John McGrath: Another San Francisco defeat signals an end of an era

As the record crowd at CenturyLink Field roared its approval of the penalty that sustained a fourth-quarter touchdown drive Sunday, a San Francisco 49ers executive — too angry to exercise press-box protocol — slammed a fist onto a table.

He knew what awaited his team.

Niners linebacker Nick Moody had just been called for roughing the passer, turning a fourth-down field goal attempt by the Seahawks into a fresh set of downs at the San Francisco 7. When quarterback Russell Wilson threw a touchdown pass to rookie receiver Paul Richardson, you got the sense the game — and an era, really — was all but over.

And though more than 13 minutes remained for the 49ers to solve their 17-7 deficit, the executive’s fist-pounding provided an appropriate sound effect for a season in which a proud franchise literally went south.

After three consecutive appearances in the conference championship game, the 49ers faced playoff elimination Sunday. Figuring to fight with the ferocity of a feral cat, they gave Seattle an effort not conspicuously apparent during their previous encounter on Thanksgiving night.

“I don’t know what you guys are thinking,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said when asked if the 49ers’ resolve surprised him. “This is a really good football team. It’s a great program. They’ve been in Super Bowls and doing all kinds of stuff for years around there. They have great heart and competitiveness, and they brought it again today.

“It couldn’t have been more obvious. It was all we could hope for today. Shoot, they were great. They brought out a heck of a game by us, too, which is what they’ve always done. I love playing those guys.”

Carroll’s respectful take on the 49ers was shared was by his players, who needed no pregame motivational speech to realize the visitors were competing for their playoff lives.

“We knew they were going to come out here and play hard,” said linebacker Bruce Irvin. “Those guys are a tough group of guys and every time we play them we know it’s going to be a dog fight. Our hats go off to them; they gave us everything they had.

“Fortunately, we were the better team today.”

The Seahawks also were the more durable team. When running back Frank Gore went to the sideline with a possible concussion and backup Carlos Hyde twisted a knee, San Francisco’s offense was reduced to quarterback Colin Kaepernick improvising behind an injury-depleted line.

“It is tough when you’re down the way we were. Out two backs, down to our third center and second right tackle, so on and so forth. I think we ran out of linebackers as well — there’s a lot that goes on and plays into it,” said wide receiver Anquan Boldin. “But we are men, we are football players, and when you step onto the field, you have to do your job.”

Deprived the playoff berth widely presumed a given when training camp opened, the 49ers soon can contemplate a future that will require some roster reloading.

Boldin, a 12-season veteran, is 34. Fellow receiver Brandon Lloyd is 33. Defensive tackle Justin Smith is 35. Older than anybody, in terms of football-decline years, is Gore, limited Sunday to 29 yards on 11 carries.

There’s a chance the best, most entertaining NFL rivalry of the decade won’t have lost any luster when the series resumes in 2015. More likely is the rivalry turning hollow, because the character who played an essential role in creating it — 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh — almost certainly will be working elsewhere.

“I’m not going to get too far in front of our headlights,” Harbaugh said of 2015. “We will focus all our energy on this week.”

In other words, Harbaugh had no comment. None was necessary.

A fist that struck a table, early in the fourth quarter, had said it all.