Is it already bye-bye 49ers at the bye?

Joe Nedney hit it well and the football had plenty of distance as it launched from his left foot. But as it approached the goal posts 52 yards away, the ball began hooking right, missing its mark by a precious few feet. The 49ers came that close to being a first-place team with a winning record entering their bye week. But everybody knows that's a lie, a mirage, a complete fabrication of reality.

This team isn't that close, not nearly that close at all.

So it was only appropriate that Nedney, the reliable veteran who hadn't missed a kick this season, saved his first failure of the year for the closing moments of that put-you-to-sleep kind of game against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday at Monster Park.

Had Nedney's kick traveled a few feet to the left instead, the 49ers could have escaped with a one-point victory over the Ravens, a win that would have left them at 3-2 and tied atop the NFC West with Seattle and Arizona as they hit the only week of the season when they don't play a game.

But the 49ers didn't get any of that after their 9-7 loss, because they don't deserve any of that. And they don't deserve any of that, because five weeks into the season, they are playing the worst offense the NFL ever has seen since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

You can look it up. After producing a paltry 163 yards of offense against the Ravens, the 49ers are averaging 203.2 yards a game entering their bye. If San Francisco keeps up that pace after returning to action later this month, the 49ers would officially be the NFL's kings of bad offense over the past 30 years. The 1992 Seattle Seahawks – who finished the season averaging 212.8 yards per game – currently own that distinction.

And, believe it, that could happen. The Baltimore outing was the fourth time in five games that the 49ers' O – as in odious – has produced 194 or fewer yards.

And yet, here the 49ers are, as Nedney says, "we're 2-3, still in the mix. Obviously, the way these games have played out, it could be different. But it is what it is."

But that begs the question: Are the 49ers, a trendy pick to be one of the NFL's surprise teams of 2007, really a team that's in the mix? Or are they just a struggling squad searching for a lost offense that is being carried by defense and special teams and was fortunate to win its first two games by a combined four points?

The three-game losing streak the 49ers take into their bye seems much more representative of this team than its promising 2-0 start, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why that's so.

"The defense and the special teams continue to do some very good things, continue to get better and play hard," said a stern-faced coach Mike Nolan, his temperature visibly rising as he tried to answer for yet another offensive embarrassment that kept his team away from the clutches of victory.

Nolan continued, "We've got some guys that are laying it on the line, and they will continue to do that. It is about team, our guys recognize that, and it will stay that way. But we need to continue to do some things. I don't know what the issues are on offense exactly, but we have a lot of work to do. We'll work, obviously, on some things that need improving, in particular on the offensive side of the ball. Without question, we've got to do much better."

One well-placed bye week hardly seems like enough time to fix what ails this offense. And it's really too bad, because the defense and special teams are playoff-caliber.

San Francisco's defense probably would be in the upper tier of the NFL rankings if the offense wasn't so inept. But it's forced to stay on the field more than any other defense in the league, which allows opponents plenty of extra time and opportunities to wear it down and put up numbers. Against the Ravens, for example, the defense was on the field 38 of the game's 60 minutes.

But Nolan has the team-first thing right, almost to the point that his defenders are brainwashed into believing they have to do even more to get the 49ers over the hump.

"I'm all behind those guys," said safety Michael Lewis, one of the offseason free-agent additions that has notably upgraded the defense. "We just have to put them in better positions to score. We're the horse on this team, and this defense drives this team. We have to create some turnovers to put our offense in good situations. That's our focus now."

Said assistant head coach/defense Mike Singletary, "From here on out, we have to set the tone every week."

That's nice and all, that the San Francisco defense has the offense's back, but this is getting ridiculous. The answer isn't the beleaguered defense doing more. It's the offense having some semblance of getting its act together and carrying its share of the load.

The 49ers play not to lose instead of playing to win, and Nolan seems content to have his team trudge along in low-scoring games that leave San Francisco with a chance to win at the end. We've seen enough of that already and can say it now: This 49ers season of high expectations is going nowhere unless the team does something, finds something, changes something – anything – on offense by the time it returns to action.

There's a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Quarterback Alex Smith, who missed the Ravens game with a separated shoulder, appears to be making a quick recovery and could return sooner rather than later. Tight end Vernon Davis also will be back after the bye. Those are two of the team's top playmakers.

But the offense was in the same sad shape even when they were healthy. So the 49ers have to do something drastic to shake it up if they truly want to be in the mix by the time the December stretch run rolls around.

"Right now, everybody's part of the mess, I guess you could say," Nolan said. "I'm not pleased where we are after five weeks; I thought we'd be at least a game better than we are now. But at the same time, believe it or not, we're ahead of where we were a year ago at this time."

Maybe they are in some areas. But everybody knows the area they're not, and the season is cursed unless they get it right – and we're talking right away. If the 49ers can't get it going in that direction during their bye, then it's bye-bye playoffs for a fifth consecutive season.

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