Programming note: Watch 49ers Press Conference Live today at Noon on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, or streaming live right here.
GLENDALE, Arizona – For the second consecutive season, the 49ers have lost two of their first three games.
But this one feels different. It looks different. And it sounds different.
The 49ers are a team with a lot of problems.
They are lacking vital components on both sides of the ball. It’s difficult for anyone to figure out the 49ers because even they have no clue of their own identity. That much was apparent in their 23-14 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
They’re a humorless bunch – an angst-filled collection of individuals who seem to be pressing. And that’s from the top on down. They are not playing free and easy. Everything is a struggle.
“We should have two wins,” 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “Last year when we had two losses, we didn’t play well at all. These games were close games that we should have won.”
There’s no shame in losing to the Cardinals, a team that stands atop the NFC West with a 3-0 record. But it’s the way the 49ers have lost their past two games that suggests bigger problems.
The 49ers have started strong in all three games. In an opening-week victory against the Dallas Cowboys, the 49ers held on. But that formula was not successful against the Chicago Bears and Cardinals in back-to-back games.
Again, penalties were a huge issue for the 49ers. To be sure, some were questionable. But others were simply a matter of lacking discipline.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin had the biggest mental lapse. Although he took full responsibility for his penalty, he also assigned blame to the officiating crew.
He said cornerback Tony Jefferson baited him into a critical unnecessary roughness penalty. Boldin head-butted Jefferson after a play that gave the 49ers a first-and-goal situation at the Cardinals’ 6-yard line.
That’s right, a second-year player was able to get a respected, 14-year veteran to lose his cool. The 49ers could have taken the lead. Instead, they did not score.
And that has been a theme in the second halves of games. After scoring touchdowns on two 80-yard drives to open the game, the 49ers never scored again.
The 49ers caught Arizona by surprise with a hurry-up, spread attack that featured three-, four- and, sometimes, five-receiver formations. Kaepernick appeared to be in his element.
“We hadn’t shown that before,” Kaepernick said. “It was something new. In the second half, we ran it here and there.”
Kaepernick said he did not know why the 49ers had not stuck with what worked.
“I really can’t say why we didn’t,” he said. “They were just the calls that came in.”
Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles made adjustments, including assigning a spy to Kaepernick, who rushed for 45 yards on nine rushing attempts in the first half. In the second half, he gained 9 yards rushing on four carries.
And then there was Frank Gore.
He was seen in a deep conversation with offensive coordinator Greg Roman after the 49ers’ meltdown a week earlier against the Chicago Bears. One impact of tight ends Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald being unavailable due to injuries was that Gore also disappeared.
Four wide receivers played more than the 50 percent of the snaps that Gore was on the field.
Gore sat in front of his locker and explained the Cardinals’ defense dictated the 49ers’ game plan. After less than a minute, Gore politely ended the interview, saying he could not talk any further.
Yes, some 49ers had curious things to say after this game. And some were left speechless.
The Cardinals are not an easy team to run against, to be sure. But the 49ers did not even try. Gore had 10 yards rushing on six attempts – with just one carry coming in the second half. Rookie Carlos Hyde had 13 yards and a touchdown on three carires.
The 49ers had problems on third downs – offensively and defensively – in the second half. The pass rush was non-existent, as Drew Stanton was able to sit in the pocket and complete big plays down the field.
It should be obvious just how much the 49ers miss outside linebacker Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman. And they are not coming back until the second half of the season.
If the 49ers don’t find their way very soon, when Smith and Bowman come back it might be too late.