As much entertainment as the 49ers’ second overtime game with the St. Louis Rams provided Sunday, the real fun starts this afternoon when coach Jim Harbaugh faces the media at his weekly press conference.
In recent weeks, Harbaugh’s pressers have produced more gems than a Bill Clinton deposition. How much yarn will he spin this week to defend Colin Kaepernick’s management of a game that Alex Smith would have clearly won?
The 49ers (8-3-1) would have beat the Rams this week if they just had a game manager at quarterback. Vic Fangio’s defense was completely stifling, holding St. Louis to only 38 yards of offense through 28 minutes. The Rams didn’t penetrate the 49ers’ 40-yard line until the third quarter and the offense didn’t score until kicker Greg Zuerlein tied the game with a 53-yard field goal as regulation expired.
This was the grind-it-out type of game the 49ers won week-after-week in 2011 when Smith set a franchise record for fewest interceptions in a season.
While Kaepernick looked impressive again with his rocket arm and his long-swift strides, three “rookie” mistakes cost the 49ers a crucial late-season win.
The first gaffe put the Rams on the board at a time when the 49ers had a chance to build some momentum up 7-0. The Rams had finally made some headway against the Niners’ defense, but they turned the ball over on downs at the San Francisco 4-yard line, the type of play that can kill team’s confidence.
But Kaepernick jolted them back to life when he threw the ball away in his own end zone, resulting in a safety. The refs botched the call, but Harbaugh can’t really blame anyone other than his young quarterback. Kaepernick snapped the ball at the 17-yard line, so he had plenty of room to work with. Take a sack or get out of the pocket — just don’t run into your own end zone. Sure, it’s the holiday season, but you shouldn’t be gift-wrapping presents when you’re ahead and your defense is stingier than Ebenezer Scrooge.
Kaepernick’s second mistake led to the touchdown that eventually tied the game (after a 2-point conversion) with less than four minutes to play. Kaepernick pitched the ball over Ted Ginn Jr.’s head after receiving a low snap and the Rams recovered it in the end zone. While Harbaugh took responsibility for calling a risky play, it wasn’t the kind of blunder an eight-year veteran like Smith would make.
Smith also wouldn’t run out of bounds with 1:38 left on the clock. Instead of forcing Jeff Fisher to take his final timeout before David Akers hit the go-ahead field goal, Kaepernick stopped the clock for him, giving the Rams more time to tie the game on the ensuing drive.
Still, Harbaugh affirmed his commitment to Kaepernick after the game, which makes last week’s comments sound even more ridiculous. Kaepernick doesn’t have the “hot hand” and if Harbaugh isn’t wavering after this string of newbie gaffes, he doesn’t have a “unique” situation with two starting quarterbacks either.
Kaepernick is still learning the position, but these lessons need to come in August, not in December when you’re fighting for home-field advantage.
Smith should be the quarterback right now, no doubt. He doesn’t win games with his arm, but he doesn’t lose them with mistakes, either. For a guy who likes to limit the turnovers, Harbaugh is sure fumbling this one.
Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PGackle.