When: 1:25 p.m. PT Sunday Where: Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara TV: CBS
The San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins meet for the second time in Week 12 in as many years. And just like last season, both teams appear to be heading in opposite directions. This time, though, the Niners and Washington meet on a Sunday in Santa Clara, rather than on a Monday night outside of the nation’s capital. NFL Nation reporters Paul Gutierrez and John Keim break down the matchup.
Gutierrez: Hey, John, wasn’t too long ago that Robert Griffin III was the toast of football in his Superman socks as the epitome of the unselfish athlete. Now? Seems like he represents all that is wrong with Washington's NFL franchise and lacks an accountability gene. What is the truest picture of RGIII you can paint at this point in time based on your interactions with him and what teammates say?
Keim: I'll start with this: No one who was in his news conference Sunday felt he had thrown teammates under the bus. Or at least none of the people I talked about it with later. Before he said the one line in which he went too far, Griffin had spent the entire time blaming himself and saying how he needed to play better. I’ll knock him when it’s justified and in this case what he needed to do is what Jay Gruden later said: Worry about yourself. Yes, there are teammates who don’t like him and, especially last year, there were guys who felt he should take more blame. There are others who love him. A big problem was that so much became about him, especially after the knee surgery, that it dominated too much of the conversation. Also, it led to a circus atmosphere that players grew tired of and definitely turned off some players. But I'll also say: Even Darrell Green had his detractors when he played here, probably more than you’d think. I don’t worry who likes whom -- not since I was in high school at least. I worry more about whether the guy is earning respect based on his work and his play. Griffin has work to do in that area -- he certainly earned it as a rookie, but not the past two seasons. I think what he represents to Redskins fans as much as anything is lost hope. I’ve never seen a honeymoon with an athlete in this town like I did with Griffin, where he was almost irrationally beloved. And then he played the way he did as a rookie and fans rightfully dreamed of a fantastic future. Now they face a cold reality: Griffin hasn’t become who they hoped and might never do so and this franchise has no clue how to build a winner.
I liked Chris Borland in college, but felt he had strong limitations and would be vulnerable in certain areas and perhaps better in a 4-3 defense. But he seems like one reason this defense has continued to flourish despite injuries. Are you surprised by what they’ve done given some of their losses -- and how have they maintained a high level of play despite injuries? And what is the impact of Aldon Smith’s return?
Gutierrez: Given the amount of star power missing from the defense all season long, yes, I’m somewhat surprised by how well the defense has played. So kudos to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Truly, the Niners have been in every game but one, the blowout loss at Denver in what amounted to a coronation for Peyton Manning as the NFL's TD passing king, and that’s a credit to the defense. Because while the Niners' 308.8 yards per game surrendered average is the fourth best in the NFL and on pace to be better than last year’s mark, they are down in just about every other category. Points allowed is up from 17.0 to 21.2, third-down percentage defense is up from 34.1 to 44.7 and opponent total QBR is up from 39.9 to 48.8. And still, the defense has been the steadying influence. Sure, Patrick Willis is on IR, along with nose tackle Ian Williams. Glenn Dorsey is back to spell Williams, NaVorro Bowman's 21-day evaluation window was opened on Tuesday and Smith made an impact Sunday at the New York Giants, causing quarterback Eli Manning to hear footsteps as he threw five interceptions. Teams have to account for his brand of speed rush now and, with rookie Aaron Lynch a virtual Smith clone on the other side, Smith’s impact grows. So long as Ahmad Brooks buys in.
OK, time for a question so simple it’s hard: Is Washington a better team with Colt McCoy under center than with RGIII?
Keim: I think they’d look sharper in aspects of their offense with McCoy right now, though people forget in the first half of that win over Dallas the offense was put in fantastic positions and did almost nothing with him at quarterback. Then he flourished in the second half. I’d trust him to take the proper drops and get the ball out in rhythm, which would be a big benefit. Keep in mind, though, that the Redskins would have beaten Minnesota a week later with Griffin had the defense showed up in the second half. But he failed miserably against Tampa Bay. Still, with McCoy maybe they become a six-win team rather than a four- or five-win team by season’s end. I think he’s just a good backup ultimately. But the Redskins need to find out what they have in Griffin. His talent is terrific so if he develops he’d take them far. But there’s definite frustration, which you heard from Gruden Monday. Perhaps Gruden was sending a message to the owner as well, knowing that Griffin is his guy (after all, he gave up three first-round picks and a second-rounder only two years ago).
Washington always has drama, but it’s usually because the team loses and then the dam bursts. But the Niners have their own drama with Jim Harbaugh and what will happen in the future. What do you think will happen -- and how have the players handled this? How big a topic is it with them?
Gutierrez: To a man, at least publicly, the players insist the Harbaugh storylines are media created and driven and pay them no mind. And that’s easy to believe …when the Niners are winning games. But the stories pick up steam when they lose and you know that old yarn about where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. Look, it’s a Super Bowl or bust season for the Niners and while they are three plays away from being 3-7 (the Eagles not pounding it in from the 1-yard line, the fourth-and-10, 51-yard catch by Michael Crabtree at New Orleans and the Giants unable to get into the end zone despite having first-and-goal at the 4-yard line), they are in the thick of the playoff race. Anything less, and I have a hard time seeing Harbaugh returning. In fact, with so much drama, real and imagined, I can still see Harbaugh moving on after the season, despite having one year left on his contract. The two most popular rumored destinations at the moment? Try his alma mater at Michigan and that Silver and Black outfit across the Bay in the Oakland Raiders. But like anything else, this is a very fluid situation. Very fluid.
The 49ers are 7-2 against the NFC East under Harbaugh, including 3-0 this season against the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants. Why does Washington have a chance Sunday in Santa Clara?
Keim: Because I’ve covered the NFL long enough to never be surprised by anything. A few weeks ago the Redskins went to Dallas as double-digit dogs and looked like a completely different team than they’ve looked for most of the season. They went to Philadelphia earlier this year and lost by three. Of course, they also lost at home by 31 to the Giants and by 20 to Tampa Bay. The problem is, I’m guessing offensive tackle Trent Williams won’t play and that leaves Washington vulnerable against guys like Smith. Very vulnerable. And the Niners’ defense still looks pretty good despite the injuries. The Redskins turn it over too much and take too many negative plays, which they absolutely can’t do Sunday. Their defense, I think, can do all right against the Niners’ offense and that could keep the game interesting for a little while. Then you never know. With DeSean Jackson, they’re often one throw from stinging a team. Maybe it’s a one-in-a-million chance they win. To which the Redskins would say, “So you’re saying there’s a chance.”
What have you thought of Colin Kaepernick’s play this season? Where has he progressed and what is he struggling with?
Gutierrez: I’ll use the words of a scout who gave me a breakdown of Kaepernick one month into the season -- he has not necessarily regressed, but he has not progressed as much as many thought he would have by now, either. A lot of that has to do with an uncharacteristic number of drops by his receivers, a decidedly down year by tight end Vernon Davis and his being sacked 32 times (tied for the league lead). Look, the offense goes through him more this year than ever, and even he would admit he has been inconsistent. Telling you exactly why is another matter entirely. But our good friends at ESPN Stats & Info provided a glimpse. His total QBR rating of 54.9 this season is his worst in any season since he became the Niners’ starter, trailing the 68.6 he had last year and the 71.8 he posted in 2012. And his yards per pass attempt (7.4), yards per rush (4.9) and sack percentage (8.5) are also career lows. He is still working on his touch on fades, though he did finally connect on one, to Anquan Boldin, and Kaepernick is dangerous as a runner, though the Niners would prefer he become more of the prototypical pocket passer.