On Sunday night, a regular season game was played on non-US soil, the first such occurrence in NFL history. With no idea of what to expect, Paul Tagliabue decided to send the game’s top ambassadors to preside over the event, just in case things got out of hand. And so it was that Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann, Paul Maguire, O.J. Simpson, and Rae Carruth showed up in Mexico City, ready to infuse our neighbors to the south with a passion for Football, Jr. But anyone concerned that the 49ers might have to wear home red ponchos, or that the players agreed to the trip simply so they could sneak “the really good steroids” across the border were quickly put at ease. In the opening minute, fans booed Arizona’s kick returner for kneeling on the back line of the end zone. Apparently watching soccer year-round can turn even the most gentile nation into a bloodthirsty potential XFL market. The 49ers and Cardinals managed to entice over 100,000 people to attend the game at Azteca Stadium, a charming venue equipped with a moat and 2 fences (one with a barb-wire toupee) to keep rambunctious fans off the field. The sheer size of the crowd suggested one of two things: either the people in Mexico have no idea how terrible these teams are, or the NFL handed out free tickets to anyone willing to attend the game in an attempt to avoid international embarrassment. Either way, it’s safe to say that the large turnout wasn’t the result of a nation of people wanting to tell their children they saw Kevan Barlow play in person. If you’re looking for an example of why the NFL is the smartest organization in professional sports, look no further than Sunday’s game. By convincing a small army to attend a game that basically amounted to the NFC Dungeon Bowl, Tagliabue & Co. put to rest any lingering debate regarding who the world’s best salesman is.
While not befitting its place in history, the game itself was actually fairly interesting and somewhat watchable, exceeding all reasonable expectations. Already woefully bereft of talented skill position players, the 49ers played shorthanded, and remained a lively bunch for three quarters. It was just a week ago that coach Mike Nolan delivered his “trust” speech, suggesting that certain players would be gone from the team sooner rather than later. Just two days later, linebacker Jamie Winborn (the team’s second best player), was sent home and told to await a trade. The Niners locker room this week had to be more than a little uncomfortable, not unlike the movie theater where I watched “Training Day” with my parents. Adding to the negativity were mid-week injuries to the team’s 2 biggest draft-day busts in recent years (Rashaun Woods and Mike Rumph), and the game-time scratch of star linebacker Julian Peterson. In other words, thank goodness they were playing Arizona.
San Francisco’s defense came out swinging, forcing 2 turnovers in the first quarter that led to touchdowns. The Niners’ front seven has been a pleasant surprise all season, though the numbers don’t support their efforts. Andre Carter has finally decided to play up to his draft status, Anthony Adams and Isaac Sopoaga have been solid up the middle, and Bryant Young continues to generate pressure from the end. However, the secondary is abysmal, with Tony Parrish providing the only hope that opposing QB’s won’t run up a 100% completion mark. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, Arizona’s top receiving duo, both went over 100 yards with a touchdown each and didn’t seem to break a sweat in the process. Perhaps the biggest positive in the secondary was the play of Shawntae Spencer, who actually decided not to leave his receiver mid-route, as he did twice last week against Dallas’ Terry Glenn.
However, any confidence lost by the 49er defense on Sunday will no doubt be restored during the week, when they are once again allowed to practice against the train wreck that is the team’s offense. While not the unanimous disaster that it was in 2004, San Francisco’s offense is plenty bad again this year. Last season, the offensive line served as a runway for teams to attack QB Tim Rattay, and things nearly got to the point where the NFL had to step in and make opposing teams count “alligators” before mounting a pass rush. But in 2005, Rattay is merely under duress for most of the proceedings, which must feel like a spa treatment by comparison. He still isn’t receiving much help from the running game, as Barlow continues to shake, juke, and jiggle behind the line of scrimmage on his way to a 2 yard carry. As the new president of the Frank Gore Fan Club, I insist that Barlow’s carries be cut as the season progresses. And if they aren’t, well, I’ll just keep complaining.
The lone bright spot on offense has been the play of the team’s receivers, Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle. Lloyd always comes up with one or two catches each week that show off his terrific hands, and he remains the team’s only real deep threat. In just two seasons, Battle has worked his way from 6th round draft pick with one year of college receiving experience to kick returner to #2 receiver. Battle is San Francisco’s best possession receiver, and has a knack for making big plays. But as talented as these two are, they’re both Commodores. This team needs a Lionel in the worst way, if only to take some pressure off Rattay and the running game. As good as the receivers have been, this team needs them to be better.
Of course, by the time this team is ready to make any kind of leap, Rattay will be holding a clipboard somewhere. Number 1 pick Alex Smith entered the game late and put on a good showing, completing his first three passes and failing to put any touch whatsoever on his throws. He didn’t always put the ball where he needed to, but he showed 49ers fans that he has the arm strength he’ll need going forward, something he failed to do in the preseason. The Niners are handling their QB situation perfectly right now, letting Rattay take a pounding and bringing Smith in late for mop-up work. Right now, Rattay is the perfect quarterback for this team: he’s just good enough to keep the game close, but just bad enough to lose it at the end. I feel a little like the owner in “Major League”, openly cheering for another year of high draft picks, but it’s what this team desperately needs. They can’t afford to screw around and start thinking they can compete, no matter how weak the rest of the division looks.
By the time the final seconds ticked off the clock and the players crossed the drawbridge back to their dressing rooms, everyone involved had accomplished what they set out to do in their journey south of the border. The Arizona Cardinals finally posted a tally in the win column, and got their passing game back on track. The NFL lined their pockets and spread their seed, hopefully capturing the imagination of a nation of young boys who hope to one day grow up and tear their ACL or develop an addiction to painkillers. The San Francisco 49ers got to show off their new toy, a Buzz Lightyear on a team full of Woody’s. Paul Maguire, as always, was able to identify penalties at lightning speed while paying no attention to the rest of the game. And the people of Mexico? Well, they got to keep O.J.