The high-flying San Francisco 49ers have come down to earth and are looking human again.
For two seasons they have been winning more than two-thirds of the games they play, often looking unbeatable. Talented players, a magical quarterback, a genius coach—oh, yeah, so you have heard all that before.
The noise about the inevitability of another Super Bowl may just be a bit lower for a while. Two losses—one an obvious and loud (in more ways than one) smackdown, the other a second-half whipping following a fair first-half 10-7 stalemate—will lower the frenzy of both pundits and fans alike.
Just to refresh a bit: Back in the good old days when the 49ers were a "dynasty," they were also very vulnerable. They pulled a lot of games out at the last moment and were even referred to by some as “The Heart Attack Kids.” They lost some games, too. Sometimes they were blown out. Sometimes they were edged out. Sometimes they came out "flat," as TV announcers love to say.
But in the long run, they had winning records for over a decade and stacked up five Super Bowl wins in the process. The Heart Attack Kids may have kept fans on the edge of their seats, but they brought home the bacon way too often for being only one of 32 teams.
During one decade they went to and won a Super Bowl in 40 percent of their seasons.
After the performance the past two years, nearly all the pundits and nearly every person in San Francisco expected this to be an easy year. Most pundits agreed that the 49ers were favored to win the Super Bowl this year.
But three games into the season with a 1-2 record, the prospect of a Super Bowl appearance has dimmed substantially.
The 49ers no longer look invincible.
What is obvious is that injuries and flat-out wear and tear are beginning to take a toll on the team. The official list of dinged payers is 16 members long.
Among them are four wide receivers: Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Brandon Carswell and Chuck Jacobs; three cornerbacks: Chris Culliver, Darryl Morris and Eric Wright; two tight ends: Vernon Davis and Derek Carrier; and three linebackers: Aldon Smith, Nick Moody and Darius Fleming. And that is just a few of the 16 dinged players.
Some of those, such as Culliver and Davis, are impact players. Losing Crabtree and Manningham was a major blow, and replacements have been hard to find. Anquan Boldin is great, of course, but being the sole receiver means he attracts hordes of defenders. Losing Vernon Davis is another major blow. Suddenly Colin Kaepernick has a great arm but no one to whom he can throw those 90-mile-an-hour fastballs down the field.
The receiving corps is decimated and way too easy to defend. Without a significant one-two punch, the bout is over before it begins. The second dependable receiver to augment Boldin has yet to be discovered.
Without the passing threat, even Frank Gore—the most productive 49ers rusher ever—cannot break through the mass of defenders packed into the box and defending the run. All the pretty new formations to increase rushing effectiveness become moot.
And Gore reported a ding after the Colts game.
So the 49ers find themselves without a running game and without a passing game. Tough times.
The times will get better, one can hope, as the injured come back and impact players return to duty. But that is not happening this week.
In the meantime, when a team finds these double threats facing them, some unknown or unheralded player rises up and plays way above his pay grade. A few stellar plays break the stalemate and rescue the team from emotional depression and performance mediocrity.
So far, this upstart person has remained a mystery.
Let us hope he shows up during the Thursday night game against a resurgent St. Louis Rams team.