SAN FRANCISCO -- It may be time to consider the very real possibility that people are on to the way the 49ers do their offensive business – run and tight end you to death. It may also be time to consider that only the very best teams can do something with that knowledge.
And it may definitely be time to conclude that the 49ers are losing the weapons that stud their spines more quickly than they can get them back, and that nothing can save any team facing that level of targeted attrition.
In short, welcome to the short list, you Carolina Panthers. And welcome to the world of playing with more pain, you San Francisco 49ers.
Not that they necessarily want to be there, mind you. As he ran off the Candlestick greensward clutching the ball he intercepted to kill San Francisco’s last chance to change the 10-9 score that was ultimately the tale, Drayton Florence ran by a couple of media members and said with an expansive smile, “Hey, just trying to stay below the radar as long as we can.”
To which the response came quickly: “You ain’t doin’ that any more.”
No, the Panthers are now 6-3, just like the 49ers, and they have the most important tiebreaker in what is looking more and more like a hellacious fight for the first wild card spot. You know, the one that allows them to play Dallas rather than Detroit in the first round.
If that’s how it plays out, of course. But for the moment, the 49ers took a rolled-up phone book right across the snout from the Panthers and are now 2 ½ games behind Seattle in the NFC West. They must almost certainly win out from this point forward to even avoid the first weekend’s play, and their next game is at New Orleans.
Against the Saints. That is, in case you were hoping they’d draw Tulane instead.
Oh, you can play the schedule game and say the 49ers are better positioned down the stretch than the Panthers. Carolina still has the Saints twice, plus New England and the wacky New York Jets, while the 49ers have New Orleans once, plus Seattle and a suddenly vital season-ender against the wacky Arizona Cardinals.
But that isn’t the point. The 49ers are now a sub-league-average offense now, almost devoid of a passing game and with a running game that allows defenses to put anywhere from eight to 17 players in the box on any given play.
They are dangerously close, we say here and clearly, to becoming that least dangerous of good teams – the one-dimensional operation.
Toward that end, Colin Kaepernick’s sophomore slump has taken on an almost perverse quality to it. Losing tight ends Vernon Davis (second concussion in less than a year) and Garrett Celek (hamstring) cost head coach Jim Harbaugh his nerve in the team’s only trip inside the red zone.
“With Davis and Celek out, we really were out of a couple of personnel groups that we would have liked to have been in at that situation,” he said of the fourth-and-goal at the Carolina 2 late in the first half that resulted in the 49ers taking a delay penalty and then kicking a 25-yard field goal by their only scorer, Phil Dawson. “We needed some time to move some personnel around to accommodate that situation, so that factored into it.”
Still, a big-time offense has other things it can do at the two-yard-line, and in a game against a top-flight defense like Carolina’s, trips inside the red zone are rare indeed. In fact, this was the only time in the entire game that EITHER team got inside the opponent’s 20.
In short, both teams were fully prepared to make this game look like the Second Battle at Ypres – a complete and utter slog with only DeAngelo Williams’ 27-yard game-winning burst bringing color to the drab landscape.
The 49ers finished with a well-short-of-miserable 151 yards of total offense, with a pathetic 45 in the second half. It was the third-lowest total of the NFL season, behind Seattle’s 135 in a 14-9 win at St. Louis in Week 8, and the New York Giants’ 150 in a 38-0 loss to Carolina in Week 4.
That wasn’t supposed to be how the 49ers did things this year. Theirs was the Offense Of The Future, and instead they rank a pedestrian 11th in points, 22nd in yards and dead last in passing yards. They are every bit as one-dimensional now as they were two years ago when people were grousing about Alex Smith.
And no, we’re not starting in on that again. We point out merely that all quarterbacks short on weapons look pretty much alike.
Even with Mario Manningham back, the 49ers still only have Anquan Boldin as a credible fear-creating wide receiver, and you have a quarterback whose ability to do anything meaningful but hand the ball off to Frank Gore is now greatly diminished. The Panthers blitzed and harassed and pounded on Kaepernick enough to make him a non-threat as a passer, and they still had enough forces available to reduce the 49er running game to a barely average attacking force.
For the moment, San Francisco is now the fourth-best team in the NFC, vulnerable to any team with enough defense to crush their running game – as in Arizona, Carolina and Seattle. They also have to prove to someone they can throw the ball at all, which runs crossways with those three plus the Saints.
They are now exactly one stride away from the globulous mess that is the middle of the NFC, and they ought to be able to stay ahead of it enough to be one of those wild card teams. But the question of how they can last once they get there is for the moment a very open question – as open as the path to Colin Kaepernick’s blind side Sunday. They are Carolina, and Carolina was better.