Even with the eighth loss added to the streak of winless Sundays that stretches back to Week 2, the 49ers have found themselves ending Sunday with a moral victory.
In his first start in Arizona since that notoriously painful 2015 performance in the same stadium, Colin Kaepernick finished the game 17 of 30 for 210 yards and a touchdown while adding another 55 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Through the air, Kaepernick and Jeremy Kerley showed that the latter’s early season performances weren’t simply based on a rapport with Gabbert, as Kerley proved his reliability to his second quarterback of the year - hauling in 7 receptions on as many targets for 71 yards and a touchdown.
Kaepernick showed traits that were completely absent in 2015: poise in the face of pressure and an ability to perform with the game on the line. Down by a touchdown in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, key third down conversions by Kaepernick tied the game. Chip’s faith that time and experience will improve Kap’s performance in his offense appears to be well placed.
Despite these performances, early missteps and an inability to get the ground game going proved to be enough to prevent a win. Going three-and-out on their first three drives followed by a fumbled punt return by Kerley put them in a hole early. Drops and accuracy issues caused drives to stall, and penalties pushed the offense out of scoring position. Even in games where they have a chance at a win, the 2016 49ers can’t seem to help themselves in what should be routine moments.
This week also featured the welcome return of something resembling a defense. Solid performance at the line of scrimmage just one part of a surprisingly good showing against the run by a squad that has been embarrassed weekly by NFL backfields. David Johnson, a back who publicly humiliated the 49ers in Week 5, was held to 55 yards on 19 carries. Through the air, Carson Palmer finished with 376 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions, going 30 of 49 - a box score that doesn’t reflect the deflections by the secondary in key moments.
Perhaps even more remarkable than the run defense was the second half performance. Entering Week 10 under the weight of second half defensive collapses that have formed a narrative in 2016, players like Eli Harold and Gerald Hodges stepped up in a big way, forcing punts and turnovers. This performance was unfortunately overshadowed by the game-winning field goal - the only points surrendered by the 49ers in the second half. For the second time in 9 games, the defense was far from perfect, but they did enough to keep the 49ers in the game for a full four quarters - not enough to keep Jim O’Neil’s job safe, but press conferences this week should be slightly less awkward.
Looking forward, the 49ers will likely stretch this losing streak to 15 games before the end of the 2016 season, but I for one was glad to welcome back something I hadn’t felt since late Monday night of Week 1: fun.