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Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Game mismanagement falls on 49ers, not ref

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

 
 Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE
 San Francisco running back Frank Gore stumbled on his way to the end zone in the final moments against the Cardinals on Monday night.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

To hear coach Mike Singletary and offensive coordinator Mike Martz tell it, the San Francisco 49ers got a raw deal Monday night.

In reality, the 49ers might have been better off with ESPN's Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski managing the final four seconds of their 29-24 defeat to the Arizona Cardinals.

There can be no other reasonable conclusion after a careful deconstruction of the facts.

To the 49ers' credit, they acknowledged mistakes that let precious seconds run off the clock prior to the final four ticks. But if those final four seconds raised questions about the 49ers' game-management skills, the subsequent explanations from Singletary and Martz validated those questions, and then some.

Before we count the ways, let's consider the facts leading up to Michael Robinson's failed 1-yard run on the final play.

Head linesman John McGrath spotted Frank Gore's progress just outside the 2-yard-line after  Gore came up short on a second-and-goal run to the left side.

Gore set down the ball in the end zone.

Umpire Steve Wilson picked up the ball and spotted it just outside the 1.

With no timeouts, the 49ers scrambled to the line of scrimmage and spiked the ball to stop the clock with two seconds remaining.

Here's where things get tricky.

Officials flagged 49ers tight end Billy Bajema for illegal formation on the spike play, but Corrente intervened with news that replay official David Coleman initiated a challenge to see if Gore had been down by contact. The challenge wiped out the penalty and accompanying 10-second clock runoff, which would have ended the game.

"The review is to determine if the runner was down by contact," Corrente announced over the stadium address system.

Replays showed Gore was indeed down by contact.

Without a review, the penalty against Bajema would have stood, ending the game. If anything, officiating helped the 49ers.

We continue.

"After reviewing the play," Corrente announced over the stadium address system, "the runner was down by contact at the 2 1/2-yard line. The clock will be reset to four seconds and it will start on my signal."

Tirico: "It will be third down. The Niners know this, so they are going to get ready."

Jaworski: "Yeah."

Tirico: "So it's on Corrente's signal. He is telling Shaun Hill. So, this will be the last play of the game, barring a defensive foul."

Jaworski: "No, he could spike it."

Tirico: "You're right, he could."

Not according to the 49ers.

"The ref was over the ball," Singletary told reporters. "To me, what's supposed to happen is the guy standing over the ball, he backs up, and then that starts. He's over the ball and as he is moving back, simultaneously the clock is moving, so it's very difficult to try and get something going with four seconds left if that's the scenario. To me, it was not the correct protocol in order to try and get the spike and go from there."

The correct protocol for the 49ers would have been for Martz and Hill to discuss all possible scenarios during the replay review. Cameras showed Hill meeting with Singletary and line judge John Hussey. There was certainly time for Singletary or Martz to set up a spike play.

Once the ball was set, the umpire stood over the center, preventing the snap while Corrente spent about four seconds consulting with Hill. The primary reason to consult with Hill would be to remind him that the clock would start on the whistle, not the snap.

"You get the other information that says the ball -- the clock -- is going to start on the whistle, rather than the snap of the ball, that changes the dynamics of things," Singletary said.

The clock was running before the replay review, which meant the clock would be running when play resumed. Coaches should have known this.

All the while, Martz said he thought the ball was at the half-yard-line or close to the 1, but no farther.

"There was a lot of confusion there at the end," Martz told reporters. "The only thing I wish had happened -- and the officials always do this -- the officials always come over and explain to you what's going to happen based on what they saw on the replay, and for whatever reason they neglected to do that.

"That's a courtesy that's always afforded. Why they didn't do that, I don't know. We did not know the ball was going to be on the three-and-a-half [yard line], obviously, or we would have never called that play."

Two problems: One, Martz said he found out the ball was at the 3 1/2-yard line only after former 49ers coach Mike Nolan called to tell him Tuesday. Two, the ball was never placed anywhere near the 3 1/2-yard-line.

It's probably not a good sign when the current offensive coordinator is getting his information from the recently fired head coach. It's worse when that information isn't correct.

And yet Martz charged on: "[Nolan] was the only one that was smart enough to look at the TV, and he knew immediately. He's the only one that really knows football well enough to know exactly what happened."

The 49ers thought Corrente might restore an additional 12 seconds to the game clock after the review. That would have restored the clock to the general point when Gore's knee touched the ground prior to the initial spotting of the ball and subsequent replay challenge.

That was never a realistic option.

"We thought that we were going to be given back time on the clock," Martz said. "We thought the ball was going to be somewhere around the 1-yard line.

"The play made 2 yards, so it's a moot point whether it was on the 1 or the one-half [yard lines]. It doesn't matter. He would have scored. If it's on the three-and-a-half, obviously, we don't do that play."

Wrong again.

The ball was closer to the 2-yard-line than the 3 1/2-yard line, and Robinson officially gained 1 yard on his run.

"We had to run that play," Martz said. "You couldn't change anything. I thought that was unfortunate. We just got kind of caught (as) the victim. We were trying to spike the ball. Had we been allowed to spike the ball [on second down], none of this would have ever happened.

"Then, if they had decided to review it, then they review it, but the clock was stopped. We could have gotten the personnel in that we wanted to do, and whether you score or not, whatever, but you're going to do a play that you want from the three-yard line or the two-and-a-half, or the three-and-a-half or wherever the hell it is. At least you can change what you want."

Wrong again. Officials had flagged Bajema for a procedural penalty right before the replay challenge. The clock was runnin
g at that point because the Cardinals had tackled Gore inbounds on the previous play.

Without the challenge, the penalty would have stood. Again, the mandatory 10-second clock runoff would have ended the game.

At which point the 49ers would have had no one to blame but themselves.