Eric Gilmore's inside look at sports in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Mining for some positives in an ugly 49ers season-opener
OK, let’s get the obligatory tear-them-a-new-one part of the story out of the way first.
The 49ers stunk it up in their season-opener Sunday at Monster Park. They lost 23-13 to the Arizona Cardinals, a team they beat twice last year. They turned to ball over five times and didn’t force a single turnover.
Quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan threw an interception and lost two fumbles. Takeo Spikes muffed a pooch kick in the third quarter, a mistake that wound up costing the 49ers seven points. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce was invisible. Defensive end Ray McDonald committed a killer but somewhat questionable roughing-the-quarterback penalty. The defense couldn’t get off the field in the second half when Arizona ran 43 plays to the 49ers 14.
So there you have it, the highlights of the lowlights.
I’d rather spend more time on the glass-half-full story line because, frankly, it’s just too early in the season to go all-in on 49ers bashing and too disheartening to think that we’re in for yet another year of unwatchable football in San Francisco.
Here’s the hope I’m clinging to after spending another long day watching the 49ers lose then listening to them rehash the gory details: The 49ers’ offense, when it had a chance to get on the field and wasn’t giving the ball away, actually looked, well, OK, like a legitimate NFL attack.
Yeah, I know it’s not much. But think back to last season when the 49ers had an offense that was historically bad. Now think about the numbers from the first half of Sunday’s game, when new coordinator Mike Martz’s offense wasn’t stuck on the sidelines.
O’Sullivan completed 10 of 14 passes for 141 yards. Frank Gore ran for 80 yards, 41 of those on a touchdown romp. Wide receiver Bryant Johnson caught three passes for 48 yards and tight end Vernon Davis caught two for 49 yards.
Yeah the 49ers were sloppy. But in 30 minutes they produced more big plays than in a typical month last season.
Let’s put O’Sullivan’s 141 first-half yards into perspective. Last season the 49ers quarterbacks didn’t throw for that many yards for an entire game seven times.
“I think J.T. did a great job,” Davis said. “I like J.T. a lot. He’s a good quarterback. He’s very good.”
Of course O’Sullivan wasn’t taking much, if any, solace from his first-half numbers, not when he was guilty of three total turnovers, lost his first NFL start and didn’t throw a touchdown pass.
“Not good enough,” he said of his performance. “We lost. It ends with that.”
It’s clear that Gore is going to have more room to run this season. Defenses can’t crowd the line of scrimmage with seven or eight defenders and dare the 49ers to pass, the way they did last year. Dare Martz to dial up passes this year, the he’ll gladly oblige.
Gore broke loose for a 41-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. He shot over right guard, cut to the middle and saw nothing but green grass in front of him instead of red and white Cardinals uniforms.
Gore must have felt as if he’d been released from running back prison. He raced into the end zone, giving the 49ers a 7-3 lead.
Davis is another 49er who found some open space, using his speed to get downfield.
With a flick of his right wrist, O’Sullivan hit Davis with a 37-yard strike over the middle early in the second quarter. Later in the drive, O’Sullivan rolled far to his right and threw all the way across the field to Davis for 12 yards.
Johnson worked the deep middle for a 31-yard grab and had a 16-yard catch, too, both in the first half.
“We did do some positive things out there, which is promising,” 49ers offensive tackle Joe Staley said. “At the same time, we’ve got to protect the football and we’ve got to do a better job protecting the quarterback, giving him time to make decisions downfield.”
The big plays in the first half certainly didn’t ease O’Sullivan’s pain.
“I think when we had opportunities to make big plays down the field, our guys stepped up and made plays,” O’Sullivan said. “Moving the ball is not enough. Changing field position is not enough. You’ve got to score touchdowns.”
O’Sullivan did a good job of making something out of nothing when plays broke down, dumping the ball to his outlets. But there was one pass on one haywire play in the first quarter that he shouldn’t have thrown.
While moving to his left, O’Sullivan tried to hit Arnaz Battle over the middle. Strong safety Adrian Wilson knifed in front for an interception.
“When I threw it I thought I had him,” O’Sullivan said.
He didn’t, of course. But I’m not going to dwell on O’Sullivan’s miscues this week. I’m thinking positive because the alternative is just too ugly.
After nearly 30 years as a sports writer and columnist for the Contra Costa Times, Eric is now a freelance writer, editor and blogger. He was a 49ers beat writer for 10 years, including three Super Bowl seasons, and spent time on the Cal football and basketball beats. He has covered multiple Super Bowls, U.S. Opens and Masters, as well as the NBA, NHL and major-league playoffs.