There went Blaine-Freaking-Gabbert, third-and-4 with the two-minute warning imminent, scrambling gazelle-like to the wide side of the field on a bootleg and sliding for a first down. And there went some dude named Kendall Gaskins (represent, University of Richmond!) plowing forward into the line for a first down that would give the 49ers a victory, which is an anachronistic clause that most of us thought might need to be put on ice until sometime in 2017.
It’s a weird time for those of us who live in the Bay Area and are forced to consume the narrative of the local football teams, and nothing signified the oddness of the moment quite like Sunday’s results. Down in Santa Clara, in a stadium beset by issues related to traffic and bad turf and stultifying suburban boredom, the plummeting 49ers defeated the Atlanta Falcons 17-16, and lo, it was the worst kind of victory, one that meant virtually nothing. And in Pittsburgh, the Raiders, on the upswing and in serious contention for a wild-card spot and on the verge of jetting straight out of town for a sweet deal in Los Angeles, fell to the Steelers, 38-35. And it was a defeat larded with promise.
Don’t get me wrong: This doesn’t change the big picture. The Raiders have a budding star at quarterback and an intriguing future, and Niners are still a train wreck, a massive post-Harbaugh black hole. But let us deal with the dreck first. This is a Niners franchise whose once-promising quarterback is now getting into semantic arguments about respiration; this is a franchise whose fans have so thoroughly given up that their owners may have to solicit an app from Silicon Valley that can fill in the empty seats with holograms to placate television viewers.
It’s very possible that the Niners’ 17-16 win over Atlanta on Sunday signifies as much about the fading fortunes of the Falcons as it does about the potential of the Gabbert era in Santa Clara. I’m not exactly convinced, as much as my local paper might be trying to convince me, that Gabbert is the second coming of Jim Plunkett. Because even if we extrapolate to the best-case scenario, and we say that Gabbert is a serviceable replacement for the expired psyche of Colin Kaepernick, this is a 49ers team that still appears utterly flummoxed by itself. There is no excitement, no sense of identity, no explosiveness; they are not only a bad team, they are that worst kind of bad team – an incredibly boring one. There is no faith in the offense, or in the coaching staff, or in the front office; there is no faith in much of anything, even after a victory.
And yet this collapse happened so quickly that there are still reminders of what the Niners used to be, not all that long ago. Take the moment in the fourth quarter when the Raiders were trailing 35-28, and quarterback Derek Carr made an absolutely perfect throw to former 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree for the game-tying touchdown. The Raiders are still a bit of a patchwork operation, but Carr has made them interesting and exciting; Carr led them back from 14 down in the fourth quarter, and while the Steelers wound up kicking a game-winning field goal in the final seconds, the Raiders proved at the very least that they can keep pace on the road with an AFC contender.
That all this is happening as the Raiders appear more and more likely to leave town is not exactly good news for 49ers. Because the Niners are going to require a complete rebuild, and Gabbert is at best a patch. Because without the Raiders’ awfulness as a salve, the Niners’ horrific and sudden fall (and the ruination of Kaepernick) is going to appear that much more stark to a fanbase that has witnessed both the prolific success of the ’80s and early ’90s, and the promising few years of the Jim Harbaugh era. Either way – whether the Raiders leave, or whether Oakland somehow manages to convince them to stay – the Niners aren’t going to be insulated anymore. In a city where baseball teams win world championships every other year, and where the basketball team is maybe the most exciting thing to happen to the NBA since Michael Jordan retired for the second time, the Niners are now the punch line to a very bad (and not even very interesting) joke. And one flukish week isn’t going to change that.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb