SAN FRANCISCO — Colin Kaepernick walked slowly off the field alone. His measured gait suggested disappointment, for sure, but also some bewilderment.
Seconds before, his last pass was intercepted, and no one was quite sure for whom it was intended. The play chart identified Mario Manningham, but not even he was certain. Kaepernick chucked it somewhere in the vicinity of the 49er bench while receivers Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams stood almost side by side as spectators. The man closest to the ball was Carolina corner Drayton Florence who made the play and ended the San Francisco 49ers' 10-9 loss.
"We were trying to take a shot down the sideline," Kaepernick explained. "It's desperation mode."
The 49ers asked Kaepernick, their prized and still-young quarterback out of Turlock, for a Joe Montana moment Sunday afternoon. Only the special ones deliver in such a spot: 1:02 left, zero timeouts, a field goal away from victory against an aroused defense eager to adminster the knockout.
Kaepernick wasn't up to it this day. He and his mates weren't even close. The drive fizzled on the launch pad pretty much like the rest of the afternoon three field goals and zero touchdowns while scattered boos pelted them like Seattle rain.
It felt like the 49ers lost this game long before the final interception, or even before the go-ahead 53-yard field goal by the Panthers' Graham Gano with 10:05 to go.
No, the 49ers' grip slipped the moment star tight end Vernon Davis the team's most dynamic weapon exited late in the first half with a concussion. He also missed the September loss to Indianapolis, when the offense all but no-showed in the second half.
The results didn't change: Minus Davis, Kaepernick can't function and the 49ers lose. There's a trend developing here. The Panthers quickly picked up on it. Their stout front seven roughed up Kaepernick like some lumbering over-the-hill journeyman.
Kaepernick was sacked six times. Not even his quicksilver feet provided a clean escape route from the pressure. Carolina, winner of five straight, grounded the San Francisco offense in the second half, and smoked the 49ers in short yardage all day.
The Panthers also shined a bright light on an important fact: Counting last year's playoffs, Kaepernick has compiled barely a season's worth of starts. Clearly, he's not yet mastered the art of the game-winning march, at least at this level, and especially when his team is struggling around him.
"Moving the ball wasn't coming easily for us today and we all put our fingerprints on that," coach Jim Harbaugh said after he was asked about Kaepernick. "It's not a good feeling when you don't prevail, especially when you had multiple chances to get it done."
The 49ers rank 32nd (last) in passing in the NFL. It showed Sunday. Kaepernick's numbers, 11 of 22 for 91 yards, smack of an offense devoid of answers if Frank Gore isn't eating up yards in large chunks.
Carolina also deserves some credit here. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, last year's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, is a blossoming star. Nearly three years ago at AT&T Park, his Boston College team lost to Kaepernick's Nevada Wolf Pack 20-13 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl though Kuechly performed better than anyone else.
Kuechly dazzled that day with 12 tackles, an interception of Kaepernick and a 31-yard return and in the end a Co-MVP Award. He must like football by the bay. Kuechly registered 11 tackles against the 49ers (two for losses) and ruined Kaepernick's best pass by ripping the hands of tight end Vance McDonald off the ball. As it turned out, that 30-yard dart over the middle scuttled the 49ers' only chance in the fourth quarter.
"He's a great player," Kaepernick acknowledged. "I remember when I played him my senior year. He was all over the place making plays. He's a good linebacker."
The raw facts aren't pretty for the 49ers. They watched while the Seahawks survived their close calls. The 49ers did not survive theirs. They trail their rivals in the NFC West by two games with only seven left. Demanding games await them while opponents smell weakness from a team weakened by injuries and unexpected doubt.
Kaepernick rose above his first setback those back-to-back losses two months ago. He'll be asked to repeat that task. But along the way, he must succeed where he failed against Carolina when the team turns to him in a tight spot.
He's the quarterback. He signed up for the job.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2302. Follow Ron via Twitter, @modbeesports.