“If you would have told me 10 weeks ago that the SanFrancisco 49ers would be here just 7 yards away from making the playoffs, I would have said you were crazy!” announces Joe Buck over the Sunday afternoon sports broadcast in his signature booming and well-cadenced idiolect that has earned him hefty and countless paychecks over the years.
Hair-plugs and all, he looks and sounds like the career middle management type that would sleep with the interns if given half a chance. He is visibly excited by the improbable chain of football events unfolding before his eyes. As a sports broadcaster, one is supposed to, at least in theory, be as impartial as possible without being overly robotic, but sports broadcasters are still humans after all. His voice betrays his inner whims and desires.
“I couldn’t agree more,” responds Cris Collinsworth, curtly, but with the very same levels of astonishment present in his voice. He’s seen countless games over his long broadcasting career, countless improbable comebacks, countless dramas played out on the field. Yet, it is seemingly always just as exciting and nerve-wracking for him to watch. Indeed, he is more than simply a guy that calls out what is going on in a game. He is, at his core, a huge fan just like the rest of us sitting at home on our couch, Budweisers in hand and the remnants of buffalo chicken wings lying greasy and disheveled on the plate in front of us on the coffee table.
After kicking off the NFL season with a 28-0 shellacking of the hapless and newly-relocated Los Angeles Rams, the San Francisco 49er’s quickly fizzled out and went on to lose the next 5 straight games. Blaine Gabbert is the starting quarterback for this stretch. With flowing golden locks that would make Adonis jealous and a prototypical All-American build, he looks, on quick visual inspection, precisely like the kind of guy you imagine a good NFL quarterback would look like. If his quarterbacking prowess was just a fourth as good as his hair looked, this team would be undefeated. Unfortunately, however, sticking to the hair analogy, his quarterbacking ability is closer to that of Andrew Luck’s neck beard.
It is at this point that pretty much the entire sports media conglomerate has effectively written off the 49ers. And why shouldn’t they? This is a team that features one of the worst owners in all of sports franchises in Jed York. Like most incompetent owners, he is an uber wealthy man who’s personal pride will not allow him to leave the football decision making to people who actually do this for their living. It’s a pride that seems to be common amongst men who have reached his level of status and wealth in a society as competitive as ours.
This is a team that has been gutted of much of the talent that made it a legitimate Super Bowl contender just 2 years prior, either through chance injury, imprudent player dealing by management, and even premature retirements by players who happen to be smart enough to know that brain damage isn’t worth the extra millions of dollars to continue playing on a bad team like this one. This is a sports franchise that decided to jettison Jim Harbaugh, one of the best NFL head coaches and bona fide quarterback whisperer, simply on the basis that management was not able to get along and play nice with him. This organization has now charged former Oregon and Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly with the difficult assignment of making something out of nothing in this roster.
It is also at this point that the public calls to reinstate Colin Kaepernick as the starting quarterback have reached a crescendo. Colin Kaepernick may or may not be the franchise quarterback of the future, but, anyone who has been following this team knows that Blaine Gabbert is certainly not that guy.
And so, it finally happens. Amidst public pressure by the fans and sports media even, Chip Kelly caves in and rolls the dice with Kaepernick. Kaepernick is electrifying in his first game back. He is an elegant, football-playing gazelle, combining elite athleticism and running ability with passable passing ability. He’s no Peyton Manning in the throwing department, but it’s good enough to get this team’s offensive artillery humming again. The Buffalo Bills would be the first victim in week 6 of the season, losing handily to the 49ers with a final score of 28-17. It’s not like they beat the defending champs, the Denver Broncos, or anything, but this win reenergizes the fan base and Kaepernick looks like a savior, if only for a week. He lives to start another week.
Chip Kelly’s gambit would continue to pay off as Kaepernick steadily reclaims the personnel on this team and they embark upon a remarkable midseason turnaround that becomes the talk of the sports pundit 24 hour media cycle. In a nutshell, the 49ers go 7-2 with Captain Kaep steering this dirigible through the volatile and unpredictable waters that is the NFL regular season. 1-5 plus 7-2. This leaves San Francisco with an 8-7 record.
It’s not pretty by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a far cry from what all the sports analysts would have initially projected for this team. More importantly, it leaves the team just on the outside looking in, with their destiny completely in their own hands. Win one more game and they make the playoffs. Lose and they go back to their respective households consoled by the eternal pat-on-the-back mantra “there’s always next year.”
The team standing in front of them and the gatekeeper to playoff land is none other than the New England Patriots. Under ideal and normal circumstances, a perennial contender like the Patriots has clinched all there is for them to clinch by week 16 of the season and will be content to let it’s 2nd and 3rd string play the last game of the season so as to ensure its 1st string is well-rested and injury free in preparation for the impending playoff gauntlet to come. However, that is not the case this year. The New England Patriots will need to win this game to clinch home field advantage the rest of the way. The 49ers will instead be facing a motivated New England squad with no intentions of taking it easy this go around.
More than motivated, this is a New England squad that is, to put it succinctly and simply, good. Tom Brady, at age 39, appears to have found the fountain of youth somewhere and not
told anyone else about it. His supermodel wife is still as scorching hot as ever. She probably drinks the same stuff he does. He is still the same proficient and incisive passer that he was years ago. The head coach, Bill Belichick, is still the same surly Dark Sith lord who sold his soul to the football devil in return for prolonged year-after-year success on the old grid iron.
And, yet, here we are. The scoreboard at Gillette stadium reads 33-28. It is 3rd and goal. The 49ers have the ball on the New England 7 yard line with 26 seconds left in the final contest of the regular season. Chip Kelly’s mustache is all icicles in this weather, exacerbating what was already a vaguely walrus-like visage. A field goal from the kicker here is fruitless. There is only one viable route to victory here and that is to score a touchdown.
Kaepernick is under center. There are two wideouts on the right, one on the left, and the running back Carlos Hyde off to the right of Kaepernick by about 2 yards. Kaepernick scans the field like a sentry posted at the gate looking for enemies to spring out of the shadows at a moment’s notice. He spots one. It is the outside linebacker on the right side who is threatening a blitz.
“Number 82! Watch 82!” yells Kaepernick, presumably to the running back who will be responsible for preventing the opposing behemoth from getting anywhere near Kaepernick.
The ball is hiked, Kaepernick corrals it without a hitch, he fakes the handoff to Carlos Hyde, looks right to his first read, and fires. Incomplete. It hits the hands of the receiver, but bounces off into the sideline due to a combination of the inclement weather and Kaepernick’s lingering tendency to throw the ball at approximately 100 miles per hour regardless of whether the intended receiver is 40 yards away or just 5 yards away. Chip Kelly lets out an audible sigh of “damn” made visible by a puff of white fog.
Now, it is 4th and goal. This is it. Barring an untimely and anticlimactic penalty, there will be no more plays after this. The clock is down to a mere 19 seconds. The last time out is called as both teams confer with their respective coaches to calibrate the final tactics of the game. Chip Kelly mumbles words that are unintelligible from a distance and the team nods in assent. The 30 second break is over and both teams assume their final formation. The 49er’s have two wide outs and two running backs in the backfield. The Patriots are playing man coverage up close and not allowing a modicum of cushion. The noise in the stadium is deafening. Time seems to have slowed down in a special kind of relativity that is unique to critical sports games.
At long last, the ball is snapped. Kaepernick receives the ball from his center. He takes a knee in protest of the unjust discrimination and oppression against minorities in this nation. Turnover on downs. The game, as well as the season, is over.
Kaepernick is crucified.