Mauled in Minnesota

The first quarter of the 2003 season ended Sunday with the 49ers on the critical list, and it took only one quarter in Minnesota for the Vikings to put San Francisco's season on life support. The Vikes didn't stop there, rolling to a 35-7 victory that left the Niners as a team in disarray after their worst loss in three seasons.

The Niners haven't looked this bad since 2000, the transitional rebuilding season before they became legitimate playoff contenders again. Three weeks after a 42-point win in their opener, the Niners looked and played - perhaps for the first time years - like a team that is far away from playoff contention.

And, at 1-3 after four games - no team in franchise history ever has started 1-3 and made the playoffs - there's an uphill climb ahead just to get back to .500.

Before the Niners begin that journey, they need to find some answers regarding how it all fell apart. They were a few plays from being 3-0 team before Sunday. But against the Vikings, nobody was talking about what could have been. The Niners were routed in an all-around bad performance.

"I don't have a clue what happened," safety Zack Bronson said.

Well, a lot of Randy Moss is what happened. The Niners had no answer for Minnesota's star receiver, who recorded the fifth three-touchdown game of his career while hauling in eight catches for 172 yards against an overmatched San Francisco secondary.

Moss caught a 15-yard touchdown pass over Ahmed Plummer in the right corner of the end zone to complete the game's opening drive, caught a 35-yard scoring pass over Bronson in the left corner of the end zone in the second quarter and beat cornerback Rashad Holman and safety Tony Parrish for a 59-yard scoring bomb to give Minnesota a 35-0 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Plummer and Bronson both were in position to make plays on the ball, but Moss ended up as the one making the play both times. The rest of the game pretty much followed suit as the Vikings held a 275-125 advantage in total yardage by halftime, before the Niners rolled up a lot of meaningless yards late in the game.

"I thought we had the right (defensive) calls, and they threw it up, and (Moss) made plays," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said. "I don't have an answer for that."

The Niners didn't have many answers for anything as their offense went nowhere and their second-ranked defense was thrashed. That defense had been the bright spot for the Niners, but the blitzing that worked so well in the first three games failed to generate enough pressure on Minnesota quarterback Gus Frerotte, who shredded San Francisco's defense by completing 16 of 21 passes for 267 and four scores. Frerotte finished with a quarterback rating of 157.2.

Jeff Garcia, meanwhile, had a QB rating of just 21.9 in what may have been his worst performance as the Niners' starting quarterback. He never got in any rhythm and was often short or wide with his passes. After throwing three interceptions, Garcia finally gave way in the fourth quarter to backup Tim Rattay, whose 37-yard touchdown pass to Tai Streets midway through the final period allowed the Niners to extend to 406 games their NFL-record scoring streak, which seemed in serious jeopardy before San Francisco assembled that 64-yard drive. That was the 49ers' first touchdown in their last eight quarters.

But it did nothing to lessen the sting of the ugly loss, which certainly will increase the volume of critics asking what's wrong with the 49ers.

"We're going through some tough times right now," Bronson said. "We have to understand that tough times don't last long, but tough people do. This team has a lot of character and we look for better days ahead. But we have to try to get this thing turned around right away."

It couldn't have been much worse for the Niners. The Vikings scored touchdowns on four of their first five drives, while the Niners twice failed on fourth-down attempts in Minnesota territory after their first five offensive drives either ended with a Garcia interception or a punt.

After the second failed fourth-down attempt, when Kevan Barlow was stuffed for a one-yard loss on fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 31 late in the third quarter, San Francisco's frustrations overflowed as star receiver Terrell Owens was captured by the cameras chastising offensive coordinator Greg Knapp on the sidelines.

That scene illustrated how a lot of 49ers must be feeling right now.

"It's hard to tell where we're at," Erickson said. "It's a number of different things. You try to do a lot of different things to best utilize your players, but you have to execute. I really have to look at it and see where we're at."

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