49ers at midseason: Not a pretty sight
At 1-7, the 49ers pretty much wear a record that fits their predicament. They are scraping for dear life at the bottom of the NFL, and have the severe tales of woe that can be told only by bottom-dwellers. Massive injuries. Massive mistakes. Bad decisions, both on the field and on the sidelines and in coaches' box upstairs. Poor schemes and poor execution. Add to those conditions a heavy dose of inconsistency, and you've got a team that certainly is in worse shape than anybody around the 49ers thought it would be at this point. "You never perceive going 1-7," coach Dennis Erickson said. "You just don't see it. That is not what I expected. We have half the season left and that is not what I expect the rest of the season." Good luck on that one, coach. While there are plenty of reasons to expect the 49ers can improve on their record in the second half – a weak remaining schedule being foremost among them – a 2-14 finish certainly is within reach. You can point plenty of fingers why this is so – isn't that what the Niners were starting to do themselves last week? – but management can't be too surprised by the breakdown at midseason. The Niners dismantled their offense during the offseason, but still thought they had capable replacements for the seven starters lost who could keep the record respectable while the team rebuilt during this year of transition. Bad call. Or bad judgement. To be fair, several of those replacements have been riddled by injuries, and the best holdover starter – two-time Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry – has only played one game because of a knee condition that required surgery. With quarterback Tim Rattay in and out of the lineup because of a mysterious forearm condition, and featured back Kevan Barlow performing well below expectations, the offense actually has performed as well or better than anticipated. That is, except for those last two games started by backup Ken Dorsey, which were two of the most dismal offensive output by the team in the past quarter-century. That is an identifiable part of the problem: San Francisco's backups just aren't very good. With those reserves forced into starting roles – which forces marginal players behind them into more prominent backup roles – the results have been showing up regularly on the scoreboard. Expected to be San Francisco's strength entering the season, the defense has been a toehold that has kept the 49ers in several games they could have won. But it's just asking too much from a unit missing some of its best players – Julian Peterson, Mike Rumph, Andre Carter, et al – to do that on a consistent basis. Hence, a letdown such as last week's 42-27 loss to Seattle, when the offense put up points but the defense surrendered season highs in both points and yardage. With his team stumbling, bumbling and fumbling, Erickson has been forced to chuck his aggressive tendencies and take a more conservative approach to protect a team that has made critical errors at the most inopportune times. If the Niners weren't struggling so mightily, do you think Erickson takes one more shot at the end zone from the Seattle 9-yard line with seven seconds remaining before halftime instead of kicking a gimme field goal? Sure he does. But not with this team, which just as likely as not would have found a way to burn those seven seconds without scoring before burning San Francisco's final timeout. With this team, you take the three points and be happy to get them. Which begs the question as the Niners begin the downhill portion of their schedule: What should the Niners be happy to get out of the rest of their season? Surely, they'll be out to get more victories, especially with none of their next seven opponents owning a winning record as of today. But the final countdown to the Jan. 2 season finale at New England also will be about shaping the team's future after 2004, about deciding who still will be around after the offseason roster shakeup that is certain to come. "We've obviously had a rough little start to the season," Rattay said in an understatement. "Right now, we have to focus on the games ahead of us, not the games behind us. You learn from those games and then you've got to move on. That's what we're trying to do, is move on and be positive and just think about Carolina, focus on them, and go from there." The Niners have a home game this weekend against Carolina, and – lo and behold – the defending NFC champions have a 1-7 record, just like San Francisco. If the Niners are going to turn things around in the second half – or even twist them slightly ajar – an inviting matchup with the Panthers seems a pretty good place to start. The 49ers would like to believe the worst part now is behind them. But it's still up to them to make that so the rest of the way so that this season doesn't turn out the same way it has started. "We've turned the corner now, and it's really just about starting to lay it all on the field every game," said cornerback Ahmed Plummer, one of five defensive starters who missed multiple games to injury during the season's first half. "That's what it's going to come down to, that we pull together and not let the outside separate us, pull together and just continue to fight. We've seen some good things happen; we just have to continue to just get better and go forward." When asked if he ever has seen so many things go wrong to a team in half a season, Plummer used a line that has become standard for the Niners these days: Don't look back. "I just hate dwelling on the negative," he said. "It does you no good to dwell on the negative, so I just try to look forward and try to think of the positives. And if you just continue to work, good things can happen, and you just have to believe that they will happen." But at midseason with these 49ers, the positives are difficult to find and believing should be an option taken only at one's risk.
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