NFL: After all the ups and downs, 49ers hardly budged, finishing 8-8
By Daniel Brown
San Jose Mercury News
ST. LOUIS — After all the training-camp speeches, the Mike Singletary billboards, the nutcracker drills, the quarterback competition, the Michael Crabtree negotiations, the offensive coordinator debate and 16 up-and-down games, the San Francisco 49ers barely budged.
They are one game better than last season.
The 49ers eked their way to a .500 finish with a 28-6 victory over St. Louis on Sunday, a season finale that crashed to the shore with all the momentum of a beached whale.
Sluggish on offense for three quarters, the 49ers scored a trio of touchdowns in the final 7:29 to pull away from the lowly Rams (1-15).
The victory got the 49ers to 8-8. And to coach Mike Singletary, it felt a lot better than the finish that ate and ate at him last year.
“What I’m very excited about is that on both sides of the ball, we’re not far away,” he said.
For the glass-half-full crowd, there was a 73-yard touchdown grab by Vernon Davis, which tied Antonio Gates (13 in 2004) for an NFL record for tight ends.
There were also Frank Gore’s two late touchdown runs and an aggressive defense led by Justin Smith’s career-best 3.5 sacks.
For the glass-half-empty types, there were the 49ers’ three unsightly quarters on offense. The 49ers struggled for first downs, let alone points, against one of the NFL’s worst defenses. Alex Smith had 23 passing yards at halftime.
“This is not the style of game we wanted to have. This is not the way we wanted the game to go,” Singletary said.
In other words, there was some good and some bad.
Just like the 49ers’ year.
“We need to take a very honest look at what we have to take to get better,” Singletary said.
The 49ers were 6-2 at home and 2-6 on the road. They were 3-3 with Shaun Hill as the starting quarterback and 5-5 with Smith.
They won back-to-back games to start the season and back-to-back games to finish—but didn’t do it once in between.
Now, they will begin searching anew for the winning formula.
“We have all the guys. We have all the talent,” Davis said. “I believe in the coaching staff. I believe that there are guys ready to pick it up.”
Davis represents proof of how far a player can come in a short time. In the doghouse a year ago and a disappointment as a high draft pick, Davis emerged in his fourth season as team leader and top playmaker.
With the 49ers nursing a 7-6 lead midway through the fourth quarter Sunday, Davis blew past safety James Butler and cornerback Ron Bartell on a go route. Smith hit Davis in stride down the right sideline. It was the longest career play for both of them.
“My number was called and coach told me if there was a DB out there, do what you do best and just run by him,” Davis said. “That’s what I did, I just ran as fast as I could.”
It also gave Davis a share of Gates’ NFL record and highlighted his transformation from the guy Singletary banished to the locker room last season.
“He’s a fine young man who just needed some direction. His heart is great,” Singletary said. “This happened because of his work ethic.”
Gore described Davis more bluntly: “He’s growing up.”
The long touchdown gave the 49ers a 14-6 lead and, at long last, the rout was underway. Gore scored on runs of 3 and 6 yards, even as Davis joked in the huddle that they need to throw it to him one more time.
(Davis resisted saying it to offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye. “I almost bit on my tongue,” the tight end said.)
The late offense was plenty for a 49ers defense that registered eight sacks for the first time since 1998. Smith had 3.5, followed by one each from Dashon Goldson, Demetric Evans, Dre’ Bly, Manny Lawson and a half-sack by Parys Haralson.
In all, the 49ers finished with 44 sacks. That’s a 14-sack improvement from last season and the most by a 49ers defense since 1998 (51 sacks).
The 49ers also held an opponent to 10 points or fewer for the seventh time this season, best in the NFL.
“We did pretty good for the most part,” Smith said, talking about the defense overall. “We had some letdowns in a game or two, but for the most part we felt like we played decent enough.
“As a team, we played good enough to be 8-8. And that’s not good enough. Next year, we have to come back and play better.”