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Weighing In: Dire Straits for the 49ers?

Reviewing what's gone wrong for San Francisco thus far in 2014

49ers QB Colin Kaepernick can't be happy about a second straight 1-2 start. But is he doing too much on offense for the team's own good?

49ers QB Colin Kaepernick can’t be happy about a second straight 1-2 start. But is he doing too much on offense for the team’s own good?

Hello, panic button. We meet again.

It’s been only three weeks, and the San Francisco 49ers are, ironically enough, in the same place they were almost a year ago to the day: sporting a 1-2 record, with question marks on a variety of fronts.

That, however, is where the similarities end between those two incarnations of Niner teams. Last year’s squad was essentially punched in the mouth at CenturyLink Field in Week 2 – a place where the Seattle Seahawks were virtually unbeatable. The Indianapolis Colts pounced on the reeling 49ers in Week 3, using newly-acquired RB Trent Richardson to the fullest, in a humiliating defeat at home. Granted, those 2013 49ers bounced back with victories in their next five games. You can point to two bad outings against two very good teams for that 1-2 start.

That’s not really the case, here.

The Chicago Bears were a team reeling, themselves, after an opening loss to Buffalo at home. For as talented as that offense can potentially be, they aren’t on the same level as a Seattle or an Indianapolis. Furthermore, the Arizona Cardinals – despite their undefeated start – were not a juggernaut of an offensive team, either. Their defense has been solid (as it should be in a competitive division like the NFC West), but that is the extent of their overall strengths.

These losses simply amount to bad outings, period.

And with the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles coming up, it’s not getting any easier. Come next week, a team with Super Bowl aspirations could find themselves at 1-3.

So, what’s wrong, exactly? Oh, how do we count the ways:

1) In all three games thus far, the 49ers are a tale of two halves. The statistics bear it out: So far, in all three games this season, the 49ers would be a perfect 3-0 – if the games lasted 30 minutes. They had halftime leads of 28-3, 17-7 and 14-6, respectively. However, in the second halves of those games, the 49ers have been outscored by a whopping 49 points – a 52-3 margin.

And it was a different story in each game – against the Cowboys, an offense already with a 25-point lead didn’t have to do much except kill clock; against Chicago, QB Colin Kaepernick’s three second-half turnovers killed any offensive momentum the team had to pad their lead; and against the Cards, a combination of stupid penalties (9 fouls for 107 yards) and a completely ineffective offense (106 total yards on five scoreless second-half drives) was their ultimate downfall.

You know, speaking of penalties …

2) Shooting themselves in the foot repeatedly with penalties certainly isn’t helping. Through three games, the 49ers are, to the chagrin of their fans, the most penalized team in the league – and that’s not counting the amount of offsetting and declined penalty flags (5). They are averaging 12 penalties for almost 102 yards per game. It’s difficult to win, let alone stay in games, when you’re giving your opponents a free field worth of offensive yards.

It can be argued that some of the flags thrown against San Francisco are disputable at best. In fact, Bleacher Report’s Bryan Knowles makes this very argument, citing flag-happy referees in two of their three games. However, it should be noted that they also threw excessive flags against their opponents. Ultimately, whether it’s just bad luck to draw flag-happy refereeing crews, or they really are committing an excess amount of penalties, the 49ers have to look at themselves first in order to try fixing the problem.

3) The team seems to be relying far too much on Colin Kaepernick, and far too little on a potentially effective two-headed running game. One of the 49ers’ biggest strengths on offense, from before Jim Harbaugh’s tenure until now, had been the running game, headed by Frank Gore. Rookie Carlos Hyde, looking like Gore’s successor, has been a well-received complement in the headstrong running game for San Francisco.

However, the trends for designed runs have been down as of late, and it’s been costing the offense. In their loss to Chicago, the running game gained 127 yards on 27 carries. However, if you take away Kaepernick’s scrambles (9 carries for 64 yards), that’s a total of 18 designed runs for only 63 yards. It was even worse in the desert – the designed running game, minus Kaepernick, accounted for a mere 11 carries for 28 yards. It was like the offense wouldn’t be bothered to establish the run with two ready and willing tanks in the backfield.

The RB duo of Carlos Hyde (left) and Frank Gore could be the most effective in the league - yet they don't get much of a chance to be effective.

The RB duo of Carlos Hyde (left) and Frank Gore could be the most effective in the league – yet they don’t get much of a chance to be effective.

If you want to point out that the offensive line is not what it used to be – Jonathan Martin has struggled in place of an injured Anthony Davis, for example – that’s fine. But to essentially abandon the run against the Cardinals was not only head-scratching – it was close to unforgivable for a team that prides itself in smash mouth football.

4) Perhaps the speculation of discipline problems – and head coach Jim Harbaugh losing the locker room – is painfully true. The rumblings have been there for months, from the rumored trade offer for Harbaugh to the Browns, to a growing number of players expressing their discontent for the four-year head coach who turned a losing team around back in 2011.

You couple that with the recent problems various key players have had this past offseason, from Aldon Smith’s numerous off-field incidents to Ray McDonald’s recent domestic violence accusations, and it’s looking more and more like a team in disarray, from the inside out.

It could account for the excess number of flags for a usually-disciplined defensive squad. The discord in the locker room could be manifesting itself on the football field, in the worst of ways – ways that are obviously hurting the team’s performance. It could explain Anquan Boldin’s recent comments over his disgust with officiating calls, or the alleged N-bomb Kaepernick threw in the midst of their loss to the Bears. It’s all indicative of an undisciplined locker room – at least, that’s what 49ers ESPN reporter Paul Gutierrez would tell you. And, I can’t say I disagree.

There are a number of reasons to feel pessimistic about this incarnation of the 49ers moving forward – a kind of pessimism that likely tops the feeling many Niners fans felt around the same time last year. The only way they can gain the confidence of their fans back – and to silence their critics – is to have a strong showing over 60 minutes, in a win over the Eagles at Levi’s Stadium next Sunday.

If they can do that, then – at least, for the week – we can hold off on hitting that dreaded panic button.

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