Worst of the worst

You've seen the 49ers look bad all season. On Sunday, they suffered the ignominy of being very bad against the very bad, which leaves San Francisco indisputably as the worst team in the NFL, a status now unlikely to change until the Niners prove otherwise in 2005 or beyond.

No. 1 overall draft pick, here they come.

The Miami Dolphins tried to give it away to the 49ers in this Stupor Bowl of 1-9 teams, but San Francisco wasn't nearly good enough to take it. Deteriorating as usual in the fourth quarter, when they lost three fumbles in their latest nightmarish finish, the Niners took the inside track on the first pick of the April college lottery during a 24-17 loss that was yet a new low in a season that seems to find a new level of rock bottom practically every week.

It doesn't get any worse than this, folks. That has been said a few times already this season, but this time we really, really, REALLY mean it.

"It's becoming a familiar story," Niners linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said. "I really don't know what to say."

Once again, the 49ers said plenty with their performance on the field.

They lived down to expectations by flubbing their chances at victory after taking a 10-7 lead early in the fourth quarter on linebacker Derek Smith's 46-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

Smith's rumble into the end zone represented San Francisco's best burst of offense until the Niners drove down the field to tack on a meaningless touchdown in the final minutes.

When it counted earlier in the game – and, specifically, earlier in the fourth quarter – San Francisco's offense was as pathetic as it ever has been at any point this season.

"Yeah, we feel helpless," an exasperated coach Dennis Erickson said. "We're not functioning on offense. We haven't all year. You saw it. No continuity. No rhythm. No anything. It's been a mess. I don't know any other way to put it."

The mess was at its most muddled down the stretch when victory was there for the taking.

After Smith's touchdown gave the Niners their first lead of the game, the resilient San Francisco defense got right back on the field and forced Miami to punt.

But the San Francisco offense has this way of making everyone feel uncomfortable whenever it has the ball late in the game. The Niners have done it before. They were about to do it again.

Blow it, that is.

The weekly demise began two plays later, when Maurice Hicks – who played almost the entire second half in place of Kevan Barlow – coughed up a fumble with Miami recovering at the San Francisco 21.

After the Dolphins moved to a first-and-goal situation at the 1 thanks to an interference penalty in the end zone on safety Ronnie Heard, Miami's own ineptitude rose to the surface. On first down, the Dolphins lined up in an illegal formation for a five-yard penalty. On second down, running back Travis Minor was stuffed for a four-yard loss. On third down, the Dolphins were flagged five yards for a false start.

But never fail, a blown coverage by the San Francisco secondary was there to save Miami.

On the repeat of third down, the 49ers were in a zone blitz, but somebody forgot to cover the middle zone of the field, and tight end Randy McMichael broke free of defensive end Andre Carter to haul in a go-ahead 15-yard touchdown pass.

On San Francisco's next possession, Tim Rattay was sacked for a 10-yard loss and fumbled. The Niners recovered that one. But on the next play, Rattay fumbled again, and Miami cornerback Patrick Surtain recovered, leading to a 50-yard field goal by Olindo Mare and a 17-10 Miami lead with 7:21 remaining.

When the Niners got the ball back at their own 10 with 3:26 left, predictable disaster was waiting. Rattay was sacked for a five-yard loss on first down, then was hit as he threw from the end zone on second down. Though the ball sailed forward toward the right flat, the play was ruled a fumble.

Miami linebacker Derrick Pope picked up the gratuity at the 1-yard line and strolled into the end zone for the clinching score.

"You go out there and play very hard and put yourself in a position to win," Smith said, "and then in the fourth quarter it's the same old story. We give the ball away and you can't win if you make those mistakes."

Well, the Niners certaintly can't. Not with the way they are playing on offense.

Barlow rushed for just 20 yards on nine carries – and had three receptions for zero yards – before being pulled in favor of Hicks. Rattay was sacked a season-high eight times, and his wide receivers had trouble getting open against Miami's tough cornerbacks.

San Francisco went three plays and out on six of its 14 possessions. Two of the other possessions ended with punts and three ended with lost fumbles. In the pivotal fourth quarter, the Niners had possessions that netted 1, 3, minus-7 and minus-9 yards before their final touchdown drive.

"I don't care who you have playing, you can't operate the way we have been," Erickson said.

The offensive implosion wasted a defensive effort that was good enough to win. The San Francisco defense allowed just 200 yards and produced two turnovers. The Dolphins converted just three of 14 third-down situations and picked up one or fewer first downs on 10 possessions and two or fewer first downs on 14 of their 15 possessions.

But somehow, someway, the 49ers found a way to allow 24 points and lose to a hapless opponent despite that kind of defensive effort.

It's the story of their season. And by now, the sorry chapters are starting to blend together.

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