It's as if each of the 49ers' losses this season was manufactured and produced by the same film company. The elements are unmistakable: an inability to score a single point in the second half. Frank Gore standing on the field and looking bewildered while the rest of the offense crumbles around him. Colin Kaepernick gormlessly circling around in the pocket and holding onto the football like a hot potato. The terrible late interception in the final minute—seriously, where was that last pass headed? Napa?
And injuries. Lots of injuries.
The 49ers were basically Pacquiaoed (or Mayweathered if you prefer) on Sunday, crawling into a fetal position as the Panthers rocked the football field like the center of a mosh pit. The home crowd's groans seemed to amplify the team's pain, and by the time the game was over, the 49ers had suffered through two concussions, one twisted ankle, one pulled hamstring...and a lot of bruised egos.
It was a game painfully reminiscent to the 1990 NFC Championship against the Giants, when then-defensive coordinator Bill Belichick's full-throttle defense appeared to come up just shy of a trip to the Super Bowl. But in the end, Lawrence Taylor managed to gobble up Roger Craig's ill-timed fumble to spark the miracle, while the 49ers couldn't recover two loose balls that seemed to bounce back to the Panthers like Mjolnir flying into Thor's outstretched hand.
If the playoffs began today, the 49ers would be the sixth-seeded team in the NFC (the Panthers would hold the No. 5 slot since they own the tiebreaker), and that sounds right. While the Niners are comprised of players who are pretty good at playing football, they've been smacked around like a pinata when faced with someone their own size.
Compared to the rest of the NFC elite, they're in a place between average and good. Not bad, considering the offense is in a place between terrible and horrendous.
Scoring seven points against the Colts was bad, but 150 total yards of offense at home made your eyes bleed tears. About 60,000 at Candlestick Park–minus one Carolina Panther fan—could be heard by anyone within earshot of a TV or radio. They were joined from supporters 50 miles away in Santa Clara—the future home of the team in 2014—and 49ers fans around the country who covered their faces every time Colin Kaepernick dropped back to pass.
The mood was jovial after the first quarter. The Niners were leading comfortably 9-0. Cam Newton and the Panthers offense looked overmatched. Frank Gore was drilling holes through Carolina's dominant front seven. By the third quarter, what started as mild enthusiasm morphed into an angry buzz. The buzz grew louder in the final 10 minutes, sounding less like a Kenny G concert and more like an election loss.
It was the third time this season the Niners have been shut out in the second half.
Usually, the blame for a team's offensive struggles falls on the quarterback. But is it really fair to single out Colin Kaepernick?
Yes, it is.
Facing a mediocre secondary which struggled in its last two contests, Kaepernick often looked clueless and bemused, barely getting off snaps on time and failing to recognize the pressure being brought on by the defense.
The offensive line didn't get it done Sunday. Plain and simple. But unlike Russell Wilson, who's excelled behind Seattle's terrible O-line, Kaepernick simply can't adjust on the run. The mental clock that should be ticking in every quarterback's mind seems frozen, and that was evident after he went down six times against the Cats.
There's no question the absence of Vernon Davis was detrimental to the offense. Aside from his tremendous ability to stretch the field like a flank receiver, Vernon's resilient blocking is what sets him apart from elite tight ends like Jimmy Graham.
All NFC Playoff Contenders Have a Dangerous QB
It's going to be a tough day for any quarterback who loses one of their most reliable receiving targets, but 90 yards through the air is unacceptable. All week we've been hearing about how Andrew Luck had the most miserable game of his career against the Rams. But Luck still managed to throw for over 350 yards without his top receiving option, Reggie Wayne. He's finding people open downfield, and a big reason for that is his ability to hit receivers in stride.
Aside from looking helpless whenever his primary receiving option is covered, Kaepernick has shown a timidness in unleashing a pass to a receiver in the process of completing his route. There was one instance when he threw one of his patented laser beams down the field to a streaking Vance McDonald. Everything was perfect. Except he dropped it. Yes, that sucked, and that kind of thing happens often in the NFL. But one throw past 20 yards for four quarters? Guh.
Kaepernick is running out of excuses. After his amazing performance to start the season, he's only thrown for 200 yards once and has averaged less than one passing touchdown per game. Any one of the NFC's current playoff quarterbacks—Rodgers, Stafford, Cutler, Newton, Wilson—would be shredding defenses with Boldin, Davis, Manningham and McDonald at their disposal. Kaepernick is not elite. Right now, he's not even average.
49ers Out-Coaching Themselves?
In Kapernick's defense, it could also be that the offense is thinking too hard. You ever wonder how things would work out if Kaepernick had 20 pre-scripted plays to run through instead of reading the defense and trying to come up with something perfect before every snap? You save a lot of timeouts that way and the quarterback doesn't have to deal with the added of pressure of attempting to get a snap off before the play clock expires.
Jim Harbaugh may be the best coach in the NFL. But he's a slow learner. Teams have to find ways to beat him, not the other way around. Why else did he choose to give Frank Gore just four carries in the second half? Because he can. That's something that has to change.
The 49ers defense can hang with anyone in the NFL. But with the Ray McDonald and Eric Reid nursing injuries, the scale has to shift toward the offense and the passing game. That looks plausible with Michael Crabtree set to return later this month.
While they may be the third- or fourth-best team in the NFC now, they're still Super Bowl contenders. Remember the 2005 Steelers and the 2007 and 2011 Giants? The Seahawks and the Saints hold the edge, but the Niners remain in control of their own destiny.
If they can find their voice on offense by the end of the season, they could be fun to watch in the playoffs.
Maybe even five yards more fun than last year.