The San Francisco 49ers gave their fans one last reason to cheer amidst a downtrodden and bleak year, fighting their way to a final victory before closing the books on a forgettable 2015 season.
With a 19-16 overtime win against the St. Louis Rams, the 49ers narrowly avoided their worst season in a decade, ending with a 5-11 record on the year.
In a battle between the league’s two worst offenses, the 49ers managed to be just a little bit better, squeaking by in overtime with the help of a 33-yard gain from receiver Quinton Patton before kicker Phil Dawson would seal the deal with a chip-shot field goal.
Photos by Scot Tucker/SFBay
The game was narrowly a quintessential 49ers disaster, as a questionable decision to punt from head coach Jim Tomsula from his team’s 37-yard line sent the game into a seemingly unnecessary overtime.
But in a game that’s all about momentum, the 49ers found one final way to carry a bit of positivity into an offseason that will prove to be perhaps the most important in recent history.
Starting perhaps his last game as a 49er, quarterback Blaine Gabbert was among the select few playmakers for the 49ers on the day, throwing for 354 yards on 28 completions, good for one touchdown.
Putting aside a few forgettable moments, Gabbert stood strong in the pocket on multiple occasions to deliver clutch strikes to his receiving corps down the stretch, putting Dawson in position to pull out the hard fought victory.
Newcomer RB DuJuan Harris ran hard for his second straight game, leading the 49ers with 67 yards on 16 rushing attempts, as well as 86 yards receiving. In what could be his final game in San Francisco, Anquan Boldin accounted for the 49ers only touchdown on a 33-yard route across the middle of the field.
Although it may not of translated into physical beauty on the field, linebacker NaVorro Bowman felt like the relentless effort displayed by the team in an otherwise meaningless game showed signs of forward progress heading into next season.
“The expectations were so high due to what we built in the past years. And just trying to express that to the young guys as the season was going on, that was really a stepping stool for us as a team because we were so young. But we just kept fighting, kept studying and I believe progress was made throughout the year.
We finished strong today. We kept our heads forward. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish and I’m proud of my guys today.”
Even for those with a less certain-or perhaps even non-existent-future with the team, grasping a final win at the end of a trying season was a reward that wasn’t lost amidst a disappointing year.
Preferring not to speculate on his job security, Gabbert was instead complimentary of the way his team fought to the very end, stating:
“The season didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but the way we finished strong, came out there and finished the season with a win, it speaks volumes for our players.”
Tomsula — whose job security is in even bigger turmoil after various reports that he will be ousted as the head coach of the 49ers in the following week — echoed Gabbert’s sentiments.
After completing his first full season as an NFL head coach, Tomsula refused to speculate on his job moving forward, focusing only on what could have been his final win as head coach of the 49ers.
“What you saw there, the fight, the way they work there, that’s what we see Monday through Saturday with that group of guys.”
San Francisco will now look to the draft, where Sunday’s win secured them the seventh overall pick. With a variety of roster holes to fill-and a possible head coaching vacancy- this 49ers offseason is sure to be as entertaining as the last.
Broken coverage from CB Tremaine Brock allowed the Rams to jump out to an early road lead, as St. Louis WR Kenny Britt hauled in a 54-yard bomb from Keenum to bring his team across midfield. The 49ers defense would bend, but not break, as they would force a 33-yard field goal from K Greg Zuelein.
The two team’s slow starts would make for a forgettable first quarter, with both teams notching a combined 152 yards of offense and just six total first downs, good for three points.
But the 49ers came slinging to start the second, as Gabbert would connect with Boldin for a 33 yard touchdown on the first play after the break. The score-which could possible be Boldin’s final in the red and gold- gave his team a 7-3 lead.
After finding themselves out of scoring range for the second straight drive, the Rams decided to employ some early trickery, in the form of an attempted 36-yard pass into the end zone on a fake punt.
The play was spotted and covered nicely by receiver Bruce Ellington, whose sudden cornerback skills gave the 49ers the ball at their own 36.
San Francisco would make good use of the shortened field, as running back DuJuan Harris would move his team into the red zone with a 37-yard run up the gut, before K Phil Dawson would cap off the series with a 26-yard field goal.
The penalty negated what would have been a third-and-12 outside of field goal range, allowing the Rams instead to move the ball enough for Zuerlein to chip through his second field goal of the day to pull to within four.
Things only got uglier for the 49ers on their following possession, as an athletic turnover cost them their lead.
After stepping up in the pocket, Gabbert attempted to sling a pass over the head of defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The 6-foot-1-inch Donald spiked the pass backwards towards the line of scrimmage, landing safely in the hands of teammate Eugene Sims, who would return it 42-yards to the 49ers 3-yard line.
Mason would cap off the turnover with a four yard plunge just two plays later to regain the lead at 13-10.
The half would continue to sour for the 49ers, as an embarrassing pass on third-and-long from Gabbert fell short, forcing a punt with just 29 seconds to go.
The half-minute mark would prove enough for St. Louis to score one more time before heading to the locker room, as running Benny Cunningham‘s 40-yard run up the middle of the field would be enough to bring out Zuerlein for his third field goal conversion.
The third quarter would be chewed up primarily with an eight-and-a-half minute drive by the St. Louis Rams that would end unproductively, as Zuerlein would miss his first attempt of the day from 52-yards out.
However, San Francisco managed to chew into the St. Louis lead with a field goal of their own — this one splitting the uprights — to make it a three-point game heading into the final frame.
After displaying his coverage skills earlier, Ellington would then be called upon to use his receiving skills to help his team, as a 44-yard gain would set up Dawson’s game-tying 28-yard field goal.
With just over two-minutes to go, San Francisco received the ball with one final chance to put a positive spin on their lowly season.
Gabbert nearly answered the call, shaking off a sack to fire a 27-yard strike to a streaking Boldin across the middle of the field to convert a crucial third-down across midfield.
But the drive would stall with San Francisco on their own 37-yard line. In typical fashion, Tomsula elected for the reserved call, trotting out punter Bradley Pinion instead of electing to try the field goal-much to the dismay of the crowd.
The play was indicative of Tomsula’s biggest downfall, as he’s often been criticized for playing too conservatively. After a quick defensive stand from San Francisco, the game would head to overtime.
Fielding questions about the controversial call after the game, Tomsula stated he erred on the side of caution due to the winds at Levi’s Stadium.
“[Dawson] probably coulda. But kicking that way with the wind, we had talked about that before the game, so I didn’t want to do that.”
Despite a big gain from tight end Vance McDonald, San Francisco would punt yet again to start overtime, turning the game into a sudden death showdown.
Driving his team down the field, Keenum moved the ball steadily to his receivers on play-action passes before settling on the 30-yard line.
It would then be up to Zuerlein to try to end the game on a 48-yard attempt. But the veteran’s fourth try of the day would be tipped by cornerback Dontae Johnson, turning the ball back over the 49ers for a final attempt.
Gabbert would then lead the 49ers on their final drive of the 2015 season, as he connected on three-of-four attempts to move his team to the five yard line, before Dawson would seal the deal with a 23-yard kick.