Taysom Hill

49ers' road back to Super Bowl made tougher by Drew Brees, Greg Olsen

49ers' road back to Super Bowl made tougher by Drew Brees, Greg Olsen

The 49ers' road back to the Super Bowl always was going to be tougher than their most recent one. That's what happens when you play a first-place schedule as opposed to a third-place one. But based on a couple of developments Tuesday, that road just got even tougher.

First, Drew Brees took to Instagram to let the world know he would be returning for a 20th NFL season and 15th with the New Orleans Saints.

Brees, who turned 41 in January, was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next month, but the quarterback previously had made it clear that he would either retire or return for another season in the Big Easy. Clearly, he chose the latter.

While Brees and the Saints still will need to agree to a contract, it appears that is a foregone conclusion. When Brees hit free agency in 2018, he agreed to a two-year, $50 million contract with New Orleans, but with only one year guaranteed.

Brees will be back with the Saints for the 2020 NFL season, but it now appears unlikely that his backup, Teddy Bridgewater, will do the same. Like Brees, Bridgewater is an unrestricted free agent, and is likely to command a higher salary on the open market than New Orleans can afford after he went 5-0 as a starter while Brees was injured last season.

Taysom Hill, the Saints' do-it-all third-string QB, is a restricted free agent, so New Orleans can match any offer for him and stands a much better chance of retaining him than Bridgewater.

The Saints arguably were San Francisco's toughest competition in the NFC last season, and matched the Niners with a 13-3 regular-season record. That was with Brees missing five games with a thumb injury, and there is every reason to believe New Orleans will be one of the best teams in the conference again in 2020.

If the Saints weren't the 49ers' toughest opponent last season, then it probably was the Seattle Seahawks, who beat San Francisco at Levi's Stadium and came within inches of sweeping the regular-season series to win the division title. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has been a thorn in San Francisco's side ever since he was drafted by Seattle in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, and he just got another weapon.

Former Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen signed a one-year, $7 million contract with the Seahawks on Tuesday with $5.5 million guaranteed. ESPN's Adam Schefter was first to report the news.

Olsen isn't what he once was, as injuries have taken their toll on the 13-year NFL veteran. Still, after being limited to 16 combined games over the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Olsen appeared in 14 games for Carolina last year and hauled in 52 receptions for 597 yards and two touchdowns. 

With Will Dissly coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon, Jacob Hollister a restricted free agent and Luke Willson an unrestricted free agent, Seattle was in dire need of some quality tight end depth. Olsen checks that box, and since he was released by the Panthers, the signing won't cost the Seahawks a compensatory draft pick.

With wide receivers Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf posing major problems on the outside, Olsen likely will have more room to operate in the middle of the field than all those years spent in Carolina, where he was often his team's No. 1 receiving option. Of course, he'll have to stay healthy to be of use.

[RELATED: 49ers have solid running backs, but group lacks something]

The 49ers have some tough decisions to make in how they plan to load up for next season. Clearly, some of their top competitors already have begun that process.

Saints' Sean Payton snaps over failed two-point conversion vs. 49ers

Saints' Sean Payton snaps over failed two-point conversion vs. 49ers

Saints coach Sean Payton wasn't in a mood to be second-guessed following his team's last-minute Week 14 loss to the 49ers.

San Francisco ultimately won the thrilling back-and-forth matchup by two measly points -- a game in which New Orleans attempted two two-point conversions.

Both failed.

After Tre'Quan Smith scored on an 18-yard touchdown pass to give New Orleans a 46-45 lead with 53 seconds remaining, quarterback Drew Brees went back to the same well for the two-point conversion attempt, but the pass intended fell incomplete. On the ensuing possession, 49ers tight end George Kittle caught a 39-yard reception on fourth-and-2, eventually setting up a game-winning Robbie Gould 30-yard field goal as time expired.

But after the tough loss, it was the former two-point try, not the latter, that Payton was questioned about -- while shopping for groceries, no less.

"I certainly understand the fans asking questions," Payton said Thursday on his weekly WWL Radio show. "I got the guy at frickin' Whole Foods asking me about the two-point play. I looked at him, the guy in the meat section, and I said, 'Hey, your steaks don't look too good right now. Worry about your frickin' meat.' "

Oh man. What's the over/under on how many "Worry about your frickin' meat" shirts will be at the Superdome when the Saints host the Colts on Monday night?

The play in question occurred midway through the first quarter, after Saints tight end Jared Cook hauled in his second touchdown reception of the contest. The 49ers were assessed a personal foul on the play, and rather than take the yardage on the kickoff, Payton couldn't pass up being so close to the goal line.

On the two-point try, Brees handed the ball off to a motioning Taysom Hill, who promptly was stuffed by multiple San Francisco defenders well short of the end zone. 

"I didn't feel like kicking a touchback, thought about kicking an onside kick," Payton explained. "So on the 1-yard line, I think we're gonna get two points. And then we get the defense misaligned -- obviously it doesn't have any success. And then the game ends, and, 'Why were you going for two?' Because I wanted to. We were on the 1-yard line."

Misaligned, huh? Payton was correct in stating that the 49ers were in an atypical alignment with two safeties on the same side of the field, but according to San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, that was intentional.

"We knew it was coming," Saleh said Thursday in response to Payton's claim that one of the safeties accidentally lined up on the wrong side. "I’m not going to say he wasn’t on the right side because of the way we execute certain things and all our different goal-line packages that we have, but that play was a gimme one to me with Taysom Hill where he was aligned. That was a layup in my opinion."

[RELATED: 49ers severely battered, bruised with three regular-season games to go]

The tape sure seems to suggest the 49ers knew what was coming:

The Saints hung 46 points on the 49ers, so clearly, not many of Payton's play-calls were of the layup variety. But the first two-point attempt?

You might say he butchered that one.

49ers' Tarvarius Moore knew about pass interference rule on fake punt

49ers' Tarvarius Moore knew about pass interference rule on fake punt

The Saints, their coach and their fans were quite upset at a controversial moment in Sunday's loss to the 49ers, and really, who could blame them? After the way the NFC Championship game ended last year, it's going to take decades for those feelings of being cheated to wear off.

This time, though, their complaints didn't hold any water.

Late in the third quarter, New Orleans opted for a fake punt, as swiss-army knife Taysom Hill took the snap before launching a long pass down the right sideline intended for receiver Tre'Quan Smith. Smith, however, was absolutely blanketed by 49ers defensive back Tarvarius Moore, and the pass fell incomplete. No penalty flag was thrown, as boos rained down from Mercedez-Benz Superdome. Saints coach Sean Payton vehemently protested what he viewed as a blown call to the officials, but in fact, he was in the wrong, and the officials ruled correctly.

Per NFL rules, there is no such thing as pass interference in that situation.

"This is absolutely the correct ruling," Fox Sports rules analyst Dean Blandino explained on the telecast. "When you're in a punt formation and you attempt a fake, you can't have pass interference on the widest man on either side of the formation."

Unlike the vast majority of New Orleans, apparently, Moore knew the correct rule, and took advantage of it.

If that particular rule didn't exist, teams could just run fake punts every single time and be basically guaranteed of extending their drive. The defenders blocking the outside gunners on punt coverage have no way of seeing the developing play behind them, and thus are at too great of a disadvantage for that rule not to be in place.

Cameras later appeared to catch Payton calling for a holding penalty, rather than pass interference. Holding is possible on a punt play, so the officials could have called that, but they didn't, and it's not a reviewable penalty.

[RELATED: Shanahan used Saints' own play against them in 49ers' win]

And really, if the Saints still want to act like they got screwed because of a missed holding penalty, they aren't going to get much sympathy, considering that happens on just about every play during an NFL game.

You don't necessarily have to agree with the rules, but you do have to play by them. Obviously, it helps to know what they are.