There are basic functions and skills in football. The ball is thrown by a quarterback who throws balls, and it’s caught by players whose sole purpose is to catch footballs. The ball is run on the ground, and it’s run by players whose sole purpose is to run as far as possible while carrying a football. The ball is kicked by kickers, and caught and then returned by kick returners.
Kyle Williams had a problem with the kick returning part, and the catching. Because of that, the 49ers had a problem with the winning part.
And somewhere on the San Francisco sideline Ted Ginn watched and cringed, and buried his face in something. This was not a unique reaction, but for Ginn it was his only way of expressing pain greater than the pain being experienced by his teammates, and pain far greater than the aching in his injured right knee.
Ginn is San Francisco’s regular kick returner, and he injured his knee during last week’s divisional round win over New Orleans, leaving Jim Harbaugh to thrust in Williams as his replacement. The 49ers head coach had to trust a second-year sixth-round pick to be his primary kick returner, and Williams had fielded only a combined six kickoffs and punts this year prior to today (and just five punts in his career).
Harbaugh couldn’t trust him, because Williams didn’t trust himself. Experience is a required element for confidence, and both parties in this coach-kick returner relationship knew that the man tasked with catching and running with booted footballs didn’t have any experience of significance.
They had no choice, or at least very little choice. Reggie Smith, San Francisco’s third-string safety, also had limited experience fielding punts this year, so limited that he had fielded only three more than Williams prior to today. Kendall Hunter had taken a few turns returning kickoffs, a job he did once today too. But although he receives far more playing time than Williams in his role as Frank Gore’s running mate, Hunter is still a rookie.
In massive, potentially season-altering situations, rookies make the kind of mistakes that rookies make. Williams is essentially a rookie too, but at the very least he’s logged a bit more time playing professional football, and Harbaugh likely hoped that he’d acquired some semblance of confidence.
He was wrong, and the result was two crippling mistakes, 10 Giants points directly from those muffs, and a season and a game powered by a feared defense evaporating into the Bay Area mist.
Both of Williams’ gaffes are inexcusable. Football players make football plays, and his role was to make a difference in the kicking game with his speed. But his first responsibility is to secure the ball, and he failed spectacularly twice.
The first mistake came early in the fourth quarter, when Williams was indecisive while facing a ball bouncing towards him off the foot of Giants punter Steve Weatherford, who combined with Andy Lee for 22 punts in this game (obscure bettors rejoice, because Alex Smith was out-punted since there were far more punts than his 12 completions). Williams’ instincts should have told him to get as far away as possible from a ball that he couldn’t field confidently. But those instincts didn’t exist in Williams’ mind, and instead the ball bounced off of his knee and was recovered by Devin Thomas.
The season-crushing error then came in overtime, when Williams fumbled a few steps after fielding a punt, a mistake that was again recovered by Thomas, and it led to Lawrence Tynes’ game-winning 31-yard field goal. I’d call that a chip shot, but there’s a kicker hiding somewhere in New England right now who would disagree.
Playoff football becomes as much theater as it is athletics, and as I wrote earlier, Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff will be cast as a scapegoat in Baltimore. He’ll regretfully but willingly play that role because that’s the life of a kicker, and it quenches our thirst for a convenient narrative. It’s a fate he doesn’t deserve, and a label he won’t be able to shake.
Williams will now play the same role, but it’s far more deserved. Sure, Alex Smith only really made throws when he had to, and he completed 46 percent of his attempts. That’s awful, and significantly lower than Smith’s completion percentage during the season (61.3). But despite his inaccuracy, and despite the 49ers going 1-for-13 on third downs, and despite San Fran getting only one reception from a wide receiver, and despite Vernon Davis accounting for 34 percent of their offensive yardage on two catches, nothing was really different.
This is a team powered by defense, running, and taking care of the football. The first part of that recipe was received in abundance, with the 49ers’ vaunted defense sacking Eli Manning six times, and forcing one fumble. Leading that charge was defensive end Ray McDonald, who had almost half as many sacks today (2.5) as he had all year (5.5).
They didn’t intercept Manning, but they would have had the best defenders against 49ers defenders not been…49ers defenders. Two possible game-changing interceptions bounced off of hands in the 49ers’ secondary when defensive backs collided with each other. If one player was one second later on either play, I wouldn’t be writing this long and sad ballad of Kyle Williams right now.
A running game that averaged 127.8 yards per game throughout the regular season easily exceeded that mark, finishing with 150 yards, 42 of which came from Smith, who compensated for his inaccurate arm by setting a career-high in rushing yards. Smith didn’t throw an interception either, and no player on the 49ers who isn’t named Kyle Williams turned the ball over.
It was an unfortunate day to be named Kyle Williams, a common and generic name that’s now been shamed, and an unfortunate day to forget a basic, fundamental football skill.