49ers genuinely shocked at shoddy start

The winless San Francisco 49ers have lived down to most people's expectations so far this season. After an offseason in which they parted ways with seven offensive starters and did not add any starters to the equation via free agency or the draft, the 49ers were expected to be among the worst handful of teams in the NFL.

So their 0-4 record - the first time the franchise has gone winless through four games since 1979 - really comes as no surprise to the outside world. However, inside the 49ers' locker room, there seems to be genuine shock.

"I'm perplexed and frustrated," 49ers linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said. "There are a lot of adjectives you can use."

The 49ers have a rare chance at victory Sunday at Monster Park. The Arizona Cardinals visit the 49ers' newly renamed home stadium, and the 49ers are favored to win for the first time this season. But, certainly, the way the 49ers have played in recent weeks, they'd be lucky to beat any team in the league under any circumstances.

The 49ers have been outscored 48-3 in the first quarter of games. The offense is certainly not built to overcome large deficits, but that's exactly the situation the 49ers have found themselves in this season.

They fell behind the Seahawks 17-0 in the first quarter in a game they eventually lost 34-0, the first time the 49ers had been shut out since 1977. Then, a week later, the Rams built a 14-0 first-quarter lead. In both games, the 49ers trailed 24-0 at halftime.

Niners coach Dennis Erickson, who was frustrated when general manager Terry Donahue tore the nucleus of the team apart in the offseason, is stuck trying to get the most out of perhaps the least-talented roster in the NFL.

"It's accountability, leadership and them understanding that one guy can make a difference in a drive," he said. "That one person can make a difference in protection or something that can knock you out of a drive.

"For everybody to work on offense, everybody has to be on the same page and everything has to be happening right and that hasn't been the case. It's got to start happening or else we are going to have trouble winning games. Can it be fixed? Heck, yeah, it can be fixed."

The offense has been a problem for the 49ers, who replaced the seven starters from a year ago with six backups and one player who spent the season on injured reserve. It hasn't helped matters any that the offense has also experienced its share of injuries.

Quarterback Tim Rattay missed 2 1/2 games with a separated shoulder sustained in the season opener against Atlanta; center Jeremy Newberry played in one game before undergoing surgery to realign and stabilize his right knee cap; left tackle Kwame Harris sustained ankle and knee injuries in the second game that knocked him out of the next two games; and starting receivers Cedrick Wilson and Brandon Lloyd have both missed games due to injuries.

Even with the same players on the field for each game, it might have been an accomplishment for the 49ers to rank in the top half of offenses in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Ted Tollner admits he is waiting to find out along with everybody else who will be the next generation of 49ers offensive stars.

"You have to go awhile to see who can make some plays and make it happen consistently," he said. "When you have as many guys who don't have a big background of game experience, you just keep working to get better every day and you don't worry about it right now.

"If you get caught up in the fact that the results aren't what we want, instead of grinding to get better every day, you lose focus on it."

The key to the 49ers' offense is the running of halfback Kevan Barlow, who has been held to just 64 yards on 25 carries in the last two games. Barlow raised some eyebrows in the 49ers' loss to the Rams when he went into a feet-first slide near the sideline on a sweep to avoid being hit in the second quarter.

There is little question that Rattay and the passing game is only going to be successful if the 49ers are able to get sufficient yards on the ground.

"When you don't have a group of veterans who have done this before for a long period of time, like throw the ball or run the ball, you have to be able to do both to keep them off-balance," Tollner said. "If we can get Kevan Barlow going like he was going against New Orleans and keep the down-and-distances normal, we'll get some plays off the pass.

"We feel like we can throw the ball and we can run the ball, but we do nothing with any consistency at this point."

The 49ers have virtually no room for error this season. The 49ers, who rank 31st in the NFL with a minus-9 takeaway/giveaway margin, do not have the firepower to defeat any team in the league if they make careless mistakes.

"We have to protect the ball," Tollner said. "If we protect the ball, then we'll eventually move it. But we have to be in the game. We can't be coming from 24 points down and have to throw all the time. We got to give our defense a chance by not turning the ball over and we'll get some points."

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