It has come to this:
The San Francisco 49ers, who have gone to three straight NFC Championship Games and had Super Bowl aspirations this season, could be eliminated from the playoff picture this Sunday with a loss at Seattle to the Seahawks.
A team that had won three straight games heading into a showdown with Seattle on Thanksgiving night, has now been embarrassed in two consecutive games to fall to 7-6 with three games remaining.
Now, it seems, the main conjecture around the 49ers isn’t about whether San Francisco can rebound to win three straight and sneak into the postseason, but when Jim Harbaugh will be let go and whether Colin Kaepernick can recover from a prolonged funk in which he looks nothing like the dynamic, running, playmaking, laser-armed quarterback who took San Francisco to the Super Bowl two seasons ago.
Now, Kaepernick is a sackable interception machine who looks sullen, beaten and confused in news conferences – and was called a “chump” by Raiders linebacker Sio Moore after Sunday’s Oakland victory.
So where did it all go wrong?
Did the slide start in the NFC Championship Game in Seattle in January, when the 49ers not only lost a heartbreaker but also All-Pro inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman for this season, too?
Or was it the offseason, when linebacker Aldon Smith had more off-the-field troubles and was suspended for nine games? Or when the 49ers decided to let veteran center Jonathan Goodwin walk and saw guard Alex Boone stage a long holdout?
Then there were the injuries to linebacker Patrick Willis, right tackle Anthony Davis, running back Kendall Hunter, tight end Vernon Davis, center Daniel Kilgore and guard Mike Iupati, nose tackles Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams, top rookie defensive back Jimmie Ward and No. 1 cornerback Tramaine Brock.
There’s no question the 49ers have been hammered much harder by injuries in 2014 than they were in 2011, 2012 and 2013 under head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Then again, perhaps the season was doomed the moment reports leaked in the offseason that the 49ers had talked about trading Harbaugh to the Browns and that Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke weren’t getting along. Since then, the rumors have gotten even hotter that Harbaugh is on his way out – and won’t return for the final year of his contract. Though players on the team have continued to swear that they love playing for their coach, it makes sense that all the noise surrounding him would eventually take its toll.
And then, there’s Kaepernick. The 49ers signed him to a long-term deal in the offseason, and some have speculated that since then, the team has tried to turn him into a pocket passer to protect its investment. Gone are the pistol, the read-option and the designed running plays that made him such a double threat.
Now, it appears Kaepernick is out of sync and out of confidence.
Wrote Paul Gutierrez, who covers the 49ers for ESPN.com:
“The thinking goes like this: because the front office has made such an investment in Kaepernick, the coaching staff has been nudged to not put him in harm’s way with designed running plays. And you see the result: a halting, dazed and somewhat exasperated Kaepernick, and the lack of individual success has bled over to the rest of the offense. At least that’s one theory.”
But there are many theories as to the demise of this team: injuries, absences, Harbaugh, Kaepernick, Greg Roman’s play-calling as offensive coordinator, the decline of the offensive line … it goes on and on.
And, there’s this, too: When the 49ers play the Seahawks in Seattle Sunday, they’ll go in as 10- to 11-point underdogs. Being a double-digit underdog is a first in the Harbaugh era.
For now, at least, the great hopes for this season are a distant memory.