Futile 49ers failure

This wasn't futbol. This was absolute, complete futility. The 49ers took the field in Mexico City on Sunday night with a chance to move into first place in the NFC West. What a joke. They left cavernous Estadio Azteca in utter failure, somehow turning an early two-touchdown lead into a humiliating 31-14 defeat to the previously winless Arizona Cardinals.

Not too many NFL teams can grab a 14-0 lead just seven minutes into the game and end up looking so helplessly horrible by the end of it.

But these 49ers obviously aren't like many other NFL teams. With a national television audience watching, the Niners sank once again to their abysmal, worst-team-in-the-league level of 2004 – and, abhorrently, perhaps even lower than that.

"It was one of those games," Niners coach Mike Nolan said, searching for words to explain this mess of a loss, "you don't like to see the way it went. But that's just the way it was."

Was it ever.

The 49ers scored a touchdown on the game's first play from scrimmage, when defensive end Bryant Young crashed through the Arizona line to smash quarterback Josh McCown, who fumbled the ball away.

Linebacker Brandon Moore picked it up, ran it to the goal line, then fumbled himself into the end zone, where linebacker Derek Smith fell on the ball for a stunning 7-0 San Francisco lead just nine seconds into the game.

After the San Francisco offense went three-and-out – setting the tone for its evening – the 49ers' defense scored again on Arizona's next offensive possession.

Yes, you read that right. After the Cardinals drove 70 yards to the San Francisco 13-yard line, Arizona running back Marcel Shipp was stripped by Niners' lineman Travis Hall. Rookie cornerback Derrick Johnson – making his first NFL start – picked up the loose football at the 22, then raced 78 yards untouched into the end zone.

That made it San Francisco defense 14, Arizona 0 – with 7:57 still remaining in the first quarter.

There was no way the 49ers were going to screw this one up, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong. For the Niners, it was all downhill from there. To a crash landing.

"It was just one of those games that took that turn," Nolan said.

That turn was like a boomerang for the 49ers, who proceeded to be systematically dominated by Arizona on both sides of the ball the rest of the way.

After the Cardinals went lost fumble, punt, lost fumble, punt, punt on their first five drives, the Arizona offense wouldn't be stopped – not once! – the remainder of the game.

Unless you consider kicking a field goal as being stopped. Neil Rackers kicked six of those before the game was over – splitting the uprights from 40, 45, 48, 23, 43 and 24 yards – as the Cardinals scored on their next eight possessions while slamming San Francisco with 31 unanswered points.

Arizona could have scored on its final nine possessions, but the Cardinals mercifully let time run out in the final minute after reaching the San Francisco 13 instead of giving Rackers a gimme opportunity to tie the NFL record of seven field goals in one game.

"I'd rather be a gentleman and not kick a field goal against a team we've got to play again this season," Rackers said.

That was the only time Arizona took it easy on the 49ers during the final three quarters.

With McCown leading the way by setting career highs of 32 completions, 46 attempts and 385 passing yards, the Cardinals strolled right through the undermanned San Francisco defense for 463 yards – almost matching the 477 yards per game the NFL's worst defense was allowing entering the evening.

The Arizona offense had scored one touchdown – total – in its first three games combined, but the Cardinals controlled the football for almost 38 minutes, produced 24 first downs and converted eight third-down opportunities to keep drives moving.

"What happened more than anything else was we wore down when the game wore on and we started to make some mental errors because of the wearing down," Nolan said. The 49ers suited only 18 defensive players, and two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson did not play because of a hamstring injury. The San Francisco secondary – missing injured cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph for the first time – also was severely undermanned as Arizona receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald dominated.

Boldin and Fitzgerald each topped the 100-yard mark in receiving yards, combining for 15 receptions for 218 yards, including Fitzgerald's 17-yard touchdown reception that brought Arizona within 14-12 at halftime and Boldin's 27-yard scoring reception that pointed the game toward a turnaround rout at 28-14 midway through the fourth period.

"I don't know exactly what was going on," Niners safety Tony Parrish said. "We just didn't execute at times. We jumped out early on them on defense, and as the night wore along, they dictated with their game plan and we weren't able to stop them."

Meanwhile, San Francisco's feeble offense was being stopped regularly by an Arizona defense that entered the game ranked 22nd in the league.

That defense – ranked 28th against the run – shut out the 49ers, forcing four turnovers and limiting San Francisco to just eight first downs and 168 total yards. Eleven of San Francisco's 13 offensive series produced one or fewer first downs. The other two series each produced just two first downs.

"We couldn't get our offense going, and so we allowed them to have a lot of opportunities to get back into the game," Nolan said. "At 14-0, all we've got to do is keep pounding the ball. We got our tails beat as the game worked on and we gave them a lot of opportunities, too, on offense. That's the thing that's tough."

It was tough all around for the 49ers as quarterback Tim Rattay – playing without left tackle Jonas Jennings to protect him and leading receiver Arnaz Battle to catch his passes – had another extremely shaky performance. He finally gave way midway through the fourth quarter to rookie Alex Smith, who completed six of his 10 passes in mop-up time.

In all, it was a big step backward for the 49ers. Heck, it was an entire staircase of steps backward – or downward, if you will.

Nolan attempted to put his best spin on the debacle afterward, but it was difficult to buy it.

"It's early on," he said. "We're going to get better, and that's why I (remain) confident. Our target and our focus has not changed. To take charge of the (NFC) West is what our goal is. Are we playing that kind of football right now? No. But we've got 12 more wars to go into together, and the thing's that important for us is to recognize that this division is going to be close.

"We're only one game out right now, and this division will stay close. And when we get this thing together, we're looking for at that point, that's going to give us that opportunity to take the West like we've said we'll do all along. We've just got a lot of work to do and when we come out the other side, things will be close. And we're looking forward to that."

But after a trip south – both figuratively and literally – "that" has never seemed much farther away for the 49ers.

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