In their return from a 13-day layoff, the Niners came oh so close against a St. Louis team that some observers predicted would blow them off the 3Com Park field. But close just wasn't enough.
"It's not good enough for this team just to keep it close," Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia said. "I think that's where you start to define whether you're going to be a good team or not."
The Niners definitely still are in a definition mode after a scattered performance left them with a 30-26 loss to the Rams before a sellout crowd of 67,536.
San Francisco still is trying to define what kind of team it's going to be this season after playing poorly but opportunistically, and letting the Rams off the hook several times when the Niners had a chance to take control of the contest. It was the kind of thing that left several 49ers simply shaking their heads.
On a day when they could have arrived as an NFL contender, San Francisco left a lasting impression that it simply isn't quite there yet.
"We really believe we had our chances, our opportunities to be in that game, to take over that game, and we didn't do it," Garcia said. "There was frustration. We had opportunities to make plays - opportunities to make first downs and move the chains - and we didn't make them as a team." Or as individuals.
All-Pro receiver Terrell Owens dropped four passes – two ending drives on third down and three that would have gone for first downs. J.J. Stokes – the starting receiver opposite Owens – dropped two passes, both ending drives on third drive. Rookie tight end Eric Johnson also had a conspicuous drop.
Frustration? Well, yes. You could see it in Owens' face after the game – for an hour after the game, in fact. Owens sat stone-faced in front of his stall in the 49ers' locker room, staring forward and shrugging off reporters who attempted to question him. He was still there after the locker room cleared out, sitting in his chair, still wearing half his uniform, still scowling and staring blankly at nothing in particular. That's frustration. Stokes sat next to Owens, the pain of lackluster performance also weighing on his emotions. Stokes also was unapproachable, his head pointing toward the ground, before finally he was able to leave the game behind.
The Niners know they missed a big chance to be somebody in this game.
"(The Rams) just found a way to win it and we didn't," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said. "Obviously, we had a chance to keep some drives alive and gain some momentum. Our passing game just wasn't hitting on all cylinders."
With all the dropped passes, Garcia finished 19 of 34 passing for just 121 yards as the Niners sputtered to find consistency on offense and build upon the opportunities their defense was providing for them. Garcia began resorting to doing it himself, rushing for a few vital first downs and also going on a 10-yard touchdown scamper that put the Niners on the scoreboard and suddenly had them back in the game with four minutes remaining before halftime.
Two plays after Garcia's touchdown run, cornerback Ahmed Plummer made a diving interception that was followed five plays later by rookie Kevan Barlow's one-yard touchdown plunge. Four plays later, John Engelberger came around the end to crush St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner. Andre Carter recovered the resulting fumble, and Jose Cortez kicked a 52-yard field goal on the final play of the second quarter.
Despite allowing St. Louis to race out to a 12-0 lead as San Francisco's offense produced just one first down and 27 yards on its first three drives, the Niners had battled back behind their resilient defense to take a 16-12 halftime lead.
"I didn't sense the team even batted an eye," Mariucci said. "We've come from behind before. We came from behind in the first half to take the lead. I thought the look in their eyes on the sideline said that we could come back and score more points. There wasn't any wheels coming off." Then, the wheels started to come off.
The Rams' fast-break offense produced 18 points in a span of less than eight minutes to take a 30-16 lead. But once again, after the Niners had trimmed that lead on Garcia's 10-yard scoring pass to Terry Jackson, the San Francisco defense produced a key turnover – it had three on the day – that put the Niners in position to get even. They never quite got there. The Niners had to settle for a short Cortez field goal after safety Lance Schulters returned a St. Louis fumble to midfield.
"We never gave up," Schulters said. "We were down by 14 in the fourth quarter, and we didn't give up. We have the talent to win, and we came out and made plays to get us back in it. But then the Rams made some big plays down the stretch. They made the plays they had to make at crucial times."
There was 6:47 remaining on the clock after Cortez's second field goal, but the Niners never saw the football again. Behind Marshall Faulk, who had 105 yards rushing and eight receptions for 79 more yards, the Rams went on a methodical 12-play drive to run out the clock. St. Louis converted three crucial third downs on the drive, with Faulk rushing for two of them and catching a pass for the other.
"They flexed their muscles, they really did," Mariucci said. "They entered into what we call a four-minute drill, which means they were up by four, and we were trying to get the ball back, obviously, and they had a good mix of plays.
When you have all those weapons who have been playing together for a while, that's when they're good, when it's crunch time, and they put a drive together at the end."
And left the Niners – like so many times last season – wondering what might have been.