SANTA CLARA -– Midway through the second quarter, stuck in a scoreless tie, the 49ers picked up a first down on Blaine Gabbert’s pass completion to Anquan Boldin.
Well, not quite.
Boldin fumbled, and the Cincinnati Bengals recovered. Five plays later, the Bengals scored. In less than five minutes, the Bengals scored twice more and led 21-0.
The 49ers exited the playing field to a chorus of boos from the sparse crowd that bothered to enter through the turnstiles to see the team’s penultimate game at Levi’s Stadium this season.
“(I)t went from zero-zero to 21-nothing,” 49ers coach Jim Tomsula said. “We have got to understand that we cannot make those fundamental mistakes. When the ball is thrown, we need to catch it. We need to hold on to it. We need to punt the ball. We need to make those plays.”
Boldin’s fumble was followed by Bradley Pinion’s 18-yard punt, which was followed by tight end Vance McDonald muffing a perfectly thrown pass that turned into an interception for Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. And just like that, the Bengals had three touchdowns. And the 49ers were well on their way to a 10th loss in 14 games.
“I just have to execute better,” said McDonald, who earlier had a would-be completion deep in Bengals territory deflect off his hands for another interception. “That’s definitely not me, underperforming, and you’ve got to have a better week.
“Yeah, routine catch. It’s frustrating, but that one is on me. Like I said, it’s just a little execution.”
Safety Eric Reid placed this performance on the players, not Jim Tomsula and his coaching staff.
“If you look at our season, I say it every week, we shoot ourselves in the foot over and over again,” Reid said. “We had a couple bobbled balls where if that’s a catch, then it’s not a turnover. They don’t have that good of field position and it’s still our ball. I don’t think you can put it all on Jimmy (Tomsula). A lot of the plays come down to us executing.”
The 49ers were down 24-0 late in the third quarter before they did anything on offense. A week ago, the 49ers did not get into the end zone until they were down 24-3 to the Cleveland Browns late in the game.
“It’s real frustrating,” said Boldin, who had a team-high eight receptions for 74 yards. “Any time you don’t come out and perform the way you’re capable of performing, it’s frustrating. Too often we get off to slow starts and then try to get it cranking in the second half. That shouldn’t be the case. I feel like we should be aggressive coming out and just keep it going throughout the entire game.”
Unlike a week ago, nobody was remarking on the effort level or preparedness of the 49ers.
“I think guys fought until the end,” Boldin said. “I don’t think effort was a problem, it was more of lack of execution.”
The 49ers’ offense, which ranks as the worst in the NFL, finally got rolling once it was too late. The 49ers were unsuccessful on their first 12 attempts at third-down conversions. Gabbert completed 30 of 50 pass attempts for 295 yards with one touchdown at three interceptions – two of which McDonald was to blame. He was also sacked four times for 32 yards.
“I think it’s just up to the players to execute,” Gabbert said. “We prepare really well all week and we just have to find a way, somehow find a way to have that carry over to the first couple drives of the game. When you start fast offense, it gets everybody in the flow and you start playing team football.”
The 49ers gained 207 of their 318 total yards after the Bengals were up by 24 points late in the third quarter.
“We tried to be aggressive,” said 49ers receiver Torrey Smith, who caught two passes for 33 yards. “Playing conservative in the first half, you can’t win like that. When we play aggressive, we move the ball.
“It’s always frustrating when you’re not playing the way you’re supposed to be playing. We weren’t executing very well. So it wasn’t fun at all.”