Niners should focus first on fixing offense

Out-drawn and shot down by a wounded gunslinger, the 49ers ended up making a hero of Tony Romo on Sunday instead of making a statement against the Dallas Cowboys that would have made them the talk of the NFL today. And yet, the manner of defeat in a convincing collapse that copied previous patterns of failure didn't shake the resolve of Jim Harbaugh that the Niners are indeed on the right path.

Contrary to the formidable evidence from Sunday's debacle, which suggests that the 49ers might need to consider new ways of doing things to prevent repeats of their come-from-ahead 27-24 overtime loss, Harbaugh said during his day-after news conference Monday that it's full steam ahead as San Francisco enters an early two-game road stretch that could set the course of its season.

When the 49ers leave at the end of this week for Cincinnati, where they play the 1-1 Bengals six days from now, they won't be returning to their Northern California headquarters in Santa Clara until after their Oct. 2 game against the Eagles in Philadelphia. By then, a quarter of the season will be gone, and the 2011 Niners will have a pretty good idea of who they are and where they're headed.

Today? At 1-1 and having blown a tremendous opportunity to beat a playoff-caliber team and take early control of the NFC West, the 49ers don't really know much about either.

But what they saw against the Cowboys wasn't good. Harbaugh said repeatedly after the game that his team played well enough to win. Actually, the 49ers played well enough to lose.

Playing against a cornered opponent that had to pass – with a quarterback playing with broken ribs doing the passing – the 49ers let a 10-point lead with 11:12 remaining in the fourth quarter fritter away, looking increasingly helpless to do anything to stop the reversal of fortune.

Time for some kind of a shakeup? How about staying the course instead.

"I think we're in a process of finding our identity, having it click on all cylinders," were the first words out of Harbaugh's mouth Monday. "In a lot of ways, disappointed like all fans, all players, all coaches. Everybody involved is disappointed, but not discouraged. I feel we're on track. We're going to stick to our guns."

The problem is, the 49ers are shooting blanks. They're misfiring and backfiring.

Their offense is a mess.

Their secondary is a breakdown waiting to happen.

They need help, or they need change. Sticking to their guns will only leave them stuck where they are today, coming off a game they once led 14-0 but ended up losing after getting out-gained by 266 yards.

That happens to be more yards – considerably more yards – than the 49ers have gained on offense in either of their two games this season.

They rank 31st in the NFL in total offense, and that's only because the Seattle Seahawks happen to play in the same league.

They can't run the ball (29th in NFL in rushing average). They can't pass (29th in passing offense). They can't move the chains (30th in first downs). They can't protect their quarterback (29th in sacks allowed per play)

They can't open holes for their star halfback. Frank Gore is averaging 2.5 yards per carry, and he didn't look too happy about it Sunday after rushing 20 times for just 47 yards.

They can't get the ball to their star tight end, who was targeted only twice Sunday, and Vernon Davis didn't look too happy about it after catching both passes for 18 yards.

Their top threat to score touchdowns is their kick-return specialist.

"We want to be good in all areas," Harbaugh said, talking about the offense.

But right now, the Niners aren't good in any.

Quarterback Alex Smith has looked pretty good running the offense efficiently, and also avoiding turnovers despite his interception Sunday that the Cowboys were able to cash in for their second touchdown to tie the game.

The way Cowboy defenders were coming free and Smith was getting hammered while setting up Sunday – when he was sacked six times while taking nine QB hits from the Dallas defense – the 49ers are fortunate he found a way to hang onto the football on at least two occasions.

After their ultra-conservative opener, the 49ers finally allowed Smith to take a few shots down the field against the Cowboys, and look at the results: a 12-yard rope to Kyle Williams in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown, and a nicely-feathered 26-yard TD throw to a wide-open Delanie Walker.

Smith has a nice 95.2 passer rating after two games – 11th among NFL quarterbacks – but he's averaging just 6.89 yards gained per pass, which puts him next-to-last among the league's top 18 ranked quarterbacks.

And when the Niners had an opportunity to salt away the game in the fourth quarter by putting the ball back in Smith's hands, they declined to take points off the scoreboard to do so.

Harbaugh's decision to decline a 15-yard penalty that would have given the 49ers a first down at the Dallas 22-yard line – while decreasing their lead from 10 points to seven – drew a lot of criticism.

But even in retrospect, it was not a bad move or even the wrong move. Because the 49ers are going to need all the points they can get this season.

They need a lot of things. And with Romo's late bang-up act Sunday suggesting the Niners will be in some shootouts this season, the offense needs to be fixed first.

"Like I said, we're trying to forge that identity," Harbaugh said. "Like a lot of teams that you see are trying to find that. We're going to keep working at it to get better in all those areas, in our passing attack and in our running game. We're going to plan, we're going to practice it, we're going to scheme to put our players in the best position to execute – and then execute. All those things can and will improve."

The sooner the better, or else there could be more end results like last week when the smoke clears and the guns are done blazing.

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