Here's the oh-so-interesting subtext to Sunday's game in St. Louis: The Rams defense forced Colin Kaepernick to play conservatively, to hit his checkdowns and to throw the ball away when there were no good outcomes. That is, they forced him to play like Alex Smith.
After the game, several 49ers, including Kaepernick, said it seemed as if Jeff Fisher and the Rams made all the right defensive plays at all the right moments. You saw this early in the game when Kaepernick twice had plenty of time to throw and was looking downfield but had to dump off to his emergency option. The Rams felt that if they could take away Kaepernick's big plays, they could make the 49ers dink and dunk their way downfield and that eventually Kaepernick, making his third-ever start, would make a mistake. (More on that later).
The steaming, dripping irony is that the 49ers had a quarterback who excels at that type of game watching from the sideline. It's silly to say that the 49ers would have won had Smith been the starting quarterback. Who knows? You could argue that Smith never would have made some of the big throws Kaepernick made in the third quarter or the 50-yard run down the sideline in the fourth. What I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt is that Smith would not have committed some of the same mistakes - the safety, not going down in bounds at the end of regulation - that Kaepernick made on Sunday.
But this is all part of Jim Harbaugh's bold move. He is gambling that the hard-knocks education Kaepernick is receiving during the last half of the season will serve him well in the playoffs. If he's right, and the wounds the second-year quarterback suffered Sunday turn out to be proud scars in January and February, Harbaugh will look like a genius. If not? Harbaugh has gambled and lost.
It won't get easier. Fisher and the Rams have set up a nice template for every team now facing Kaepernick: Take away the deep stuff and see if the quarterback has the patience and the touch to win a close game.
There are several tiers of blame to the botched pitch that turned the game against the 49ers. It's like Dante's "Inferno" in which there are successive circles of hell, one more awful than the last. We'll start with the outermost circle and work our way to the fiery core:
* Jonathan Goodwin's snap was a bit low. That caused Kaepernick to momentarily take his eyes off of the defense and puts him a bit off rhythm. Goodwin also had a low snap last week on Kaepernick's interception. Any time a quarterback is looking down at the ball, he's not looking at the defense.
* Ted Ginn looked as if he were trying to avoid a bouncing ball on a punt or as if he were walking through a puddle trying not to get his pants cuffs wet. The veteran showed no urgency in retrieving - or knocking away - the bouncing football. Rookie Janoris Jenkins did, and that's why he wound up with the ball in the end zone.
* Kaepernick's toss was way off base. That's one of the ironies of the play. Kaepernick did not fail at a traditional offensive play. That was his big critique coming out of the draft - he couldn't play under center or out of the pocket. Instead, the blunder came out of the shotgun on a play he ran hundreds of time in college.
* The play call was awful. Afterward the players insisted they had run it before, but I can't remember another instance this year. And it's not like they were catching the Rams by surprise. Ginn was lined up in the I formation behind Frank Gore. The Rams knew an odd play was in the works, they reacted aggressively and watched the play blow up in their favor.
Don't blame the 49ers defense (except for maybe Dashon Goldson for his ill-timed roughness penalty). After coming out admittedly sluggish in the Nov. 11 game against the Rams, the unit was energetic from the get-go in the rematch, Patrick Willis and Justin Smith especially. The only thing they failed to accomplish was get a turnover, which likely would have tilted the game to the 49ers. (Ahmad Brooks dropped a would-be interception on the first play of the game.) But give credit to the Rams. They played conservatively - and got booed, loudly, by their fans because of it - knowing that they might get a shot in a close game.
The Rams are in the 49ers' heads, and Fisher appeared to take particular glee in rubbing the 49ers' mistakes in Harbaugh's nose. Here's Fisher when asked about the 49ers' botched pitch play: "I don't know what they were trying to do accomplish there, but we took advantage of one of their mistakes."
Later, Fisher was asked about the Rams' game-tying field goal at the end of regulation: "Well, they helped also because he (Kaepernick) ran out of bounds once and threw an incomplete pass, and so I was not expecting ... I was expecting to get the ball back inside of a minute with no timeouts left. Instead, we have it with 1:48 and a timeout left, so that certainly helped our cause."
The Rams players also were feisty, particularly guard Harvey Dahl on offense and cornerback Cortland Finnegan on defense. Both took plays beyond the whistle. Both shoved 49ers' helmets onto the turn after plays. That chippy play trickled down to teammates. Kaepernick was roughed up on a short run in the fourth quarter, and notably got zero reinforcement from his offensive linemen.
After the botched pitch, William Hayes is seen taunting Kaepernick as the players start leaving the end zone. After his two-point conversion reception, Rams tight end Lance Kendricks flips the ball at Willis and gets a warning by the official. Like Fisher, St. Louis has become adept at provoking the opposition.
Gore had a big run to open the second quarterback in which he knocked off Finnegan's helmet. It was an aggressive, tone-setting kind of run. But it was called back because of a holding call on Joe Staley. From that point, Gore had no room to maneuver. He had a six-yard run in overtime. In between, he had a series of one- and two-yard carries as well as several no gains.
I don't know how Alex Smith feels about being one of the 49ers who handles the coin toss before the game - and on Sunday - before overtime. But it seems even more awkward in light of what happened against the Rams. Smith is out for the coin toss because he's a team captain. He's a team captain because his peers voted and believed he should be a leader on the team.
Contrast: Rams rookie wideout Chris Givens (fourth round; 96th overall) had 11 catches for 92 yards. 49ers rookie wideout A.J. Jenkins (first round; 30th overall) was the only skill player on either team who did not set foot in the game. Givens was starting in place of Danny Amendola.
- Matt Barrows