San Francisco -- Let's give this vocal minority of 49ers fans the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume the boos they showered upon Colin Kaepernick with just under four minutes left in San Francisco's stunning 27-7 loss to the Colts were directed more at the club than its quarterback. The game was already out of hand when Kaepernick, who's gone from wunderkind to woebegone in two short games, was sacked and stripped by Jerrell Freeman. Indianapolis recovered, Ahmad Bradshaw was in the end zone three snaps later and the boos kept coming.
This was the sound of a team that is, if not in free-fall, completely flummoxed, at wit's end and without answers. It's incredible, if you think about it, how quickly the Niners have gone from New Orleans to not very good. Following the dinosaur egg they laid in Seattle last week, their downward trajectory seemed to steepen on Sunday with another dreadful offensive performance, this one not against the vaunted Seahawks in a deafening cauldron, but against the visiting Colts, who came into Candlestick ranked 27th against the run. On Sunday, the home team eked out 150 passing yards, scored seven points, completed two passes in the first half and managed a single trip inside the red zone. Afterward, a mystified-sounding Jim Harbaugh divided his team's offensive woes into two categories:
"Not having the opportunity to make plays" -- the result of frequent three-and-outs -- "and not making them" when the opportunity arose.
The team's misery was compounded -- and the boos amplified, no doubt -- by the saga of sack artist Aldon Smith, who was allowed to play despite having been arrested at 7 a.m. two days before the game and charged with DUI. In a controversial decision that arguably damaged the franchise's reputation, Smith was allowed to take the field against the Colts. (He had five tackles, one for a loss, but no sacks).
Standing in the locker room after the game, 49ers owner and CEO Jed York made statements that were alternately responsible ("We're very fortunate that nobody got hurt, Aldon included, and we want to make sure that Aldon is never in a position like this again") and implausible, as when he explained that Smith had been allowed to play "because we thought that was the best decision for Aldon ... for him to make progress and get better."
York, who deserves props for coming into the room and facing the media, confirmed that Smith will not play in the team's Thursday-nighter in St. Louis, and that his absence from the team would be "indefinite." This indicates that Smith has decided to enter rehabilitation, though York would not confirm that.
And so the club that came within five yards of a Super Bowl victory is now on the cusp of being 1-3 -- a distinct possibility, considering that San Francisco failed to win in two attempts against the Rams a year ago, and that St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher seems to have the 49ers' number. Then again, these days, who doesn't?
"Job one was to take away Kaepernick," said Colts rush end Robert Mathis, who finished with a sack and a half of No. 7. "Job one-B was to take away Gore."
Check and check. On a day the Niners simply had to establish the run, feature back Frank Gore gashed the Colts for 54 yards on the team's second possession -- its sole scoring drive of the day. He finished with 82 rushing yards.
The ineffectiveness of Kaepernick evoked grim memories from the most futile days of his predecessor, Alex Smith (who is now 3-0 in Kansas City.) Kap didn't forget how to play football over the last two weeks; his right arm remains a potent weapon. That doesn't matter if, when he looks down the field, nobody is open. With Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham out until at least midseason; with tight end Vernon Davis unable to go on Sunday, nursing a hamstring injury suffered in Seattle, the Niners took the field with receiving corps that is, at best, workmanlike. Since go-to receiver Anquan Boldin's monster game against Green Bay in the opener, teams have paid him special attention. That often leaves the receiver on the other side of the field, Kyle Williams, in single coverage. The message to San Francisco from opposing defensive coordinators seems to be, "We can live with that."
Again and again Sunday, Kaepernick looked in Williams' direction, but the fourth-year wideout wasn't open. On one occasion Williams did break open at the left sideline, but Kaepernick threw the ball inside him. Onto the field trotted the punt team. When Kaepernick pulled the ball down and tried to make a play with his feet, the Colts weren't having it, having learned their lesson two weeks earlier when Oakland's Terrelle Pryor ran all over them.
Unlike in Seattle seven days earlier, there was no lightning storm or deafening crowd contributing to this loss. Under bluebird skies at Candlestick, the Niners made the Colts look like a team poised for a deep playoff run. Four days after Indy executed that stunning trade for Trent Richardson, the ex-Brown plunged in for a touchdown on his first touch for his new club. The Colts, meanwhile, made the Niners look like, well, the Raiders, although that's not quite fair to Oakland, which gave Andrew Luck and Co. a much tougher game in their Week 1 loss to Indianapolis.
"We knew they were gonna make plays here and there," said defensive end Cory Redding, "but when they did, we just settled down and told each other, 'Just keep doing your job.'
"This was a good test for us, to come into a hostile environment, fight these boys back and forth and come out with a victory -- we're so proud right now of what we're doing."
Rightfully so. In a game that doubled as a Stanford reunion, Andrew Luck methodically minced the defense of Harbaugh, his college coach. Exhibiting maturity and game management skills that belie his youth -- this is just his second pro season, remember -- Luck completed 18 of 27 passes for 164 yards. He didn't throw for a touchdown, but he did rush for one on a six-yard naked bootleg that wrong-footed all eleven 49ers on the field and put the game on ice.
Luck got less play, less pub last season than RGIII, Kap and Seattle's Russell Wilson. While he is far too diplomatic, and lacks the self-absorption, to ever point that out, his epic, cathartic spike of the ball (which bounced to a height of 40 feet or so) following that score could be interpreted as a suggestion that he feels as if he belongs in the conversation with those guys.
That bootleg run, incidentally, capped an 11-play fourth-quarter drive that chewed up seven minutes of clock and left the Niners and their fans alike in the slough of despond. "It was good to give our defense a rest," Luck recounted, "they were playing so hard against such a dynamic offense."
Dynamic? The Niners? To his considerable list of attributes, add a keen sense of humor.