That the San Francisco 49ers won Sunday, after such a chaotic week, requires pause.
They demoted quarterback Colin Kaepernick, traded tight end Vernon Davis and again deactivated the injured Anquan Boldin. They walked into Levi’s Stadium with three of their top four cornerbacks in street clothes. They figured to be target practice for Atlanta quaterback Matt Ryan and elite receiver Julio Jones.
The 49ers, minus a touchdown in the last nine quarters, were teed up for more humiliation in a season already brim-full with the stuff. So their 17-16 victory, upgrading them from a potential 2-7 (we’ll see you next July) to 3-6 (we’ll see you in two weeks in Seattle) came attached with shock value. It was as seismic a shift, next to a coaching change, as the NFL gets in November.
Yes, the 49ers checked many boxes.
Start with Blaine Gabbert, the quarterback whose five-yard bootleg run on third down sealed the win. He had not guided an NFL team to a victory in three years, and he proved he was ready for his chance. If he’s not the long-term answer for the 49ers, he certainly was the answer Sunday.
Gabbert provided something the 49ers often lacked this season under Kaepernick – a spark. He threw with authority and the kind of confidence missing from the former starter. The 49ers had no choice here. Successful or not, they had to replace the quarterback. For one week, it worked, thanks to a stout defense.
Kaepernick, the starter for the 49ers’ previous 53 games, looked uncomfortable. And why not? He’d been the face of the team since the Super Bowl three seasons ago. He stood almost alone, with nothing else to do, while Gabbert led the offense in pregame drills.
Kaepernick logged exactly two plays, a handoff and a catchable but dropped pass, while Gabbert was shaken up during the second half. Otherwise, he chatted with Gabbert between series and supported the new guy in charge. Still, it was odd to see him quickly exit the locker room, bag in hand, after the game. He’s usually the last to leave after he does his postgame interview.
Alas, there are no interview requests for non-starting quarterbacks.
“He (Kaepernick) was wonderful. The relationship that we have is great,” Gabbert said. “He was the same way today as I had been with him in the past. Whatever he saw, he told me and we just kind of worked together well.”
By the way, who were some of those guys wearing red? Running back Shaun Draughn was just hanging out with his family in Cleveland two weeks ago, yet he displayed why eight NFL teams have seen enough to give him a uniform.
Draughn shook off a vicious blow by lineman Jonathan Babineaux and bounced it outside for a gain 30 yards. That set up Gabbert’s 11-yard touchdown dart to Garrett Celek.
These are energy-creating plays, the kind that sustain teams through games. It was like all the commotion this week forced the team to hit the re-set key and rethink their approach.
They clearly threw the 6-3 Falcons off balance by ditching their zone coverages in favor of more blitzes and pressure on Ryan. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman, still recovering from knee surgery, torched Atlanta with seven tackles and a fourth-quarter sack in his best game post-rehab.
Five years ago, the Falcons brought Bowman into camp for a workout but did not draft him. That choice has not worked out well for Atlanta. It was Bowman’s knockdown of a pass at the S.F. 10-yard line that sealed the 49ers’ come-from-behind win in the 2012 NFC championship game. This just in: Bowman saves his best for the Falcons.
“You’re going to have a chip on (your) shoulder against that team,” Bowman said. “It was fun. I always look forward to playing against them.”
The Falcons even checked a box late in the game after Gabbert’s second interception. With less than three minutes left on fourth down from the 49er 1, Atlanta coach Dan Quinn opted for a field goal. With his team down by four points.
Quinn’s decision amounted to either over-inflated confidence for his defense or a major sign of disrespect to the 49ers. Perhaps the 49ers deserved no respect through the season’s first two months. Regardless, the 49ers suddenly were only two first downs from a one-point win, and they got it.
I didn’t have time to do a roll call, but I bet all 53 members of the Atlanta team – and you can throw in the coaching staff – would have said, “Let’s go!” to a shot at victory from the 1. The 49ers, though stubborn this day, no longer are a juggernaut. It was a classic first-guess mistake from a coach who got in his own way.
“We’re a really good two-minute offense, so that was the reasoning behind it,” Quinn said. “I felt like we were stopping them defensively and we’d go stop it again and go win it that way.”
Quinn’s call matched the day’s off-center feel. The Falcons managed only 16 points despite good field position. Punter Bradley Pinion saved a touchdown with a laudable one-on-one tackle of the seemingly gone Eric Weems. The 49ers did not score in the second half and still celebrated later.
The 49ers are in no position to demand points for artistic merit. They survived on one of those “Any Given Sunday” games in the NFL, and they’ll let others critique them.