Tearing through feeble Washington on Monday night, the 49ers looked very much like the defending NFC champs and a club that could be hitting its stride at just the right time. Plus, mailbag questions, including one that will sour some in Seattle
There are only a few occasions Colin Kaepernick opens up to the outside world, and early this morning, in the wake of his most encouraging performance at quarterback since opening day, wasn’t one of them. “This was a good step for us in the right direction,’’ Kaepernick said after San Francisco dismantled Washington 27-6.
He can say that again. This was a game the 49ers needed badly. They’d lost narrowly to good teams the past two weeks—Carolina and New Orleans. They’ve likely lost any realistic chance to catch Seattle in the NFC West; the 10-1 Seahawks have a three-game lead with five to play, and now the Niners have to worry about hard-charging Arizona, tied with San Francisco at 7-4 for second place in the division. But on Monday night, there were three pieces of very good news for the San Francisco playoff stretch drive:
1. Kaepernick, the embattled quarterback, was late-2012 Kaepernick. He entered the game piloting an offense with the lowest passing yards per game in the NFL. Not good for a passer Ron Jaworski said in the offseason could one day be the best ever to play. But after a slow beginning in his 21st NFL start, Kaepernick was confident, accurate and in control of the game for the final 50 minutes. He was 15 of 24 for 235 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a season-high passer rating of 134.5. He hit tight end Vernon Davis down the seam in stride for 40 yards. On the drive that put the game away in the third quarter, he threw a perfect out to backup tight end Vance McDonald while the Washington D focused on Davis. He followed on that drive with these three plays: a simple bootleg run for eight yards, knowing when not to press upfield for extra yards and absorb an extra hit; a perfectly executed surprise draw to Frank Gore; and another well-played play-action fake to Gore, followed by a one-yard throw to a wide-open Davis that left the defense flat-footed. If Kaepernick repeats this game over the next two months, the Niners will be tough to beat.
2. Reinforcements are on their way. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree, out since May with a partially torn Achilles, is likely to return Sunday when the Rams play at San Francisco, according to a post-game pronouncement from coach Jim Harbaugh. Very good news for a team that’s been playing with maybe the worst wide receiver depth in football in the first three months of the season. Crabtree was Kaepernick’s favorite target in 2012 and would have been this year but for an injury in off-season training. With Crabtree and Anquan Boldin (on pace for a 76-catch season) playing in tandem, there shouldn’t be any excuse for some of the feeble games this offense has been playing this season.
3. Aldon Smith found his form. He finally looked like Aldon Smith in demolishing Washington left tackle Trent Williams for most of the night. Smith had two sacks of Robert Griffin III, two additional knockdowns and was buzzing around the backfield consistently. Smith's last sack came Week 3 against Indianapolis, and his dominating presence was missed in the two losses since his return from substance-abuse rehab; Smith played just 56 snaps in those two games. But Monday night, his full repertoire of speed and power was on display. Smith made Williams look like he was playing in slow-motion.
Lots of teams had good games in Week 12. But Monday night, San Francisco got the kind of good news on three fronts that strong playoff teams need. The 49ers are going to be a tough out in the playoffs. Presuming, of course, they can make it in a top-heavy NFC.
Now let's head over to Page 2 for your email:
SEATTLE PENALTIES COMING? Peter, when is the league going to do something with regard to the repeated four-game suspensions for the Seahawks? Walter Thurmond just got it. Last year it was Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. Bruce Irvin, Allen Barbre, Winston Guy and John Moffitt have all been hit with substance-abuse-related issues since 2011. When does this become a repeat offender type of thing in the league's eyes?
(Editor's note: After this e-mail arrived, Browner reportedly got busted again and is facing a one-year suspension.)
It’s a valid question. There is a formula that calls for teams to be disciplined in the form of a fine when more than one player on the team in a year is suspended for violating league policy. Irvin, Thurmond and Browner would be three in one year. The NFL is on record as saying that it will consider docking a franchise draft choices if the poor behavior persists, and so that's certainly going to be a question for the Seahawks going forward.
Seattle likely will be fined more than $200,000 under the league's disciplinary formula for teams, given that, according to Pro Football Talk, the fines kick in at one-fourth of the second suspended players' fine, and rise to one-third of the third player's fine. If Browner is gone for a year, that's a healthy fine; he makes $773,000 in base salary.
The solution, obviously, is for players to stop messing up. But for now, owner Paul Allen is going to have to write some checks. And if the league is serious about stopping this behavior or at least trying to, there will be more discussion by the 32 owners about docking draft draft choices for a team with so many violators.
BIG NAMES, BIGGER HEADLINES. If Tom Brady or Peyton Manning were knocked out with an uncalled hit to the head like Jason Campbell was in the Browns game, would this have been the lead story to Monday Morning Quarterback?
Well, if Jason Campbell were playing in the Sunday night game with an audience 15 times the size of the Steelers-Browns audience, and if Jason Campbell were a top-10 quarterback in NFL history, yes, it would have been much bigger news. Doesn’t it seem logical to you that a marginal quarterback getting injured in a game wouldn’t get the same headlines as Brady or Manning getting injured? I’m not trying to diminish the importance of Campbell, but it seems pretty logical to me that the bigger the name, the bigger the story.
HE WANTS MORE RAMS. It’d be nice to see a bit more depth about the Rams. I’m actually a Jets fan but at the sports bar each Sunday I watch as much as every game as possible. And I keep finding myself watching the Rams. They are playing terrific defense, running the ball as well as any team, and Kellen Clemens is playing extremely well, far better than the injured Sam Bradford. I understand they are missing your fine 15—the bottom group is awfully tough to gauge at this point—but I think you’d agree that right now they are a very dangerous team. Jeff Fisher seems to be on his way toward building another strong team.
—Cliff, Midlothian, Va.
I respect the job Fisher is doing with a team that is in what I believe to be the toughest division in football. One of the things we learn from watching a team like the Rams is that it’s possible, by using resources in the draft and free agency, to catch up in the NFL pretty fast. Looks to me that’s what the Rams are doing right now.
GREY DAY. Have to say, I was a little disappointed you didn’t mention the Saskatchewan Roughriders' winning their fourth Grey Cup (in 103 years) on their home field in Regina, with a 45-23 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, in front of 45,000 screaming Rider fans. This is the equivalent of the Packers winning the Super Bowl at Lambeau, except Rider fans are louder and more enthusiastic, and every one of them was wearing a green jersey. Even the weather cooperated—game-time temperature was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit, warmer than Foxboro!
—Jim Macdonald, Regina, Saskatchewan
Having gone to a Grey Cup about 20 years ago, I really appreciate the festivities and the fun, and I regret that I didn’t mention the Grey Cup in the column. It’s really one of the great events in North American sports. Please remind me next year. Maybe The MMQB will cover it.
SMART FOOTBALL, PLEASE. Sunday night, Broncos defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie injured himself diving for what would have been a meaningless interception as time expired in the first half, leaving substitutes to be picked apart by Tom Brady after halftime. Several times I have seen defenders cost their team 40 yards of field position by intercepting long fourth-down passes. Is it too much to ask defensive backs to recognize when going for an interception is a dumb play?
Very good point. I’m sure Jack Del Rio noticed it and pointed it out to Rodgers-Cromartie. How wasteful and potentially injurious that was. I always think that one of the selfish things defensive players do is run back interceptions late in games when they should really just dive, because there is no benefit to advancing a ball at that point in the game. I think it’s just too tempting for a defensive back who very rarely gets his hands on the ball in the open field. But it needs to be driven home that plays like that can hurt the team far more in the long run.
PUNCH OUT. It seems that we're seeing more balls stripped out of the hands of offensive players this year than at any time in the past. You have to figure that defensive players have been trying to strip the ball since George Halas was a young pup. Why are strip moves succeeding so frequently now? Coaches preach ball security but their sermons seem to be falling on deaf ears. What gives?
—Joe Connor, Morris Plains, N.J.