Are the San Francisco 49ers falling victim to The Curse of the Super Bowl Loser? Throughout NFL history, just seven Super Bowl runners-up have made it back to the big game the following season, and just two of those were able to win it all.
The defending NFC champions entered this season with the highest of hopes, but after Sunday's home loss to the Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco (1-2) sits below .500 for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era -- and that's just the beginning. All-Pro outside linebacker Aldon Smith is taking an indefinite leave of absence to enter a treatment facility after an arrest last week for suspicion of driving under the influence, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick has posted a 32.2 passer rating over the past two games.
Time for the Niners to regroupThe 49ers need to get back to basics to turn around their season. The team has failed to run the ball effectively in the early going, putting more pressure on Colin Kaepernick to produce big numbers as a passer. While Kaepernick certainly is capable of throwing for more than 300 yards in a given game, the 49ers' lack of explosiveness on the perimeter has made it tough for him to consistently pick apart defenses from the pocket. If the 49ers can get back to playing smashmouth football at the point of attack, the rest of the pieces will fall into place on offense.
As for the 49ers' defense, the unit has to turn it up a notch, even as San Francisco's top pass rusher (Aldon Smith) is set to miss about one month. Ahmad Brooks and Justin Smith will need to do a little more as pass rushers, while NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis (presuming he can get back to action soon after leaving Sunday's game with a groin injury) must control the middle of the field. If they can consistently force opponents into long-yardage situations, the 49ers can get after the passer to force errant throws and miscues from the pocket. If the offense and defense get back to playing complementary football, the 49ers' top talent eventually will make enough plays to win games down the stretch.
Even if San Francisco rebounds, Seattle loomsThe only "curse" here is the lack of difference-makers on the field. Aldon Smith could be out for a month; Vernon Davis and Patrick Willis, meanwhile, are hurt.
San Francisco's defense hasn't been that great since November of last year. The 49ers are talented enough to turn things around, but they're already two games back in the NFC West. They might have to win in Seattle to get back to the Super Bowl. Good luck with that.
Kaepernick is the keyFirst of all, the "Super Bowl curse" might not be as bad as it seems. From 1995 to present, 10 of the 18 Super Bowl losers were able to make it back to the playoffs the following season.
So where do the 49ers stand? I think they'll be in the postseason once again, provided nine wins will be enough (and I think it will be). San Francisco has a reasonably favorable stretch of the schedule coming up; two of the next three games are at home, then the 49ers take trips to the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars before a Week 9 bye. The 49ers will be helped even further if they can get some players healthy.
Colin Kaepernick has not been what he was in Week 1; since throwing for 412 yards in the season opener, he has managed a total of 277 passing yards against the Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts. Teams are coming in to stop the run and make Kaepernick beat them as a pocket passer, a role that he hasn't seemed to take to. Opponents are trying to force him to throw it to his left (and to the left sideline), which appears to be a weakness. Foes also are trying to take away the shorter-range throws and make him go deep and intermediate, where his percentages aren't as good. Kaepernick is the whole key -- if he doesn't play well, San Francisco isn't going to play well, either.
We should've seen these struggles comingThis isn't "early adversity" for the 49ers; this actually was to be expected. As good as a team can be, you can't go to the Super Bowl every year. You're going to be victim to the forces of free agency (they lost Dashon Goldson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), injury (Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles in May) and other teams rising to match your level of play.
But the main reason I'm not surprised? Well, the 49ers fell short in the 2011 NFC Championship Game and then fought all the way back last season to make it to the Super Bowl ... before losing in the title match. The toll that kind of stretch takes on a team is immeasurable. It's hard to maintain mental focus. You don't play with enough desperation during the regular season, because you've been to those big games the past two years and expect to automatically get back. When you're hit with adversity, you don't know how to handle it, because let's face it: How much adversity have you had to deal with over the past two seasons?
This has happened to plenty of teams in NFL history, and it's part of a natural cycle. You can only preach hard work and togetherness for so long before that tactic runs its course; then you ease up mentally because you've been laser-focused for a lengthy period of time. This season will continue to be a tough one for the 49ers.
Until their wounds heal, Niners must go to GoreFirst, the 49ers need to get healthy. The team was able to weather the injury storm after Michael Crabtree first went down, but the offense looked rather ineffective without tight end Vernon Davis. This team will be rolling when those guys return, but until that time, maybe San Francisco should take a look at disgruntled Tennessee Titans receiver Kenny Britt.
And second, until more reinforcements come in the passing game, the 49ers should take Frank Gore's advice and run the ball a lot more. I mean, a lot more. Gore absolutely crushed the Indianapolis Colts in the first quarter Sunday; in fact, I started to wonder if he was in for a 200-yard rushing game. So when you look at his final stat line (11 carries for 82 yards), it seems rather surprising that Gore wasn't used much more. San Francisco seemed to abandon the run altogether in the second half. A solid, ball-control running game would do wonders for the defense, too, which is reeling right now.