By Morris Phillips
It’s the one thing million of fans, 106 football players and 48 coaches gathered and paired on any given Sunday can’t control. Given the effort, passion and countless film study that goes into a NFL game, it’s confounding and frustrating to all involved. And while you may get used to it, it doesn’t get any easier to endure.
Yes, it’s the unsolvable mystery of the bouncing football. On Sunday in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, the football took a cruel bounce on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Bucs suffered through a rough first half in which the defending NFC champs controlled the football and the scoreboard, leading 17-7 at the break. But with a much better third quarter, Tampa Bay trailed just 20-14 after Mike Glennon connected with receiver Tim Wright on the first play of the fourth quarter.
But instead of continuing their surge, the Buccaneers collapsed while the 49ers and the mysterious bouncing ball took over. Incredibly, Tampa Bay would have the ball for just 105 seconds in the fourth quarter and go on to fall to San Francisco, 33-14.
The 49ers continued their march to the playoffs, winning their fourth straight and improving to 10-4 with two games remaining. The Bucs failed to continue their late season surge—they had won four of five after opening the season with eight straight losses—and fell to 4-10.
But back to the critical play; the Bucs trailed 23-14 after the 49ers responded to Tampa Bay’s surge with a 17-play drive and a Phil Dawson field goal that gave them a two-score margin once again. That meant the Bucs needed a big play to regain momentum. So Head Coach Greg Schiano dialed up the reverse on the ensuing kickoff, but watched it go horribly wrong.
“We were going to run a reverse if the opportunity presented itself in the right way,” Schiano recounted. “It didn’t, yet we still ran it. We made a mistake.”
“I don’t think anyone planned for it to go that way… that wasn’t the way it was supposed to work out,” Eric Page—who handles both punt and kickoff return duties for Tampa Bay—said. “It was going smooth in practice, and we knew it was going to be open. When I looked back, I thought he had the ball… then I saw him fall.”
“Him” was rookie Russell Shepard, who took the handoff from Page, going left to right. While the play may have worked in practice, in the game, 49er Kendall Hunter had it sniffed out and was in perfect position to tackle Shepard after only a few strides. Shepard—without having a chance to completely secure the ball—tried to make a big step in attempt to elude Hunter. But he plant foot slid, and suddenly he was on his way down, face first. That’s when the football, operating with a mind of its own, popped up directly into Hunter’s hands. The 49ers’ backup running back then saw his momentum take him and the ball into the end zone for the back breaking score.
Shepard, who was waived by the Eagles at the end of the pre-season, then picked up by Tampa Bay, where he’s stuck for the entire season, became the goat. But afterwards, he wasn’t shirking responsibility or placing blame on the power of the randomly bouncing football.
“I’ve got to secure it,” Shepard said. “I have to be able to secure the ball. Unfortunately, at a tight point in the game, it happened. I have to give our offense an opportunity to come out and have a game-winning drive.”
Colin Kaepernick continued his strong play since the return of Michael Crabtree with a 19 for 29 performance, 203 yards and touchdown passes to Crabtree and Vernon Davis. Repeatedly in the first half, Kaepernick dropped back to pass, but used his legs and strong arm to make plays. First, Kap scrambled and threw for a 17-yard pass play to Crabtree that picked up a first down along the sideline. Then another scramble bought time and Kaepernick found Crabtree for a 4-yard touchdown that put the 49ers up 7-0. Later in the half, the third-year signal caller showed off his arm on a 52-yard pass and score to Davis.
“It was a heck of a throw,” Coach Jim Harbaugh said of the big pass play. “We had really good protection on the play, but the way Vernon extended and ran that ball down, I mean it looked like Willie Mays running down a long fly ball to center field.”
Glennon didn’t have much early success and didn’t get hardly any touches in the fourth quarter. In between, he was passable, finishing 18 for 34 for 179 yards. But Glennon felt the pressure from the 49ers’ front four, getting sacked four times. The Bucs’ run game didn’t provide much support either; two backs combined for just 39 yards rushing on 12 carries.
Former 49er Dashon Goldson got an opportunity to face his team of the previous six seasons but didn’t have much of an impact. Goldson was in on five tackles, but didn’t have any of his signature run support plays against Frank Gore, who finished with 86 yards rushing on 22 carries.
Gore went over 1,000 yards rushing on the season with the performance, the seventh time he’s reached that milestone in his nine-year career. Gore joins an elite list of 20 littered with Hall of Famers who also achieved seven 1,000-yard seasons. The incredibly durable back also made his 42nd consecutive start against Tampa Bay, the longest such current streak in the NFL.
Davis’ touchdown catch was the 52nd of his career, and he became the first tight end in NFL history to register two, 12 touchdown-catch seasons. Davis also made a touchdown catch for the fifth consecutive week even as the ending—into the wall at the rear of the end zone—wasn’t much fun.
“I didn’t know their wall was right there,” Davis said. “As soon as I looked up, the wall was right there. It just knocked the wind out of me a little bit.”
The 49ers return home for the season finale and possible final 49ers’ game at Candlestick Park on Monday night, December 23. After that, the 49ers conclude their regular season in Glendale against the Cardinals on the following Sunday.