By Sam McPherson
Regardless of what happened at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers were going to be in the news this weekend, thanks to Internet rumors about the team’s general manager and head coach. To the team’s credit, the players themselves went out and performed hard once again against a superior opponent. In the end, the 49ers’ 25-23 loss to the playoff-bound Seattle Seahawks will just be a footnote to the long, difficult 2016 NFL regular season. With the defeat, San Francisco finished the season with a 2-14 record, the franchise’s worst season since 2004 and tied for the lowest win total in organizational history dating back to 1946. Both General Manager Trent Baalke and head coach Chip Kelly were fired after the game.
The 49ers got off to strong start in this game, taking a 14-3 lead in the second quarter. But then the Seahawks showed why they’re the NFC West champions for the third time in four seasons by scoring 19 unanswered points to take control of the game. San Francisco played spirited football deep into the fourth quarter as the home team closed the gap, but in the end, Seattle just had too much talent for the 49ers. The Seahawks finished the season as the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs with a 10-5-1 record.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick completed 17 of 22 passes for 215 yards and one touchdown. He did lose a crucial fumble that helped Seattle get back into the game after San Francisco took an 11-point lead. That was bad, of course, and Kaepernick didn’t do much with his legs (16 yards on five carries). The Seahawks defense has often held Kaepernick in check over the years, as this was his sixth loss in eight starts against them. Kaepernick just could not do it all on his own in this game, as the 49ers couldn’t generate much of a running game against Seattle.
San Francisco rushed for just 62 yards on 31 carries as the Seahawks forced the 49ers to beat them through the air. The 49ers have had one of the best running attacks in the NFL all season, despite all the losses, but when Seattle took that weapon away, there was only so much Kaepernick could do. His numbers through the air look good, but the S.F. offense converted just two of 11 third-down opportunities, and overall, the 49ers gained just 253 yards while turning the ball over twice. Those turnovers let Seattle back into the game too easily.
San Francisco forced three Seahawks fumbles, but the 49ers couldn’t recover any of them, and overall, the Seattle offense didn’t turn the ball over once. That was the difference in the game, even as the S.F. defense played nobly once again despite the tough positions the 49ers offense left it in with its own mistakes. The Seahawks struggled to convert third downs themselves all game, and that kept the score close even though Seattle’s offense ran up 376 yards of total offense. Seahawks QB Russell Wilson completed just 19 of his 32 passes, but his 258 yards through the air did enough damage.
Seattle gained just 87 yards on the ground, despite 25 rushing attempts. Starting RB Thomas Rawls managed just 14 yards on eight carries, and even though backup RB Alex Collins had 55 yards on just seven attempts, the rest of the Seahawks couldn’t go anywhere on the ground. That put the onus on Wilson and later backup QB Trevone Boykin to make plays, and the two Seattle passers did just enough to win the game. But the 49ers defense did enough to win this game, even though the unit couldn’t stop the Seahawks backups from running out the clock on the final possession of the contest.
Special Teams: A
The 49ers blocked an extra-point attempt, and punter Bradley Pinion had one of his best games of the season with a 47.2-yard average on six punts. San Francisco got some good returns, too, from Raheem Mostert and JaCorey Shepherd. Kicker Phil Dawson finished the season with a solid game, too, despite not attempting any field goals. He made all three of his extra-point attempts.
This San Francisco roster wasn’t an NFL-caliber group in 2016, thanks to poor decisions by Baalke over the last few years and a lot of injuries. Kelly once again had the 49ers playing hard against a vastly superior opponent, and the San Francisco players again responded well enough to almost win the game. That was Kelly’s doing, and in this game, he did what he could with this roster. San Francisco played hard all season, despite the lack of success on both sides of the ball and the scoreboard. Kelly just needed better players to work with and more time with the good players the team did have on the roster. The 49ers will find it hard to hire a new coach that motivates these players as well as Kelly did.
The offseason is going to be interesting: With five losses by a combined 25 points, the 49ers were in a lot of games this year they had no business being in, thanks to coaching. It’s going to be hard to find any decent sideline presence that wants to come in and take over this train wreck roster while getting the same kind of effort from the players every week. San Francisco has to score big in the 2017 NFL Draft, and Colin Kaepernick has to continue to make strides forward in order for the 49ers to be competitive again next season. There really isn’t a franchise QB available in the draft, and the defense needs to be rebuilt first, anyway.