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Niners' defense of Williams turns low moment into heart-warming one

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Williams feels terrible after his costly fumbles, but 'I couldn't be happier with my teammates.' (Getty Images)  
Williams feels terrible after his costly fumbles, but 'I couldn't be happier with my teammates.' (Getty Images)  

SAN FRANCISCO -- Don't call Kyle Williams a goat, not in the San Francisco 49ers' locker room. Don't say he lost this game. Don't you dare.

The 49ers won't hear it. They weren't hearing it after the team's 20-17 loss Sunday to the New York Giants in the NFC title game, a game they could have won in regulation had Williams not muffed a punt in the fourth quarter. A game they could have won in overtime had Williams not fumbled another punt.

You could say Kyle Williams lost this game for the 49ers. The evidence, cruel as it is, is compelling. His turnovers led to the Giants' final 10 points. If this were a court of law, the prosecution would rest. The jury would deliver an immediate verdict. Williams would be guilty.

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But don't say that around his teammates. They're having none of it.

"We all lost this game," tight end Delanie Walker said. "We play as a team -- it's 45 of us out there. It's not Kyle's fault, so don't go over there and act like it is. Cause it's not."

Over there, at Williams' locker, Williams was missing. Ted Ginn was standing one locker over, dressing quietly, alone in his thoughts. Ginn is the 49ers' No. 1 punt returner, but he was inactive Sunday because of a knee injury. In Ginn's place, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh turned to Williams -- who has struggled in this setting before. When he was at Arizona State in 2009, a punt bounced off his feet with 1:09 to play in a tie game. Arch-rival Arizona recovered and kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired.

Score? The same as it was Sunday: 20-17.

Surely Ginn wasn't thinking about that as he dressed Sunday. Whatever he was thinking, it ended when he saw the crowd of media gathering around Williams' locker. Ginn made a face and disappeared. A minute later he came back and asked the media to move along.

"Go on now," Ginn said softly, politely, seriously. "It's too much for him right now."

As the media looked at each other, trying to decipher if Ginn was serious, another 49ers receiver -- injured Josh Morgan -- walked over to Williams' locker and made an announcement.

"I'm talking for Kyle," Morgan said. "You have any questions, ask me. He's not talking today. I got it."

CBSSports.com Grades
New York Giants
New York Giants
B+
Outside of a couple of blown coverages against 49ers TE Vernon Davis, the pass defense had a dominant day and stopped the 49ers from maintaining drives, shutting them down on 13-of-14 third downs. Offensively they didnít block well for Eli Manning, but didnít turn it over either. Special teams made the difference, as it often does with two evenly-matched teams.
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers
C+
The defense played a tremendous game, sacking Giants QB Eli Manning and putting a ton of heat on him in the second half and overtime. The offense didnít turn it over at all, but really struggled in the passing game and on third downs. Special teams, an area where theyíd been so strong all season, cost them the game, with two fumbled punts.
By Michael Erler
RapidReports Correspondent

In another setting, delivered in another tone, the behavior of Ginn and Morgan could have been irritating. In this setting, delivered so sincerely, it was heart-warming. These guys had just seen their team lose the NFC title game in overtime thanks to two killer fumbles -- the only turnovers for either team, all game -- and they were sticking up for the guy who committed both fumbles.

And they were silly fumbles.

The first one, with 11:06 left in the fourth quarter, came on a short punt. Williams, who had been ultra-careful minutes earlier -- fair-catching a 56-yarder at the 49ers' 12, no defender within 20 yards of him -- wasn't careful this time. He stood in front of the ball as it approached, as if to catch it on a bounce, but it wobbled off his knee. The Giants recovered at the 49ers' 29 and scored a touchdown a few minutes later for a 17-14 lead.

The second fumble was worse, seeing how it came in overtime. Williams fielded the punt cleanly at his 19, advanced five yards, then gave it up when he was hit by Giants linebacker Jacquian Williams. New York recovered at the 24, ran four plays, then ran off the field in celebration after Lawrence Tynes' 31-yard field goal.

For those handful of plays, it was sports at its most painful, most depressing. But then it became sports at its best. I've seen players like Kyle Williams ostracized on the sideline after mistakes like that, but a variety of teammates and coaches patted him on the shoulder pads as he sat on the bench, head down, not watching as the Giants drove toward the game's inevitable conclusion.

It was more of the same in the locker room, players on offense and defense consoling Williams. Defensive tackle Ray McDonald didn't want to talk to me, but when I told him the topic was Kyle Williams, he changed his mind.

"He's our teammate," McDonald said. "Mistakes happen, and he made one that came at the wrong time, but we're behind him 100 percent. Don't doubt that."

Who could doubt that? After Ginn, Morgan, Walker and McDonald, that was clear. And then it was the man of the hour himself, Kyle Williams, being escorted to his locker by a 49ers media-relations official to answer a few questions. First one: What happened on that fumble in overtime?

"It was just one of those situations," Williams said, his eyes red. "I caught the ball and tried to head up field, tried to make a play, and it ended up for the worst."

Why?

"The guy [Jacquian Williams] made the play," Kyle Williams said. "He caught me slipping, and got the ball out."

Williams talked for three minutes, and he came back to the same theme: At his lowest moment, his teammates weren't piling on -- they were picking him up.

"Everyone in here told me to keep my head up and it's not on me," he said. "You hate to be the last guy that had the ball, to give it up that way in that fashion and to lose a game of this magnitude ... but I couldn't be happier with my teammates."

The media-relations official signaled an end to the interview, and Williams turned his back to face his locker. The media, however, stayed. Maybe we weren't done with Kyle Williams. Seeing this, 49ers vice president Keena Turner -- a linebacker from 1980-90 -- touched Williams on the elbow, whispered something into his ear, and escorted him out of the locker room.

Away went Williams, disappearing for the rest of the day, the rest of the season. I can't tell you where he went, but I can promise you this: Wherever he went, he wasn't alone. His teammates were having none of that.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. More importantly, he is 4-0 as an amateur boxer, with three knockouts. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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