A team coming apart at the seams

The football left Trent Dilfer's fingertips and spiraled toward the end zone, where Vernon Davis grabbed it in stride while leaping into the air, only to have it elude his grasp as he and a defender crash-landed together at the goal line. One play later, Darrell Jackson beat coverage and streaked clear and free into the end zone, where Dilfer put a pass right on his hands. Jackson dropped it.

It was a two-play microcosm of San Francisco's disintegrating 2007 season.

And what came next during Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams at Monster Park was just as telling an illustration of what has become of this Mike Nolan operation.

You know, the one that swept into this season on a wave of high expectations, only to be drowned by a torrent of bad collective effort from just about everyone involved from the head coach to the scrubs at the bottom of the roster.

Facing fourth-and-10 at the St. Louis 28-yard line inside of two minutes remaining, the 49ers made the unusual decision to kick a field goal, even though that would leave them still needing a touchdown - when and if they ever got the football back - to have a shot at victory in what ultimately would become San Francisco's eighth consecutive loss, matching the second-longest losing streak in the franchise's 62-year history.

What followed was an unsuccessful onside kick, a successful defensive stand, then a helter-skelter attempt to drive the length of the field in the final 88 seconds without any timeouts remaining, only to see it all come short with a game-ending interception in the end zone to seal a 13-9 loss to the Rams, a team just bouncing back from an eight-game losing streak of its own.

Madness. That's what it is. And that's what this San Francisco season has become.

The 2-8 49ers, after 10 games of this mother of lost seasons, are a team coming apart at the seams. If it's not players failing to make plays, it's coaches making questionable decisions, or it's play-calling that leaves a lot to be desired, and as a result it's a good defense and even better special teams units that are being buried by one of the truly inept offenses of this NFL era.

And, though the final minutes of that Rams game was a good example of how it has all fallen apart for the 49ers, it really goes much deeper than that.

The 49ers are an organization that has been shaken to its core. And while that was visible on the surface against the Rams, it was even more evident during the week leading up to the game when a communication breakdown between the head coach and the young franchise quarterback revealed a team that could be near its breaking point.

Quarterback Alex Smith, coming off three horrid, losing performances in which there clearly was something wrong with him physically, finally came out and said, yes, he was playing hurt and it drastically affected his performance.

The thing is, for weeks Nolan had been saying things like, "(Smith) is not playing well, but I would not put it on his shoulder," and that the quarterback was "fine" but "lacking confidence" throwing the ball. After Smith bombed in a close loss at Atlanta, Nolan repeatedly told reporters to go ask Smith why he played so poorly.

It was becoming evident that Nolan, always a staunch supporter of his No. 1 overall draft pick from 2005, was beginning to crack from the frustration of seeing Smith struggle so mightily at a time a struggling offense needed him so very much.

But after a particularly galling 24-0 loss to Seattle on Monday Night Football - when Smith missed terribly on his throws throughout the evening - the typically mild-mannered Smith returned some of the frustration during the team's next day of practice.

"It's really been hard to continue to get reported that you're 100 percent, (when that's) not really the case," Smith said, announcing that he was having problems with not only his throwing shoulder but also his throwing forearm, and it had gotten worse through weeks of playing to the point that he wasn't able to perform.

"That was the frustrating part, when, all of a sudden, 'He's 100 percent but lacks confidence,' " Smith continued, paraphrasing something Nolan said last month. Smith also said he had tried to relay the physical problems he was having to Nolan, saying "He and I have talked about it in the past. Obviously, what I was saying and he was hearing might have been different."

That led to a day of "he said, he said" at 49ers headquarters, when it was revealed Smith would have another MRI examination and his playing status for future weeks was in question, and Dilfer would take over again at quarterback at least for this week's St. Louis game.

A few hours after Smith spoke with reporters, Nolan said, "I think that it would be a good idea if (Smith) said that to me before he said that (to the media). I know this, everybody's sore. I'm sore. Has that affected my performance? Maybe, but I'm not going to talk about it. I'm sure there are a lot of guys who are sore" - words that again seemed like a dig at Smith.

Nolan later admitted, "The communication lines aren't as good as I had thought. We'll see what that's about."

Well, they better, that's for sure, because their success as individuals - and, ultimately, that of the 49ers - is linked together. Nolan and Smith patched up the broken communication lines after that episode, but it's clear something of a rift had developed.

That must be resolved, because the 49ers need Smith and Nolan on the same page, just like Smith needs Nolan and Nolan needs Smith. It's not a good sign when a trace of bickering develops between these two when things start going bad.

But that's where the 49ers are right now. They're at a point where somebody needs to get blamed.

And as Sunday's loss to the Rams showed - a defeat that dropped San Francisco into the NFC West basement with St. Louis - there is plenty of blame to go around.

Sure, the 49ers have to get it together. But just as importantly, they have to hold it together.

"Stay with us," Nolan said hopefully. "We'll keep busting ass. We'll get there."

But as another forgettable loss following two months of forgettable losses seemed to tell us, the 49ers just keep getting farther away.

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