Fourteen years earlier, in the same stadium that was dumpy and outdated already then, the Green Bay Packers trudged off the Candlestick Park turf in stunned disbelief. It had been a heartbreaking last-second gut-punch that the San Francisco 49ers had delivered, instead of an old-fashioned butt-whooping, but the feeling had been the same.
Back then, the days and weeks that followed Terrell Owens’ NFC Wild Card game-winning touchdown would see coach Mike Holmgren departing for total power in Seattle, Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White announcing his retirement, a handful of familiar faces departing via free agency. The Packers still had a 29-year-old superstar quarterback still in his prime, but two years removed from the Super Bowl XXXI title and a year removed from a Super Bowl XXXII loss to the Denver Broncos, it felt like the end of an era.
''Reggie White can't play forever. I can't play forever,'' quarterback Brett Favre said, dejectedly, that day in January 1999. ''It's got to end sometime.''
Perhaps there wasn’t the same finality to what happened Saturday night, when the 49ers – and new-age quarterback Colin Kaepernick in particular – ran over, around and through the Packers en route to a 45-31 NFC Divisional Playoff victory. But with another 29-year-old quarterback still in his prime, but there will be changes.
Oh, there will be changes. And, some soul-searching.
Two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Greg Jennings is set to be an unrestricted free agent. Tight end Jermichael Finley, inside linebacker A.J. Hawk and safety Charles Woodson, carry high salary-cap numbers and may not be brought back. All-time leading receiver Donald Driver, active and playing only the punt return team, is going to have to play elsewhere if he wants to continue his career.
Given last year’s defensive ineptitude and Saturday night’s meltdown, there’s reason to at least wonder what the future holds for defensive coordinator Dom Capers. And there will be more reshuffling of the scouting department, as the Kansas City Chiefs announced – during the first half of the game, oddly enough – that they’d hired Packers director of football operations John Dorsey as their new general manager. In the past three years, general manager Ted Thompson has watched his top three lieutenants – John Schneider (Seattle), Reggie McKenzie (Oakland) and Dorsey – become GMs elsewhere.
Two years ago, the Packers were Super Bowl XLV champions. A year ago, they went 15-1 but were summarily bounced from the postseason at home by the eventual champs. Now, this.
“It's pretty frustrating. We put a lot into this,” Aaron Rodgers said, standing in the very same interview room as Favre had. “Now, you stand here and you realize: It's the last time that group is going to be together. It'll be a different team next year. There'll be additions, subtractions. That's the most frustrating part. Because you spend a lot of time with those guys, you care about them, you care about this a lot. And then to go out and play like that is disappointing."
Kaepernick was absolutely unstoppable – a word that is frequently thrown around but rarely as applicable as it was Saturday night. He ran 16 times for 181 yards – the most rushing yards in a single game by a quarterback in NFL history, according to Elias Sports Bureau – and two touchdowns: A 20-yarder that erased the effects of the pick-six interception he’d thrown to Sam Shields to start the game, and a 56-yarder that snapped a 24-24 tie and was the beginning of the end for the Packers.
“He does a great job of responding. He has done that,” said San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, whose 49ers (12-4-1) advance to the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 20 against either Seattle or Atlanta. “Every time there’s been an interception that he’s thrown, or safety or turnover. He’s responded with a scoring drive. I think that’s rare. I think that’s a rare quality. And so far he’s shown that he’s got that ability to come back.”
That he did, but not just with his legs. Kaepernick also beat the Packers with his arm, completing 17 of 31 passes for 263 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Michael Crabtree that turned a 14-7 Packers lead into a 21-14 San Francisco advantage.
“We thought that passing-wise, we would be alright, regardless of how he was throwing,” veteran Packers safety Charles Woodson said of Kaepernick, who was making his first NFL postseason start after being installed as the 49ers’ starter on Nov. 19. “What we didn't anticipate was him running and getting out of the pocket the way he did. Those things killed us. Broke our backs.”
Added Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, whose Packers finished 12-6: “I don’t think he surprised us with his speed. We obviously had a lot of respect for him coming into the game. We had an opportunity to have a full week of preparation. He had the one interception to start the first series of the game but after that he played extremely well. We knew he was going to run the football. We knew that he was a factor in pulling the ball down in the passing game and running it. We did not take it away from him.”
Truth be told, the Packers didn’t take anything away from anyone. They gave the ball away twice – on a momentum-turning muffed punt by Jeremy Ross, and an uncharacteristic late-down-the-middle interception by Rodgers, both of which resulted in touchdowns – while San Francisco rolled up an astonishing 579 yards of total offense, the fourth-most yards gained by a team in a postseason game in NFL history.
“It didn’t surprise us,” said 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who estimated that Kaepernick was lined up in the read-option “pistol” about half the game. “We’ve seen that before starting in the preseason. It was a good play. Those plays require a lot of different things, not just one guy. So great job by everybody on that play.”
As for the use of the “pistol,” Harbaugh acknowledged that the 49ers used it much more than they had of late.
“That was in the plan,” Harbaugh said. “A lot more pistol formation in this game plan, both handing the ball off and Kap running and play action, where we’re throwing out of it. We’re pretty multi-dimensional on that formation.”
And the Packers couldn’t handle it.
“We didn’t have any answers,” inside linebacker A.J. Hawk said.
More troublingly, both Woodson and defensive tackle B.J. Raji bemoaned the coaching staff’s failure to adjust.
“I think it's the right defense. I just think when the game is going the way it is, you've got to try something different. It's hard to just continue to do the same thing over and over again and continue to get burned,” Woodson said. “That's what I was talking about going forward. We need to figure out, could we have done something differently as far as our gameplan was concerned.
“It hurts you bad, especially if you're in a lot of fire zones. If there is a breakdown somewhere, it's going to turn into a big breakdown.”
In response to multiple questions about the defensive approach, Raji replied: “That’s a question better left for the coordinator.”
Asked what halftime adjustments were made, Woodson replied, “It was just about trying to execute the defense we were running. That's what it boils down to. If it works, then it works. If it doesn't, then like I say, maybe you change. If not, you just try to execute.”
Woodson and McCarthy both said that they employed a “spy” on occasion against Kaepernick – linebackers Erik Walden, Brad Jones and Clay Matthews all did it at various points, as did Woodson – but it never really worked. Even McCarthy had to acknowledge that, replying to one spy question, “You might not have noticed, but we did.”
And yet, despite all their mistakes in all three phases, it was still 24-24 with 8:25 left in the third quarter when Kaepernick broke free on his 56-yard TD – “The end came down, our receivers blocked the corner and the safety, there was nobody else left,” he described it, succinctly – and even after that, the Packers had their chances.
On the drive after Kaepernick’s run made it 31-24, Rodgers scrambled for a 17-yard gain on third-and-10, but the drive stalled. And when the 49ers scored again on the next series – their touchdown drives after the 24-24 tie would cover 80, 93 and 93 yards – the Packers again saw a promising drive stall out just short of midfield.
“We didn't do enough on offense. We could have helped our defense out a little bit,” said Rodgers, who finished the night with misleading numbers (26 of 39 for 257 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and one sack (91.5 rating) because of a late touchdown pass to Jennings. “The second half we had a chance. We were right in it. A touchdown there on the first possession would have put us in a good situation, but we came up short.
“We gift-wrapped them 14 points on two turnovers and we were in the game. Our defense was doing all right. Then the second half we just didn't score any points. … We knew we were going to have to score some points. I'm disappointed we couldn't get any on that first drive out of the second half. But we were able to come back and get a field goal and they go down and score and we knew were probably going to have to put up 38 points at least to win the game."
And now begins an uncertain offseason. After the game, Woodson, Finley, Hawk, Driver and Jennings all spoke of not knowing what the future holds. They don’t know where they’ll be next season, and the franchise has to be wondering where it’s headed as well.
“The reality of it is, there will probably be some changes made,” Jennings said. “Hopefully, I’m here. But if not, I’m ready to move wherever. It is what it is. I’m not naïve to that, being a realist. I love this organization. I really wouldn’t want to go anywhere else, but if I have to that’s what I’m ready to do.
“We lost. It is what it is.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.