© Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
The San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl; it might just happen again, and with the way some 49ers were talking about Sunday’s 20-17 loss to the Ravens, it sounds like they want it to. Only Joe Staley and Garrett Celek remain from that 2013 Super Bowl season, and both teams, aside from John Harbaugh, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who’s switched sides, have been overhauled.
But Sunday’s game had the energy of a Goliath-vs-Goliath matchup, with two teams running the ball down the other’s throat in the rain to see who’d blink first.
“I definitely think later on down the season, we’ll see them again,” linebacker Dre Greenlaw told KNBR. “I mean we’re only gonna get better, we’re gonna learn from our mistakes and we know they’re a great team. So, we’re going to continue to push and we definitely hope we see them later down in the Super Bowl.”
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said the game had a playoff atmosphere, and tackle Mike McGlinchey said “… we would love to see that team again… we definitely want to have another shot.”
The 49ers ran for 174 yards. The Ravens ran for 178 yards. Yet, for all the talk of it being about stopping Lamar Jackson (and it was), the result came down to the least sexy topic in football: kicking.
You could blame the loss on Jimmy Garoppolo’s early fumble, but that would be ignoring the fact that Jackson had one of his own, which kept the 49ers in the game. A more reasonable area of blame is the failed 4th-and-1 pass call the 49ers ran which was tipped at the line of scrimmage, but head coach Kyle Shanahan said he didn’t see a great option to run the ball with how the Ravens stacked the line of scrimmage.
What was damning, though, was that the real lack of option to attempt a field goal. At the Ravens’ 35-yard line, it would have been a 53-yard field goal attempt. I asked Shanahan whether a field goal attempt was an option from that range.
“No,” Shanahan said. “It was pretty far.”
True, conditions were far from ideal. That was admitted by the Ravens’ Justin Tucker, who knocked through a game-winning 49-yarder, unlike the 49ers’ Robbie Gould, whose 49-yarder at the end of the first half was blocked.
“Yes, the weather conditions were not ideal throughout the game,” Tucker said. “This is already a tough place to make kicks.”
But Shanahan also said Gould was fully healthy, and that he didn’t believe his range was affected by injury, though it may have been affected by the weather. After being out three weeks with a hamstring injury, he practiced fully all of this week.
The problem is straightforward; the 49ers are limited in their options when it comes to any potential field goal beyond 40 yards, and with long snapper Kyle Nelson back, there is no longer an excuse for a lack of familiarity with the snapping battery.
As much as the Ravens love to go for it on fourth down, sometimes they need a long field goal. And when they do, Tucker (22-of-23 on the year) is almost always there.
Simply put, Tucker could be easily argued as the best kicker in the NFL. Gould could be argued as the worst kicker in the NFL this season.
Gould has missed all three of his attempts from 50-plus yards, is 2-of-4 from the 40-to-49-yard range, and at 14-of-22 on the season. His 63.6 field goal make percentage is the worst in the league (min. 14 attempts).
His longest made field goal on the season is from 47 yards. Only three kickers in the league have a season-long which is below that, and they’ve all taken 14 field goal attempts or less. Only two, Aldrick Rosas and Ryan Succop, are actively playing.
Now, this an unpredictable regression from Gould. In his worst seasons prior to this one, he was 21-of-27 (77.8 percent in 2005) and 9-of-12 (75 percent in 2014). His career-long was 58 yards in 2013, but his limited attempts from 50-plus yards prior to this season were generally good (29-of-37 or 78.4 percent).
But his season-long was 53 yards last year, and now he’s not even consistent from closer than that.
The 49ers’ other place kicker, rookie Chase McLaughlin, is 13-of-17 (76.5 percent) on the season with a season-long of 50 yards. I’m not advocating for him to replace Gould, and he missed that potential game-winner against the Seattle Seahawks badly, but his numbers, on not much smaller of a sample size than Gould’s, are better.
Yet Gould and Tucker are the top-two highest-paid kickers in the league, both in guaranteed salary and yearly average, per Over the Cap.
Gould is making nearly $5 million, all of which is guaranteed for this season and the next one, meaning cutting him isn’t a fantastic option. And while they’re paying that much, they’d be happy with even serviceable performances. Gould, whose hallmark is consistency, hasn’t provided that.
The 49ers clearly had the talent to beat the Ravens on Sunday, and having seen Jackson in person and on away ground, it would seem to give them an advantage (assuming, the unassumable, that they’d stay healthy) in a rematch. They have proven that they can contend with any team in the NFL and both of their losses were by three points.
If these two teams match up yet again in February, down in the humidity of Miami, Florida, it may well be a those fine margins which decide the game. And if it comes down to that, one field goal going right, the 49ers could find themselves at a serious disadvantage.