After their Week One comedy of errors in Seattle, the 49ers enter their Monday-night engagement with the defending Super Bowl-champion Saints looking like the NFL's version of "Animal House," with "elephants" and "rats" seemingly running rampant, threatening to turn a season that most league observers believed offered great promise into an unmitigated disaster.
It could be a much different story, of course, should they rebound from their shocking 31-6 shellacking by the Seahawks — the second-worst season-opening loss in franchise history — and turn back the Saints in their home opener Monday evening.
But after a week of heavy drama full of emotional twists and turns — a team staple dating back to GM Scot McCloughan's mystifying exit from the premises just five weeks before the 2010 draft — it's hard not to be focused on the red flags that were raised eight days ago in Qwest Field, no matter how much beleaguered Niners head coach Mike Singletary tries to move forward and focus squarely on the future.
The hard truth is that the Niners' ugly season-opening defeat was the worst-case scenario imaginable.
"It was pretty bad," one team insider told PFW. "I went back and looked at the game very closely, and a lot of times when you do that, things don't look as bad. But this time, it looked worse. There were so many mistakes, so many breakdowns, things they said they weren't going to do this season that they ended up doing."
The offense's failure to communicate — which a scathing Yahoo! Sports article a few days after the game blamed primarily on the perceived play-calling shortcomings of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye — qualifies as the No. 1 breakdown.
Whether it was Raye's fault or not, the Niners failed miserably to capitalize on a 99-9 yardage advantage in the first quarter against the Seahawks. After getting inside the Seattle 10-yard line on their first three possessions of the game, they settled for two field goals and a failed 4th-and-goal.
The obvious play-calling confusion was particularly costly when QB Alex Smith took a delay-of-game penalty in the second quarter on a 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line, forcing the team to settle for a 23-yard field goal.
In case you've forgotten — and nobody in Niners Nation has — San Francisco led the league in delay-of-game penalties last season.
Fueling the fire were the mixed signals that continued after the game, when Singletary said the problems were caused by a faulty headset, and Smith begging to differ, claiming that he just wasn't getting the plays fast enough.
"It's a real hornet's nest," the insider said. "They need to come up with a solution fast."
The way we hear it, though, Smith's relationship with Singletary remains rock-solid, with no signs of crashing and burning the way Smith's relationship did with Mike Nolan, Singletary's predecessor.
"There is no problem that I can see,' the insider said. "When Alex was at loggerheads with Nolan, you could really tell that he was upset. That was not the case at all Monday after the opener. He was very optimistic, and he did not have his head down at all.
"Alex is constantly talking to the coaches. The lines of communication definitely look open."
To his credit, Raye took full responsibility for the miscommunication issues in Seattle.
"I bear all the responsibility for the way we operate on offense," Raye told the local media last Thursday. "I'm the leader, it's my watch and I have the responsibility for the things that occur that concern the offense."
If the team's walk-through that took place Friday morning is any indication, the Niners' hopeful solution to their play-calling problem will be a wristband for Smith with numbered plays. Rather than relay the entire play-name from the booth, the idea would be for Raye to simply call a play number that Smith could quickly cross-check, thus saving time and confusion.
"I think that would be a great idea," the insider said.
But that also would solve only one of the problems that were on display in the Niners' opener. Whether the Niners also can find a way to get more production out of 2009 first-round WR Michael Crabtree, improve their shoddy play on the offensive line and eliminate the defense's ill-timed overaggressiveness and lack of pressure remains to be seen.
Crabtree, whose lack of preseason playing time triggered a tense altercation in practice with highly emotional team captain Vernon Davis shortly before the season, caught only two passes for 12 yards in the opener. He also had two interceptions thrown in his direction.
On the first one by Seahawks S Jordan Babineaux, Crabtree appeared to take his eye off a ball in his hands. On the second one by Seahawks CB Marcus Trufant, he appeared to run a slow route and then made a halfhearted attempt to bring down Trufant on the defender's way to a backbreaking 32-yard TD return.
"Crabtree tries to minimize everything, telling everybody that everything is just fine between him and Alex, but it's obviously not," the insider said of the Niners' supposed No. 1 receiver, whose questionable work habits are widely considered to be the "elephant" Singletary said was "exposed" after Crabtree's rift with Davis. "They are wanting to get more out of him, moving him around to different spots.
"They need him to step it up."
And the offensive line?
"Just horrible," the insider said, alluding to his second viewing of the game. "The run blocking was bad; none of the linemen could get to the second level. (First-round OLG Mike) Iupati played high the whole game. And (OLT Joe) Staley's performance, after being so outstanding in the preseason. was inexplicable. I mean, (Seahawks DE) Chris Clemons (four QB hits) is hardly Lawrence Taylor. I think his game was just an aberration."
The prevailing feeling is that the subpar Week One effort by the Niners' defense, which came on so strong last season under the direction of Greg Manusky, was also due more to just a very bad day at the office.
"I really don't see the defense being nearly as big a problem as the offense," the insider said. "Obviously, the jumped routes really hurt them. Overall, they just did not play well. What was really surprising was how little pressure they put on (Seahawks QB Matt) Hasselbeck. They didn't blitz much at all. I think they thought they could get home with just a four-man rush, and they should have."
And there's one more major question worth pondering: Is Singletary, who felt compelled to call two team meetings in the wake of the Week One disaster, in danger of imploding before our eyes?
As evidenced by his meltdown on his pregame TV show this past Thursday — when he angrily made reference to "that dad-gum Yahoo! commercial" before regressing into a Drew Rosenhaus "next question" mode — as well as his promise to snuff out the "rat in the building" responsible for the Yahoo! article, his skin appears to be getting increasingly thin.
"His decision to call that second meeting Sunday night after getting back from Seattle was very strange," the insider said. "He might have showed some insecurity, indicating that he could have been too harsh in the first meeting. But by that point, you would think the players would have had enough already and just wanted to go home to their families."
Apparently, though, while there's still plenty of time for the 49ers to right their ship, it looks like heavy drama will become a way of life the next 16 weeks and possibly beyond.
Fasten your seatbelts.