(Im)perfect ending

What better way to end a discouragingly inconsistent season than with a fizzle at the finish? That was the rather appropriate punctuation point the 49ers placed on their 2003 fiasco late Saturday afternoon, when they allowed a 14-point lead to evaporate into a 24-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, a result that saddled San Francisco with its third losing campaign in the past 21 years.

After the 49ers walked off the field with their fate officially sealed as losers – their 7-9 record is a three-game slide from last year and a five-game drop from the year before – Dennis Erickson could only state the obvious about the dismal finish to his tumultuous first season as 49ers coach.

"A disappointing end to a disappointing season," Erickson said. "What can I say? Seven-and-nine is not what we wanted."

But it's what the Niners got, because they once again followed a strong effort – last week's 31-28 road win over NFC East champion Philadelphia – with an inconsistent outing filled with costly mistakes.

In some ways, it was the perfect ending to an imperfect season. The Niners broke out to a 14-0 lead midway through the second quarter, but then struggled to move the ball as their offense bogged down. Throw in a collection of defensive letdowns, some special teams gaffes and what you have is …. well, the Niners' season in a nutshell.

"It was kind of screwy today like it was all season," said 49ers linebacker Derek Smith, who had 10 tackles on defense and forced a fumble on special teams but could not prevent the Seahawks from rolling up 394 yards of total offense.

It was the same story on the other side of the ball. The Niners – who featured the NFL's most productive offense during December – managed just 294 yards after three consecutive high-yardage, high-scoring efforts.

"This situation was not the way I wanted to go out this year," quarterback Jeff Garcia said. "We didn't play the game we expected to play to finish things off. That's pretty much indicative of the way this season has gone."

Garcia's resurgent play this month had jolted the offense with life, giving the Niners momentum to finish strong and plenty of encouragement for where they're going in the immediate future.

But Garcia reverted to the inconsistency he displayed through September and October. He connected on touchdown passes of 18 yards to Jed Weaver and 14 yards to Cedrick Wilson to give the Niners an early two-touchdown lead, but he killed a later drive with an interception and guided an offense that produced just three first downs and 62 yards on its final five possessions of the game.

The first four of those drives ended with punts, and the last ended on downs with another sequence that appropriately exemplified San Francisco's season.

After Seattle burned almost six minutes off the clock late in the fourth quarter on the way to Josh Brown's 33-yard field goal, the Niners got the ball back with 1:51 remaining trailing by a touchdown.

After picking up two quick first downs, Garcia threw incomplete on first down and was sacked on second down. On the next play, he was hit as he threw toward the sideline, where rookie Brandon Lloyd made a spectacular, one-handed, highlight-reel reception before going out of bounds.

Alas, Lloyd was a yard short of the first down. On fourth down, Garcia unleashed a quick throw toward the other sideline that bounced in front of receiver Tai Streets.

Incomplete. End of season.

"It was a bad throw," Garcia said. "It was a simple hitch route. It should be an easy throw. It just came out short on me."

There were plenty of other reasons the Niners came up short in their season finale.

After making plays early – the Seahawks were forced to punt on each of their first three offensive possessions – San Francisco's defense ultimately was picked apart by Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who finished with 315 yards and two touchdowns passing.

Hasselbeck threw a 31-yard touchdown strike to Alex Bannister to put Seattle on the scoreboard – thanks in equal parts to no pressure from San Francisco's pass rush and a blown coverage in the secondary – and then gave the Seahawks their first lead late in the third quarter on 30-yard scoring throw to Koren Robinson.

Niners kicker Todd Peterson hit the right upright with a 29-yard field-goal attempt, and punter Bill LaFleur consistently cost San Francisco field position with a collection of low and short punts.

The Niners ultimately were worn down by a Seattle team that ran 30 more plays and finished with an edge in almost every statistical category.

Add it all up, and it was an outcome the Niners have been forced to live with several times this year. And it's that kind of outcome they'll carry into the offseason.

"That's pretty much indicative of what this season was all about, as far as struggling in close games, not finishing off games, not finding ways to put teams away and allowing teams to linger, hang in there and then – unfortunately for us – find ways to win whereas we were finding ways to lose," Garcia said.

Nobody could have said it much better. And no ending could have typified San Francisco's season much better than Saturday's.


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