The life of a defensive back is a lonely one.
So often, it is just the defender and receiver, out on the perimeter of the action, left to themselves do determine a catch, an incompletion, or perhaps an interception., the outcome of a game literally in their hands, and if it goes wrong, there’s no one else to blame.
With just 9:47 play and the 49ers leading 17-14, the ball came spiraling right at Tartt, without another player for either team anywhere near him. But with a chance to put the 49ers on the final path to Super Bowl 56, Tartt could not hang on.
The dropped interception gave the Rams new life, and they took advantage, kicking the tying field goal on the same drive, then netting the game-winner a few minutes later.
And when it was over, Tartt was all alone one more time, save for the anguish and guilt that enveloped him.
But, it turns out, Tartt really had the whole world in his corner, led by teammate George Kittle.
The 49ers appeared poised to close out the Rams on Stafford’s wayward heave
The pass was apparently intended for Van Jefferson, but the only place it was headed was for Tartt’s waiting arms. It was 1st-and-10 from their own 15-yard line when Matthew Stafford dropped back to pass. There was just 9:47 remaining in the game, and by now, after a pair of failed challenges by coach Sean McVay, the Rams were out of timeouts.
Leading 17-14, if the 49ers could get the ball back, their ground game, stymied for much of the evening, would be poised to muscle down the clock and carry the 49ers to their second Super Bowl in three years.
And Stafford appeared to be gift-wrapping the 49ers the ball, chucking a pass 50 yards down the middle of the field, but with no Rams receivers anywhere near the endpoint of its trajectory.
The only player who had a chance for the ball was Tartt, who as safety was playing a deep center field on the play, and found himself all alone as the pass aimed directly for him. The only receiver anywhere close was Van Jefferson, and all he could do was watch and pray that somehow Tartt would drop it.
Maybe Tartt was shocked by how open he was and that the ball was coming right for him. Maybe he started to think return before he had the ball secured. Whatever the reason, the ball hit Tartt in the chest, not the hands or arms, and bounced away from him, hitting the ground harmlessly for an incomplete pass.
The shock of the moment was best expressed by Fox’s Joe Buck, who shouted, “He’s picked! No! DROPPED! Unbelievable! A drop by Jaquiski Tartt!” his voice going throaty and deep on the word “Dropped,” then cracking on “A drop,” as a result of being profoundly surprised by what had just transpired before him.
Tartt takes to Twitter to atone for his ill-timed drop
Certainly, the 49ers were stunned. And on the next play, Stafford connected with Odell Beckham Jr. for 29 yards that became 44 on an unnecessary roughness call. Forty-four yards was the length of the Stafford-to Cooper Kupp pass that set up Matt Gay’s walk-off winner in the Divisional Round. And now Gay would tie the NFC Championship at 17-17.
And after the reeling 49ers went 3-and-out on their next possession, Guy hit again for the game-winner, sending the 49ers home and hurting.
But no one was in more emotional pain than Tartt.
“It’s a moment a lot of athletes I know dream of, just being in this moment, tie ball game and you can make the game changing play,” Tartt told reporters after the game. “For me, that’s something I was thinking about all week. I know I can make that play and when the play came up, I didn’t make it. I know that was a big play in the game, a big opportunity for me and for the team and as a player I just feel like I let my brothers down.”
Tartt was still beating himself up Sunday night when he took to Twitter and again bared his tortured soul before the world.
“No excuses!! I deserve all the criticism my way! Opportunity I dream of I came up short!!! Let my brothers down!! It Still won’t define me as a person/player. Only will get stronger and better… #Believdat”
Tartt’s brothers, on the other hand, had already been absolving their teammate of any blame.
Led by Kittle, Tartt’s teammates rally around the defensive back
Within seconds of the drop, 49ers teammate Fred Warner was consoling Tartt on the field. It’s just one play. Still a lot of game to go.
After it was over, Tartt’s teammates and coaches were quick to come to his defense. This was a team effort, and no one play or player was responsible for the crushing loss.
“Is (the loss) his fault? Goodness gracious, no,” 49ers tight end George Kittle said. “He had a tackle in Green Bay for why we were even in this situation. We all make mistakes. That was probably highlighted. I don’t blame him at all.”
49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan also pointed to Tartt’s play in the Divisional Round, and how it helped the 49ers rally past the Green Bay Packers just to reach the NFC Championship Game.
“I thought he was one of the best players on the field last week versus Green Bay,” Shanahan said. “I have loved him being on our team since I’ve been here and I know he’s disappointed in that drop that he had, but there’s a lot of other plays in that game and I’m very happy that Tartt was on our team this year.”
But still, Tartt simply could not be consoled. His teammates understood. It was all right there, and he just couldn’t make the play.
“It’s hard to really say anything to help him in this moment,” defensive end Nick Bosa said. “Obviously, he missed an opportunity, but there’s I think 70 other plays that I’m sure a lot of other guys missed a lot of opportunities out there. It’s football. It’s one play, and we’re definitely going to be there for him.”
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference