, but this one wasn’t on Alex.
The 49ers had the ball near midfield with less than a minute to go in the first half. They didn’t get anything out of the possession.
They opened the second half with two possessions that went three-and-out. These were chances to make plays, but nothing came of it. Put this one on the coaching staff. They went conservative on first down in those critical three possessions, thinking it best to rely on the run rather than plays with greater risk but also with the potential of greater reward.
Perhaps that’s what Demarcus Ware (94) does to a team. And Smith was sacked five times. But there were times in the game the 49ers were in control and they looked confident. Getting more out of the possessions at the end of the first half and in the early going of the third quarter could have put Dallas into a deeper hole.
Later, it seemed that 49er offensive coordinator Greg Roman over-thought a key call late in the fourth quarter. A play-fake then roll out meant to capitalize on Ware's ability to react (in this case, over-react) turned a second-and-5 into a sack for a third-and-forever, killing the drive and setting up Dallas for the game-tying field goal drive.
Remember, though, the Niners eventually had a 24-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, so the counter argument is that the coaching staff chose the right tack to get that point. The issue becomes what do you do to maintain it?
It seemed that if there was a time to take big risks—and also reap a big reward—that was it.
In the end, people will remember Donte Whitner biting on the fake that sent Jesse Holley running free. Just as big, if not bigger, is Ahmad Brooks lining up offside late in the first half.
The Niners had a 14-0 lead very late in the second quarter. They had just stopped one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses. They were getting the ball back in decent field position, and they were scheduled to get the ball to start the second half as the receiving team.
Except that the incomplete pass on third-and-long got to be replayed as third-and-short after Ahmad Brooks being in the neutral zone. If the Niners had held and then turned that possession into points, perhaps a TD for a 21-0 lead, getting the ball with such a big lead in the second half might have led to different play selection.
It’s that sort of play that can separate the winners from the losers. It was a critical mistake that helped keep the Cowboys’ rally hopes alive.
David Akers’ 55-yard field goal with just over 11 minutes left in the game gave SF a 24-14 lead. But there was a penalty on Keith Brookings of Dallas. He jumped over the line and incurred a 15-yard penalty for an illegal attempt to block the kick.
If accepted, the penalty would have given the 49ers first-and-10 on the Dallas 23. It would have given them a new set of downs, more time to run the clock, more chances to try to get the ball in the end zone.
Akers is one of the league’s best kickers. At the least, barring a turnover, it would have given the 49ers four more plays to burn more time off the clock.
In that coach Jim Harbaugh has been employing a conservative game plan built around the run, limited exposure to turnovers and faith in his defense, accepting the penalty seemed to be the way to go. Instead, he took the points.
Dallas got the ball back with just over four minutes left in the game, trailing 24-21. Romo effortlessly moved the Cowboys down the field to set up a game-tying 48-yard field goal as time expired, sending the game into overtime.
Having another two minutes off the clock back on that 55-yard field goal probably would have made a difference.
Ted Ginn, Jr. had a good game for the 49ers. Within his capabilities that is. A twisted knee to Braylon Edwards (how serious has yet to be determined) kept him out of the game. Edwards’ departure and the injury to Michael Crabtree meant the Niners were without two of their most explosive players.
Thinking about why San Francisco had to be conservative, maybe fans have to look no further than the limited resources Harbaugh and staff are dealing with.
Edwards, obviously, has been a bright spot in the offense. His lack of play—and potential loss for more games—means, most likely, the 49ers will have to become even more limited in their offense.
For some teams, that isn’t too much of a problem. But the Niners don’t have the defensive strength to shut down other teams, as evidenced by Romo’s 350-yard-plus performance.
Getting more help from outside receivers—nice catch, Kyle Williams—will be crucial. Getting Edwards back will be crucial. Avoiding seemingly small but critical mistakes will be crucial.
In the end, we learned that the 49ers have little room for error when it comes to winning games this season.