***** report card
By Craig Massei, SFI editor
Date: Oct 11, 2004

Sunday's great comeback victory over the Arizona Cardinals earns the ***** their best overall grade so far this season, with tight end Eric Johnson and quarterback Tim Rattay receiving the highest individual marks.

QUARTERBACKS: Now that he's finally healthy, Tim Rattay continues to show rapid growth in the position, and that growth produced a comeback victory that ranks among the best in ***** lore and puts his name in the San Francisco record book. Rattay stood strong in the face of adversity and overcame seemingly insurmountable odds - a 16-point deficit with less than five minutes remaining - to lead the Niners to their first victory. His team-record 38 completions in 57 attempts were a product of the Niners falling behind, but he was spectacular in the fourth-quarter rally, and both of his touchdown passes were things of beauty. He had a fumble that Arizona turned into seven points, but that was a result of a protection breakdown. He also displayed some rare elusiveness while slipping loose for a 15-yard gain and running in a critical two-point conversion. And, while throwing for a career-high 417 yards, Rattay did it in the face of heavy pressure while being sacked five times. A watershed game for Rattay that indicates he has arrived as a legitimate QB who can produce when it truly counts. Grade: A

RUNNING BACKS: Kevan Barlow officially is in a slump. That was confirmed by his effort Sunday, when he again was ineffective and failed to hit holes with precision and authority. Barlow also slipped on a third-and-1 sweep when the Niners were driving in the first quarter, losing three yards on the play. Barlow averaged 2.4 yards on his 14 carries. Jamal Robertson had another critical lost fumble - without even being hit - that turned the momentum back to Arizona and under normal circumstances probably would have cost the Niners the game. Fred Beasley's blocking wasn't a factor. Barlow and Robertson provided outlet relief for the passing game with a combined six receptions for 47 yards. But the Niners need these guys to run the ball - and hold onto it. Grade: D-

WIDE RECEIVERS: Finally, five games into the season, Brandon Lloyd made some plays that made a difference. Actually, his diving touchdown catch in the back of the end zone and his game-tying two-point conversion grab that followed made a huge difference. That's what the Niners need and expect from him. Lloyd, who missed the previous two games with groin problems, matched his previous season total with five receptions. Curtis Conway matched Lloyd's totals of five receptions and 56 yards and Cedrick Wilson contributed four receptions for 45 yards. Lloyd's crucial grabs with the game on the line raise the overall grade: Grade: B+

TIGHT ENDS: Eric Johnson needed pain-blocking injections just to play Sunday, but that didn't stop him from having one of the greatest games by a tight end in the 59-year history of the franchise. Johnson snagged 13 receptions for 162 yards - the most ever in a game by a Niners tight end - and a lot of them were key catches as the Niners rallied from behind, including a 6-yard scoring reception that kept them in the game. He has emerged as a tremendous threat that makes opponents pay for ganging up on San Francisco's outside receivers. Aaron Walker also is getting more involved and had three receptions for 41 yards. Add up the numbers: 16 receptions for 203 yards from this position. Grade: A+

OFFENSIVE LINE: This unit got beat up and tossed around by a pretty good Arizona defensive line most of the day, but came through with good protection of Rattay when it counted in the fourth quarter and overtime. Unit definitely got stronger and became more cohesive as the game progressed, and the Niners couldn't have made their big comeback without that course-of-the-game improvement. Kwame Harris absolutely whiffed on Bertrand Berry and allowed a sack that resulted in a fumble and an eventual Arizona touchdown. If Harris isn't healthy enough to get in the way of hard-charging right defensive ends, then he shouldn't be playing. If he is healthy enough, then he needs to be putting up some more resistance or else the Niners are in trouble. Berry and his backup, Calvin Pace, each had two sacks and the Arizona defensive line had five total. Harris wasn't the only one to have protection problems, and the run blocking again produced few openings. But this unit fought valiantly at the end and contributed to the victory. Grade: C-

DEFENSIVE LINE: The line played well most of the day but wore down in the fourth quarter when the Arizona offense assumed control of the game. The pressure on Arizona quarterback Josh McCown by this unit wasn't what it needed to be, but that's becoming commonplace. Tackles Bryant Young and Anthony Adams clogged the middle and got some help from Tony Brown. Newcomer Melvin Williams made a solid contribution with two tackles and two passes knocked away. John Engelberger also fought off the pain from his abdominal injury to knock away a pass. Brandon Whiting got in on a sack before an ankle injury forced him out of the game. Grade: C+

LINEBACKERS: Julian Peterson was on his way to another huge game before he was injured. Already without leading tackler Derek Smith, this unit played on valiantly without him. Jeff Ulbrich is now the leader of this unit, and he responded with 10 tackles, half a sack, and heady play while attempting to hold the defense together. Jamie Winborn was at his best in coverage, intercepting one pass and knocking away another. Saleem Rasheed knocked away a pass and Brandon Moore had two tackles in Peterson's place. There were a few breakdowns in coverage, one of which allowed tight end Freddie Jones to get loose for Arizona's first touchdown. Grade: B-

SECONDARY: Ahmed Plummer was beaten for a touchdown pass by Larry Fitzgerald, and Cardinals receivers Karl Williams and Bryant Johnson also found some holes in the San Francisco secondary. That trio combined for 12 receptions for 177 yards and finished as Arizona's three leading receivers. Safeties Tony Parrish had seven tackles and Ronnie Heard had three, but collectively they are not playing at a high level. The real bright spot here was rookie cornerback Shawntae Spencer, who is displaying some tremendous development as a cover corner. He had excellent coverage on receivers several times and, even when he was beaten for a 35-yard reception by Fitzgerald, he was in fine position on the play. Spencer led the secondary with eight tackles, and he knocked away a pass, as did Joselio Hanson, who also made a nice contribution. Grade: C

SPECIAL TEAMS: A game-winning field goal in overtime by Todd Peterson, who made all three of his attempts, the longest from 42 yards. An instinctive, breakaway 71-yard dash to the end zone by Arnaz Battle on a punt return. Solid efforts again by coverage units that have been very consistent this season. It all adds up to the best special teams performance of the year for the Niners, and that was a significant factor in San Francisco's first victory. Punter Andy Lee hit a few low line drives, but he finished with a solid 42.3-yard average and 36.3 net. Returning kickoffs for the first time this season, Cedrick Wilson was not effective. Grade: A-

COACHING: The Niners rendered the Arizona defense helpless during the madcap fourth-quarter rally by sprinkling into the offensive mix some no-huddle and shotgun formations. It allowed the Niners to move right down the field when it counted after San Francisco had produced just two field goals (and six punts) on its first 10 drives. Two of those drives were stopped by fumbles, however, which isn't the coaches' fault - again. The Niners also did a fine job of holding up their defense after again losing yet more quality players. The Niners didn't hesitate to make adjustments when things weren't working, and it paid off in the end this time. Grade: B

OVERALL: This was a great comeback victory for a team that really hung in there through a lot of adversity to get it. The Niners didn't quit and stuck together through the loss of their best player - not to mention others - and also endured through yet more unsightly turnovers and penalties. The Niners deserve high marks for all that, but it's important to remember this game was shaping up as another ugly loss before the magical late-game heroics. Still, it is what it is - a dramatic overtime win that gave San Francisco the taste of victory for the first time in 2004 after four preseason and four regular-season defeats. Grade: B