Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh isn't seeing the team he watched last season. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Up north in Seattle, where the Seahawks are 3-0, they can’t believe their good fortune.
In what was expected to be a full-season dogfight for the NFC West championship, the Seahawks suddenly find themselves with a two-game lead over the two-time reigning champion 49ers, the Rams and the Cardinals, who all are struggling at 1-2.
“It’s a big day for us with the other teams struggling,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll told reporters after his team had beaten Jacksonville 45-17. “I’m glad we could take advantage of the opportunity.”
Both the 49ers and Rams had made some big moves in the offseason, and the 49ers – coming off a Super Bowl trip – were the favorites of many to return to the NFL’s championship game. Now, however, history is stacked against both the 49ers and Rams. According to ESPN Stats & Information, since 1990, only 24 percent of the teams that started 1-2 even made the playoffs.
And the 49ers – who now have just three days to get ready for a game against the Rams Thursday night in St. Louis – are faced with an adversity they haven’t experienced since Jim Harbaugh became head coach.
Pass rushing star Aldon Smith has left the team for an indefinite period to go for rehab treatment, Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis are working through injuries that make them doubtful for the Rams game, Colin Kaepernick is hoping to rebound from two bad games in a row, the defense can’t seem to stop the run and no one has emerged from a group of wide receivers to help Anquan Boldin.
Plus, running back Frank Gore was reported to have vented at Harbaugh Sunday after being largely ignored in the second half of Sunday’s 27-7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
If the 49ers want to make something of their season, they’ll have to solve most of these problems immediately, or this season could quickly be lost.
As columnist Tim Kawakami of the Bay Area News Group wrote, “The 49ers have never looked so stagnant or frustrated in the Harbaugh era.”
The 49ers veterans who have experienced such success the past two seasons believe the team has what it takes to regain their positive momentum, which had been so high after beating the Packers in Game 1 this season.
Safety Donte Whitner told Kawakami this 1-2 start is just a test they have to pass.
“It’s all good when you’re winning football games two years in a row, but a little adversity hits, we’ll see what we’re made of,” said Whitner. “I know the guys in this locker room, the character of the guys. I know we’ll bounce back and be OK.”
Yet in St. Louis, the Rams are saying the same things after watching quarterback Sam Brady get sacked six times in a 31-7 loss to the Cowboys Sunday.
Like the 49ers, the Rams were awful in a number of areas.
“We didn’t do really, do anything well today,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher told reporters in Arlington, Texas, after the loss. “I did not see this coming. This is a defining moment for us right now. We’ve got to get past this and get ready for the 49ers.”
It’s a defining moment for the 49ers, too. And last season, the Niners had no answer for the Rams, who gave them fits in two games, a tie and a loss. The Rams played them as well or better than any team they faced in 2012.
A poll on ESPN.com Monday morning, asking, “What do you make of the 49ers’ two-game losing streak?” was almost evenly split. Forty-nine percent of the 15,000 votes went to the answer, “Sign they’re in trouble.” Fifty-one percent voted it’ just an “Early season rough patch.”
It may be a rough patch, but the 49ers looked totally flat offensively Sunday. The big-play capability they showed last season under Kaepernick and in the opening-game win over the Packers was nowhere to be seen.
As ESPN Stats & Information noted, last season Kaepernick completed 55.6 percent of all his throws of more than 10 yards downfield. On Sunday against the Colts, he was just 1-for-6 on those type of throws.
Protection has been spotty and receivers have been locked down.
Over the next three days, the Niners are going to have to figure out what’s wrong.
“The offensive and defensive lines have been handled the past two weeks, another bad sign,” wrote Pete Prisco, a senior NFL columnist for CBS Sports. “That’s the 49ers calling card. Their lines have carried this team the past two seasons. They are the identity of the team, something that helped them get to the Super Bowl.”
It’s time, he wrote, for the 49ers to play a very physical game Thursday.
“This is the type of game that the 49ers need to play tough to show they are who we thought they could be,” wrote Prisco.