- Seth Wickersham, ESPN Senior Writer
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ST. LOUIS -- First, let's set something straight: Although the replays and Merlot-ingesting 49er fans would indicate differently, Cedrick Wilson was thinking when he caught the ball in the middle of the field, needing only to take a dive for the Niners to be positioned perfectly for a game-winning field goal.
Said Wilson, "I was thinking end zone."
And that was it. With nine seconds to go, with the score tied 24-24, with the 65,990 fans at Edward Jones Dome beside themselves, with Jeff Garcia having shaken off one concussion and being mangled to the point of possibly another, a former sixth-round pick had a chance to be a hero.
On second-and-15 from the San Francisco 45, Garcia stood in the shotgun and took the snap. The play was "All Go," sending all four receivers streaking downfield, hoping to get a completion, followed snugly by a timeout, and a chance for kicker Jeff Chandler to win it.
It seemed like the 49ers had a higher power working for them in this one. After tying the score with 14 seconds left on a sweet 13-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Owens, coach Dennis Erickson had a simple request for kicker Chandler: Squib the ball. Don't let them return it.
Seemed easy enough, but Chandler nearly missed the ball altogether off the tee. It wound up coming off to the right -- Fore! -- and bouncing off a Ram 10 yards away and into the welcoming embrace of 49er Arnaz Battle. Just as you drew it up, eh Coach?
"Well," Erickson said, "I'd like to say it was designed."
So the Niners had the ball. On second down, Garcia took the snap, dropped back, and scooted up and to his right. As usual Sunday afternoon, Garcia was running for his life. The Niners offensive line -- composed of three second-teamers -- blocked "All Go" as if it were called "All Went."
The pass was supposed to be for Owens, but Wilson saw Garcia under duress and broke his route inside. Garcia got the ball away not a split-second from being planted on his face. Wilson caught it in stride at the Rams 30-yard line.
At this point, every player dressed in 49er white screamed at Wilson to dive, fall, anything but try to score. Wilson probably hadn't had so many people screaming for him to "Get down!" since his prom at Melrose (Memphis, Tenn.) High.
As Garcia said later, "It comes down to common sense."
Yes, common sense probably would have had San Francisco at 2-0, buried the Rams at 0-2, left the entire crowd's mouths agape yet silent, and had most St. Louisans calling for Mike Martz's job faster than you can say Warner or Bulger?
But, alas, "I was thinking end zone."
Poor Wilson. He shed one tackle, got hungry for six, tried to outrun two other Rams, and was brought down. The end zone was 26 yards away. The clock read zero. Wilson explained later that when he saw Garcia scramble he lost track of time and decided to "take it to the house," not knowing that if he'd just taken it to the carpet they could have won the game.
Erickson stood on the sideline looking like he'd eaten a slug. The game went into overtime, and the Rams went 42 yards in four plays, winning the game on a Jeff Wilkins' 28-yarder just two minutes into overtime.
After the game, Owens used the word "dumb" a few times in describing the 49ers, leaving no misunderstanding that it was a blanket term he was wrapping Wilson in.
"In a situation like that," Owens said, "you gotta be smart."
It should have ended better for Wilson. After all, this was the best game of his three-year career, with four catches for 57 yards. He kept a scoring drive alive in the second quarter with a gritty grab on third-and-6. He completed a 6-yard pass to Garcia on what had to be the redheaded stepchild of quarterback-throwbacks. He's turned from a special teams nobody into a solid contributor who might push Tai Streets out of a job someday. He's a nice guy, a handsome guy, who reads to kids in Northern California on his off days and has a celebrity basketball tournament to raise money for youth football in Memphis. He held his head high in the locker room after the game as reporters tried to kindly ask, "Did you leave your smart pills on the bench?"
But, as Wilson said over and over, "I was thinking end zone."
Next time, trust him, he'll know better.
Seth Wickersham covers the NFL for ESPN The Magazine.
9hEric D. Williams