49ers struggle to reach full potential

49ers struggle to reach full potential
January 19, 2014, 11:30 pm
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Colin Kaepernick flashed his potential by carving up Seattle's defense with his legs, but also showcased his flaws with three fourth quarter turnovers. (USATSI)

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SEATTLE -- Losses are lessons, sometimes delivered at knifepoint. So it is in San Francisco for the 49ers, where the freshest wound, the 49ers' 23-17 loss to Seattle in the NFC Championship Sunday, teaches with a mailed backhand just how close, and so far away, the 49ers still are from The Home Of Happy Feet.

[RECAP: 49ers' quest ends with loss to Seahawks]

On the one hand, this loss was in its way every bit as cruel as the Super Bowl loss or the NFC title loss to New York two years ago. A few inches higher and a couple of feet to the right and Colin Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree are never buying drinks in The City ever again.

On the other hand, they had a 10-point and two seven-point leads and couldn't close the deal because the Seahawks are everything they are cracked to be, and a scoche more besides.

No, you don’t like reading it or hearing it, now that Richard Sherman has given you fresh reasons to loathe him and his titanium tongue (his voluble analysis of Crabtree as “sorry” and “mediocre” will resound the entire summer), but those who win talk because people will listen, and those who do not walk because people don’t.

[MAIOCCO: Sherman takes aim at Crabtree, Kaepernick in postgame comments]

If it wasn't the 35-yard soul-devouring touchdown pass on a free play from Russell Wilson to Jermaine Kearse, it was Marshawn Lynch putting a wholly unexpected boot in early in the third quarter when all looked very 49erish indeed. And if it wasn’t Kam Chancellor poaching Anquan Boldin’s out route two plays after the Bowman injury, it was Sherman’s mitt deflecting Kaepernick’s last pass and into teammate Malcolm Smith’s.

In other words, Seattle made the biggest plays in the biggest moments, enough to overcome the ones it screwed up. The 49ers, well, didn’t. And while we don’t like making a habit of arguing with someone who has seen and done as much as Boldin, his assertion that “I still think we have the better team” doesn’t bear up under the evidence.

Too many truths get in the way. The 49ers could have won going away by consolidating their early gains, but just as easily could have lost 30-17 had the Seahawks punched in the score they seemed sure to get before their back-to-back fumbles.

And don’t start in on the officiating. The game is now simply ungovernable, because of a byzantine rulebook, the speed of the game, and the fact that eight men cannot cover 22 and the multiple angles from each one. Officiating is now as much a matter of caprice as anything else, like turnovers or the weather. You live with it, or go follow another sport.

The first truth: Games can be won in either half, but they are lost by teams that can't play both. The 49ers controlled the first half with Kaepernick's feet and a smothering defense, but that defense wore down under the punishing pace at which both teams played, and Kaepernick's running never linked with any other offensive facet, thus preventing the 49ers from turning that control into points.

He completed 14 of 24 passes for 153 yards but those two underthrown balls resulted in drive-killing/score-killing and finally game-killing interceptions. He is not yet the kind of quarterback who can ruthlessly dissect a good defense and make it bend to his will – he may surely be at some point, but not yet. He took the blame for Sunday’s loss, which is probably too harsh by half, but a quarterback is not solely the product of his arm. There are far more facets that Kaepernick has to learn before he goes from “promising” and “electrifying” to “fully professional.”

More telling, though, is the way the Seahawks asphyxiated running back Frank Gore, who carried only 11 times, gained merely 14 yards and had only one run of true consequence, the seven-yarder that set up San Francisco's second touchdown.

The other carries? Two, one, minus-one, one, zero, two, minus-one, minus-six, nine and zero yards. Seattle plainly sold out to stop him, which is not exactly quantum physics tactically, and the 49ers still ended up with their usual quota of two touchdowns (10 times in 19 games, which in this era is plainly not enough). That is plainly insufficient in the modern game unless you get that magic third field goal, and the 49ers got but the one.

It is reasonable then to infer from this that the 49er offense is not yet mature or dangerous enough to be fully feared by an elite team, and Seattle has defensive elite it hasn't even used yet.

So yes, the better team won. The NaVorro Bowman knee injury on the first of Seattle’s two goal-line fumbles turned to be catastrophic for him (ACL, and maybe more) but of little consequence in the result of the game because Seattle fumbled again on the next play. It should have meant more, because that’s how important Bowman is, but as they say, “ball doesn’t give a damn what it does.”

In sum, the 49ers are everything one should want in a team, but somehow are not yet all that. They are not in Buffalo Bills territory yet, losing four consecutive Super Bowls and being remembered as the quintessential team that couldn’t finish the deal. They aren’t even the Denver team that lost three Super Bowl in four years, or the Minnesota team that lost four in eight. You can’t even say they’re getting a reputation for not winning the big one.

But 2014 will be a hugely important year, and not because of the gaudy new digs. The 49ers are that very good team that has the wherewithal to be great but hasn’t proven it in the all-in hand yet. What they have accomplished is very difficult. What they have not yet done is more difficult still.

And until they do, people will talk, like, say, Richard Sherman. And all they can do is grind their teeth and listen to it, and make plans for the day when the talking stops.