By: Apurv Baichwal
Follow me on Twitter: @abaichwal
Well, the 49ers season is over. Yes, they do have two more games, but with today’s loss they are completely eliminated from playoff contention. Usually in sports, there are a dozen different ways to get into the playoffs with multiple combinations of different teams winning, losing, and tying. Last week, the 49ers could have made it into the playoffs in either of the wildcard spots, or even as the division champion. However, after today’s loss, they are absolutely, wholly, completely, unquestionably eliminated from playoff contention. Their playoff hopes are now 100% gone, and no matter how they do the rest of the season, they cannot possibly make the 2014 NFL Playoffs.
Today, the 49ers fell to the Seahawks, 17-7, in a game that was close for the first half, but practically a blowout in the second. On a positive note, at least the loss was not as bad as the one on Thanksgiving Day, but otherwise it was still pretty bad. The Seahawks got on the board first, with a field goal late in the first quarter, but the 49ers returned the punch and then some with a touchdown early in the second.
This second quarter drive was probably the 49ers’ best of the game, as they actually managed to convert and get some points. The 49ers started their drive late in the first quarter, deep in their own territory on their own 15 yard line. The 49ers ran 11 plays, nine rushing and two passing, and they managed to churn out 85 hard-fought yards for their first and only points of the game. Frank Gore finished the drive by punching in a 10-yard touchdown on a third and one when all the 49ers truly needed was a first down. This drive looked incredibly promising, as the 49ers were running all over the Seahawks, and they had more rushing yards at the half than the Seahawks had been giving up on average in a season.
By the end of the game, the 49ers had racked up a solid 140 rushing yards, but only a measly 105 passing. Carlos Hyde led the way with 55 yards on six carries, including a huge rush on the 49ers’ third play from scrimmage for 28 yards. Frank Gore was not nearly as successful with only 29 yards on 11 carries. He was repeatedly caught in the backfield, and the Seahawks recorded a total of 11 tackles for losses in this game. On another note, both Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde left the game with injuries, a concussion and an ankle injury respectively, and if the 49ers still had any important season left, these injury issues would be a serious problem. Even so the injuries are troubling, but the 49ers aren’t going to be needing their two backs any time soon, and they may have to work without them for at least a week. Colin Kaepernick was the other major contributor in rushing yards with 46 yards on nine attempts, including a couple large scrambles, with the largest gaining 22 yards. Third-string runningback Alfonso Smith and fullback Bruce Miller rounded out the rushing yards with six and four yards respectively on four and two carries.
While the rushing game was reasonably good, the passing attack was extremely lackluster as Colin Kaepernick only threw for 141 yards on 11 of 19 passing. He was also sacked an ugly six times, as the offensive line could not contain the Seahawks’ defensive line. Many of Kaepernick’s yards came on small dump off passes that Bruce Miller ran for extra yards, as he had the largest receiving total on the 49ers with 56 yards on four catches. Tight end Garrett Celek was second in receiving with one huge catch for 31 yards. None of the 49ers’ other receivers broke 25 yards in an extremely pathetic passing performance.
On the defensive end, the 49ers held the Seahawks to 17 points, a pretty solid achievement, but they really should have only allowed 13 if it wasn’t for an officiating error. On a third and five from the 49ers’ 15, Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson faced pressure from two directions and threw the ball away right before he was hit by linebacker Nick Moody. Moody executed a textbook tackle, keeping his head up, hitting Wilson in the chest, and wrapping his arms around him as he went to the ground. Moody hit Wilson barely an instant after he released the ball, in what should have been a perfectly legal hit. However, Ed Hochuli called a roughing the passer penalty, claiming that Moody put his head down and hit with the crown of his helmet. Upon further replay, this call was obviously wrong, but there is no replay on penalties, so this erroneous penalty gave the Seahawks half the distance to the goal, and turned what should have been a field goal attempt into a touchdown. This play was frustrating, but it cannot be completely blamed for the loss, as the 49ers still put up a subpar offensive performance, mainly due to their uninspired passing attack.
In summary, this game was a loss, and it was a frustrating one because it appeared that the 49ers truly had a chance to win at halftime, seeing as they were up 7-3. Eventually, however, they lost 17-7, dropping their record to 7-7, and third place in the NFC West. This game also marked the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era that the 49ers have lost three games in a row, and it exponentially increased the speculation about the end of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as the San Francisco coach.
Up until now, these rumors of Harbaugh’s departure have been somewhat far-fetched rumors. However, after this loss, and the guarantee that the 49ers will not make the playoffs, these rumors are starting to ring more true. Harbaugh is in the last year of his contract, and he has had some issues with both the front office (general manager Trent Baalke) and some players. His stay in San Francisco does feel like its coming to an end, as he is an extraordinary coach, but probably not fit for the 49ers program anymore. Harbaugh is the kind of coach who can take a losing program and make them instant contenders, as he did at Stanford and with the 49ers. Now, the 49ers have made the NFC Championship game three years in a row, and there is not much more improvement he can bring. He has butted heads with some of the wrong people, and there is a high chance that he is gone before next year. From a purely organizational point of view, it would be to the 49ers advantage to try to trade him before the offseason. He is a great coach who will be in high demand when he’s officially put on the market, and the 49ers may be able to pick up some players in return for Harbaugh, giving them at least some compensation for the coach.
If Harbaugh leaves, which is looking more and more likely, the 49ers will have to find a replacement. Hopefully, they can find a good coach, because they are still a competitive team that could return to success immediately next year. To do so, they would need a strong coach, realistically, a coach like Harbaugh but with a slightly less confrontational personality.
If the 49ers decide to look inward for a coach they could promote offensive coordinator Greg Roman. He obviously has a great feel for the system, as he has been with the organization for three years. Kaepernick would not have to adjust to a new system, and Roman would basically be a continuity coach if promoted. He has the credentials, and he has the knowledge to coach, but his only issue is publicity. Greg Roman is a nobody to most fans, and the 49ers would lose the fan acclaim of Jim Harbaugh. However, Roman is probably the best and cheapest option for the 49ers if they lose Harbaugh.
Another interesting option would be the Stanford coach David Shaw. Although he has not had much success this season, he has proven himself to be a capable coach, and he runs a similar system to Jim Harbaugh. Once again, there would not be too much change for Kaepernick, and Shaw might even be able to coach him into a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback. Shaw is one of those people who seems to know literally everything about the NFL, but it is questionable whether he would want to report to Trent Baalke, or if he would want to gain the rap of the coach who follows Harbaugh, as he already did so at Stanford. Even so, he is one of the better options for the 49ers, and probably the best option from outside the organization. However, he has shown a clear reluctance to leave Palo Alto, at least for now, and should be considered a long-shot candidate.
Overall, there is going to be a lot of change over the offseason, and much of this change may start now with the 49ers eliminated from playoff contention. We may see a retirement from Gore, and we will most definitely see a coaching change. Next week, the San Jose Chargers on Saturday in a game that matters for the Chargers but not at all for the 49ers. Hopefully they can still put a respectable performance on the field, even though they are going to be extremely thin at runningback and linebacker.
Cover Image: WikiCommons Adam Rifkin http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b6/Jim_harbaugh_2013.jpg