Here’s my list of the top five and bottom five 49er moments from the 2011-2012 season.
The Best Moments
5. Justin Smith’s forced fumble v. Jeremy Maclin in Philadelphia to beat the Eagles in Week 4. The Niners’ record was 2-1, and although they had just stormed back from a 17-point deficit to take a one-point lead late in the fourth quarter. The Eagles had plenty of time to drive down the field – as they had easily done all day – and kick a game-winning field goal.
They had two timeouts, the two minute warning and the ball at midfield when Michael Vick completed a wide receiver bubble screen to Jeremy Maclin. Maclin caught it with plenty of space but he didn’t make a quick move. He leisurely considered where to run like a guy taking too long to order at McDonald’s. Should I get the Big Mac or the McNuggets? Should I get an apple pie, too? How about some extra ketchup? It’s like he thought the Niners gave up and wouldn’t chase him.
So, naturally he didn’t see or expect Justin Smith punching the ball out of his hand from behind to win the game for the Niners.
4. Alex Smith’s 6-yard TD pass to Delanie Walker in Detroit to beat the Lions in Week 6. Here was the formation: Smith in the shotgun standing next to Kendall Hunter, Vernon Davis at tight end on the left side of the offensive line. Michael Crabtree in the right slot, Ted Ginn Jr. split out to the left and Delanie Walker split out to the right.
Clearly, the pass wasn’t going to Ginn.
But it probably wasn’t going to Walker, either. He dropped a touchdown pass when he was wide open in the end zone in the third quarter.
The Lions were expecting Smith to throw to Davis on this make-or-break play. When it started, Davis ran a five-yard curl in the middle-left of the field, immediately drawing double coverage. Crabtree ran an out to the front-right pylon and Walker ran a quick slant to the middle of the field toward the space Davis created.
Louis Delmas, the Lions cornerback who was matched up with Crabtree, did not bite on the play by following his man to the pylon. He read Smith’s eyes, broke towards Walker and wrapped him up as soon as he caught the ball two yards away from the end zone. Delmas almost dragged him down, too, but Walker powered forward for a yard and half with his right knee one inch off of the ground to score the game-winning TD.
Jim Harbaugh went back to Walker in crunch time. He showed confidence in him guy even though Walker had already bungled a big play. This time, Harbaugh’s loyalty and persistence paid off, but it foreshadowed postseason disaster.
3. Donte Whitner’s goal-line knockout hit on Pierre Thomas in the divisional playoff round. It was the first series of the game. The Saints had driven down the field easily, and they had third down and goal from the Niners seven yard line. Thomas leaked out of the backfield and caught a short pass from Drew Brees at the five. He turned up field expecting to walk into the end zone, but Donte Whitner was in his way. So, Thomas decided to run over the Niners 5’10” strong safety. This was the wrong strategy. He lowered his head into Whitner’s and got knocked out cold, fumbling the ball and crumpling to the field.
2. QB9. That was the play call on Alex Smith’s 28-yard touchdown run to put the Niners up 5 points against the Saints with 2:18 left. The Saints were bringing an overload blitz from the right of the Niners’ o-line – the weaker side, the side with Adam Snyder and Anthony Davis. It’s the side of the Niners line that blitzing defenses had successfully attacked all season.
To bring this overload blitz, the Saints lined up most of their players on one side of the field. So, Alex Smith ran to the other side and scored easily.
1. Vernon Post. Also known as the Catch III, or the best throw of Alex Smith’s career. He fired a whistling dart into a tiny window before his receiver, Davis, had turned his head. Smith needed to throw a perfect pass for that play to work and boy, did he.
The Worst Moments
5. Joshua Morgan breaking his ankle at the end of the blowout win over the Buccaneers in Week 5. It was fourth and three from the Tampa Bay 20 yard line with a few minutes left, and the Niners were up by 38 points. Morgan should not have been in the game. Harbaugh should not have been going for a touchdown. He called an unnecessarily aggressive play call – a pass to Morgan on the sideline. Morgan caught for a 19-yard gain, but he also broke his ankle and missed the rest of the season. The Niners never adequately replaced him on the roster.
4. Chilo Rachal’s fingertip chop block in Baltimore to negate a 75-yard touchdown catch by Ted Ginn Jr. in the second quarter of the Harbowl. If this play counted, the Niners would have had a 10-3 lead and momentum on the road. They might have won. But it didn’t count. Frank Gore cut block Ravens strong safety Bernard Pollard, who was blitzing. Gore dove at his legs and successfully took Pollard out of the play. But Rachal, who was playing right guard in place of the injured Snyder, decided to wipe his fingertips across Pollard’s jersey as he fell. That’s technically a chop block – two guys hitting one guy high and low – and that’s what the refs called.
3. The sack Alex Smith took on the first play of the first offensive possession of the second half against the Giants in the NFC championship game. Greg Roman called one of the Niners bread-and-butter “shot plays” intended for a long, instant touchdown on first down. It was the wheel route to Delanie Walker, and it worked for a touchdown against the Cowboys in Week 2. It would have worked again here – Walker was open – but Smith froze and didn’t throw the pass. Instead, he scrambled around and got sacked by Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul. For most of the season, Smith shied away from taking shots when the Niners weren’t losing – he only goes for it when he has to. Remember the first offensive play against the Ravens? Delanie Walker was wide open deep down the middle of the field and Smith never looked at him. He locked his eyes onto Davis in the flat and completed a two-yard pass to him.
If Smith had thrown the ball to Walker on that critical third quarter play of the NFC championship game, Kyle Williams’ blunders probably wouldn’t have been so tragic.
2. Kyle Williams’ first critical fumble of the NFC championship game, the one where he let a bouncing punt hit his leg and then stood still while the Giants recovered the ball. This was two blunders in one. First, he didn’t get out of the way of a rolling punt. That was bad enough. But then, once it hit him, he just stood there and watched as the Giants recovered it. It’s as if he didn’t feel the ball bounce off his leg, or he was trying to fake out the refs.
They reviewed the play and there were multiple camera angles that clearly showed the ball hitting Williams. So, the Giants got the ball and scored six plays later when Eli Manning threw a TD pass to Mario Manningham.
1. Kyle Williams’ second critical fumble, the one in overtime that sealed the loss to the Giants. Harbaugh expected Williams to redeem himself. Right after Manningham’s touchdown catch following Williams’ first fumble, Williams returned a kickoff 40 yards. In the live blog I called that “semi-redemption.” Still, that was a kick return.
In overtime, he caught the fateful punt cleanly – he didn’t show the nervousness he’d shown all game. But Jacquain Williams, a Giants special teamer, dove at Williams at the perfect time and knocked the ball out with his right hand.
It was like the Hand of God caused the fumble. After the game, Harbaugh blamed the football gods. Clearly, redemption was not their fate for poor Williams on that night.