Self-destruction

When the 49ers go bad, they really go bad. And this on a day when it truly appeared some of the good finally would prevail for a team that made another strong argument that it is the very worst in the NFL.

But it was not to be.

The Niners dominated the first half against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at San Francisco's Monster Park, building an early 17-point lead, but they followed that by inexplicably being dominated themselves after halftime in as horrid a display of football as you'll ever see.

Even by 2004 49ers standards.

It all added up to another disgusting, embarrassing, frustrating, horrendous – pick your adjective – defeat to a team that entered the game seemingly as bad off as San Francisco. But in the end, the Panthers proved that the really weren't that bad, and that the Niners most definitely are.

"At the end, we find a way not to win, obviously," a weary 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said after his team's come-from-ahead 37-27 loss to the Panthers before a crowd of 63,618 – most of whom had deserted the building by the time the Niners were giving away another game with three turnovers in the final six minutes that Carolina turned into the decisive 10 points.

The latest galling loss left the 49ers at 1-8 and a game behind the 2-7 Panthers for the worst record in the NFC. It also tied San Francisco with Miami for the worst record in the NFL, but who would you really pick as the better team right now, the Niners or the Dolphins? You'll get a chance to decide in two weeks when Miami comes to San Francisco for what now is shaping up as a colossal battle for the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft next April.

After having endured a half-season's worth of similar performances, Erickson seemed resigned to the fate afterwards as he talked in hushed tones how it all had gone wrong again. This was an act he has seen too many times already in 2004.

"It's self-destruction in all areas," Erickson lamented. "We played like we were capable of in the first half and self-destructed in the second half – just totally self-destructed."

Erickson gets no argument there.

Quarterback Tim Rattay threw four interceptions and lost a fumble, but it was his two turnovers late in the fourth quarter that were the really big ones. They came after Carolina had rallied to tie the score 27-27 with 7:17 remaining by passing right through the San Francisco defense like the Panthers did so many times in the second half.

Carolina – which trailed 17-0 late in the second quarter – got even on the second of three touchdown passes quarterback Jake Delhomme's threw to Muhsin Muhammad in the game's final 19 minutes.

Two plays later, Rattay dropped back to pass but was hit by blitzing linebacker Will Witherspoon. Mike Rucker recovered the resulting fumble, and it led to a 34-yard field goal by punter Todd Sauerbrun – kicker John Kasay was injured earlier in the second half – for a 30-27 Carolina lead.

Two plays later – like clockwork – Rattay was blitzed again by Witherspoon and threw the ball right into the hands of Carolina tackle Brentson Buckner. Two plays later – heard that one before? – the Panthers went for the kill, and Delhomme completed a 26-yard scoring strike to Muhammad to settle the outcome in a gross turn of events for the Niners.

"I have to be better than that," said Rattay, who threw for 284 yards, starting 15-of-19 through the air but completing only 7-of-18 after halftime – with three of those passes caught by the Panthers. "I made some bad decisions, some really bad decisions. I have to learn from that."

What did everybody learn from this one? Well, nothing anybody really didn't know before about the reeling Niners, who make it look more and more like they're going to have trouble getting their second victory any time soon. This matchup against the struggling Panthers was ostensibly one of their best shots at victory in their final eight games.

"It's just like the rest of them – we lost," receiver Cedrick Wilson said. "We're in the game – up 17 points – and we come back and lose the football game. We have to play for 60 minutes. We're not doing that."

The Niners looked pretty good for 30 minutes. Tailback Kevan Barlow rushed for 60 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, which the Niners out-gained Carolina 205-83. Rattay's first interception stopped one drive, and the Niners wasted Arnaz Battle's 40-yard kickoff return to the Carolina 42 on another drive. Otherwise, San Francisco's offense wasn't stopped – or, really, even slowed – by the Panthers in the first two quarters.

But the Niners unraveled in the final 30 minutes. Barlow carried five times for minus-13 yards in the second half before finally being pulled by Erickson after for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty early in the fourth quarter. The Niners had some other crucial penalties – a 15-yard late-hit on Delhomme being the biggest – to pave the way for the Panthers down the stretch.

They also failed to score any points after recovering a fumble on the second-half kickoff at the Carolina 27. And the failed to block for Rattay and pick up blitzes when it mattered, which led to their final demise.

"You go from playing probably as good as you can in the first half to probably as bad as you can in the second half," Erickson said. "And you saw what the ending was. That's happened to us all year in the second half. We've had opportunities to put games away or win games. We don't. We lose games. That's where it's at."

The Panthers can relate. Two years before they reached the Super Bowl last season, they finished with just one victory. Never before this season have the Niners looked so much like they might be headed in a similar direction.

"We needed to get that monkey off our back," Muhammad said. "A couple of years ago, we went 1-15, and we don't want to be put back into that type of hole."

It's a hole in which the Niners are slipping into game by game.

"It's hard, but we have to keep going," said receiver Brandon Lloyd, whose acrobatic 30-yard touchdown gave the 49ers their final lead at 27-20 with 10:41 to play. "We say that every week."

And now they're saying it again. With these 49ers, some things never change.


Niners Digest Top Stories