Where are the 49ers, and what has the NFL done with them?
So far, San Francisco’s professional football team has very little resemblance to the three previous teams coached by Jim Harbaugh.
The Niners, now 1-2 after consecutive losses to the Bears and Cardinals, used to be a run-first, power-blocking team that relied on its physical defense and offensive personality to take a toll on opponents in the second half.
In reaching three straight NFC title games and a Super Bowl, the 49ers also played smart, disciplined football.
But against the Bears and Cardinals, the Niners have collapsed in the second half. In three games, the 49ers have been outscored in the second half, 52-3.
And in all three games this season, the mistakes and penalties committed have not been of the genius variety. In the defeat in Arizona Sunday, the 49ers went to a wide-open passing scheme, with four- and five-receiver sets, and virtually ignored running back Frank Gore. Gore had just 10 yards rushing on six carries.
Though the 2013 49ers also started out 1-2, they rebounded to finish 12-4 and came within one play of going to the Super Bowl. But as longtime Bay Area columnist Tim Kawakami pointed out, this year’s start feels different.
“We should have two wins,” 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepnerick told Kawakami. “Last year when we had two losses, we didn’t play well at all. These games were close games that we should have won.”
Veteran receiver Anquan Boldin drew a costly unnecessary roughness penalty for head butting a defender, two roughing penalties helped the Cardinals put together their game-winning drive and Chris Culliver committed a taunting penalty. The 49ers were flagged nine times overall for 107 yards. Through three games, the 49ers are the most penalized team in the NFL, with 36 for 305 yards.
The 49ers now have to quickly regroup in time for Sunday’s game at Levi’s Stadium against the 3-0 Philadelphia Eagles.
After Sunday’s game, Harbaugh talked to the media, but his answers were short and not very illuminating.
He said, “We’ve got to eliminate those,” when he was asked about taunting and roughness calls against his team, and said he didn’t have an answer for why the 49ers have played well in the first half but not in the second.
“Just gotta play better,” he said. “We’re not playing good enough right now.”
Without stalwart linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith and with a secondary of new faces in starting spots, the 49ers obviously were going to face a transition period early in 2014.
But second-half collapses, self-defeating penalties and an abandonment of the running game weren’t on the agenda.
Boldin, for one, admitted his mistake with the head butt. But he and other Niners have claimed San Francisco has been unfairly targeted. That too many questionable calls have pulled the rug out from under the 49ers.
“Look at the amount of calls we got, and the times we got them,” Boldin told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. “The crap’s costing us games.”
He’s right about that. Some calls have been questionable. But so far, this 49ers team hasn’t played smart enough to overcome those calls. If it doesn’t raise its football IQ this Sunday, the Niners could dig themselves a hole that’s much too deep, too early.