Here’s a link to my Sunday 49ers-Cardinals column. The full text runs below:
As the 49ers prep for their next loss, this one to Arizona, one question shrieks for an answer.
Have the 49ers quit?
It is an essential question, especially after the 49ers bombed in Seattle. They sure didn’t play hard. Ahmad Brooks said it’s challenging to play up there because of the gloomy weather. Note to God: In the future when the Niners play in Seattle, please dial up sunny days with the temp in the low 70s.
Before addressing the issue — to quit or not to quit — it’s important to define terms. When you say a team quit or may have quit or is about to quit, you’re mostly talking defense. Playing defense is brutal. Defense is a riskier enterprise than offense. For the most part.
It’s obvious in the upcoming loss quarterback Blaine Gabbert will play his heart out. He’s trying to win a job. And Joe Staley won’t quit because he’s Joe Staley. Anquan Boldin won’t quit because he is one tough man. Running back Shaun Draughn won’t quit because he wants a job next season.
You get the idea. It’s the defense that quits. It’s the defense that may have quit last Sunday in the Seattle gloom. Evidence? Well, yeah. The Seahawks gained 508 net yards. That’s a lot of yards. Did the 49ers even field a defense, or were those 11 cardboard cutouts wearing Niners garb?
And then there was Seattle undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls running for 209 yards, flashing past the line of scrimmage with no Niner even breathing on him. No knock on Rawls, but who the heck is he? The great Marshawn Lynch didn’t play and you figured, at least the Niners can stop the run. And then Thomas (or is it Lou?) Rawls runs like Bo Jackson.
Preliminary hypothesis: The Niners defense quit big time in Seattle.
This you must know about defense. When defensive players on a crummy team — the 49ers — quit late in the season, they play not to get hurt. They don’t throw their bodies into the tumult. They don’t recklessly lay out their bodies like Ronnie Lott did every play of his football life.
They stay away from piles because they don’t want someone rolling on their ankles or shins. They grab when tackling instead of shoving their noses on the offensive player’s chest. They always are a step away from where they should be. More than anything, they don’t want to ruin their chances for next season, for the new staff or their next team, wherever that may be?
No player wants to spend the off-season rehabbing from surgery. Obviously, the 49ers know they are going nowhere near the playoffs and, regardless of what the front office says, they know Jim Tomsula will get the ax before next season. Keeping him would be a real travesty. Not the 49ers only real travesty.
Playing defense is more than Tomsula just talking about whatever he talks about — call it High Gibberish. It’s about “want to.” You have to have a killer temperament to play defense, and without that mindset of playing “with an edge,” you are sunk. If players don’t want to play with abandon, it does not matter what pleas come from the coach.
Makes you ask the quitting question.
If the Arizona game is a repeat performance of the Seattle game, you’ll know the defense is phoning it in. The Cardinals are not a physical run team, although Chris Johnson is fast and elusive. The Cardinals are a passing team. If you see Johnson tuck in behind left guard Mike Iupati — yes, that former 49er — and run for big gains again and again, you’ll know the defense is in self-protect mode. If the Cardinals run and run, it’s what Jim Harbaugh calls “grinding the meat.” Just grind it out. Take it to the defensive players on the ground. Wear them out. Crush their souls.
Here are more “tells,” signs the 49ers defense quit.
The 49ers have played well at home, where their record is 3-2. I know this seems unbelievable. It’s true. Look it up. In five 49ers home games, no opponent has scored more than 20 points, not the Packers, not the Seahawks. If the defense gives up gobs of points, that’s another indication it really has quit. Remember, teams are supposed to play tough at home. A good coach gets a team fired up at home.
You want another tell? The 49ers have not lost to Arizona at home in seven years. The last time the Cardinals won in the Bay Area was 2008. Look it up. If the 49ers defense gets mauled, especially on the ground, it’s a clear sign it has quit — and the quitting started in Seattle.
You could make a case the quitting actually started before the season even began. Justin Smith, Anthony Davis and Patrick Willis just walked away. These men are not quitters. Hardly. An informed guess — they looked at what the Niners had become and sighed a collective, “I’m out of here.”
Which brings us to the most basic question, to the damning question. Is it wrong for the 49ers defense to quit? Does quitting reveal a character flaw in the players?
No way. Quitting is an admission the season is done for. The players look at the shambles of the Niners, see with horror what ownership did to them. It would be reasonable for them to tell themselves the franchise quit on them, didn’t get enough good players, installed a novice coach, stuck too long with a losing quarterback. Why should the players knock themselves out? Why in the world should they risk their careers for this bunch?
Sometimes, quitting is the only sane response to what’s going on. It has come to this.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn firstname.lastname@example.org.