Joe Montana flung his famous touchdowns, Jerry Rice made his money catches and Ronnie Lott unleashed his furious hits.
The Levi’s Stadium big screens beamed out the golden oldies of the 49ers’ glorious past. On the field, former owner Eddie DeBartolo waved a towel, smiled and bowed as he received a standing ovation. It was halftime Sunday, as good as it got for the home team.
The 49ers must live in the past, because the present is hard to watch. So hard, in fact, that less than half of an already sparse crowd bolted after the Cincinnati Bengals built a 24-0 lead. The scene was grim, let-me-out-of-here grim, as the 49ers lurched to another comfortable loss, this one 24-14.
“I don’t blame ’em,” wide receiver Torrey Smith admitted. “We’re not playing good. It’s no fun to watch.”
The 49ers passed the eyeball test – performing at a level befitting a 4-10 team. By now, you’ve grown painfully familiar with the scoreless first quarter, the Blaine Gabbert third-and-three pass for a gain of two, the brain-numbing Corey Lemonier personal foul and the face-saving late touchdown. There are more, but you get the idea. The fingerprints do not change.
Cincinnati, 11-3 and in the playoffs even without injured quarterback Andy Dalton, did what many good teams do on the road against struggling opponents. That is, they stand aside and let the bad team lose.
The Bengals scored three touchdowns in the second quarter and didn’t have to march longer than 36 yards. Anquan Boldin fumbled, Bradley Pinion shanked a punt and Vance McDonald’s hands turned a catch into an interception. The 49ers gift-wrapped 21 points in only 4:23, which is not a good development for a team averaging only 14 points a game.
The Bengals’ A.J. McCarron became the first Alabama quarterback to win an NFL start in 28 years. Alabama is a heavyweight but not so much at QB past Joe Namath and Kenny Stabler. That it happened against the 49ers is another indignity in a season overflowing with them.
Cincinnati hot-wired the 49ers’ offense into its game plan. That is, they planned on turning 49ers mistakes into points. No heroics were required from McCarron. Coach Marvin Lewis said McCarron “managed the game,” coach-speak for “He didn’t have to win the game, as long as he doesn’t lose it.”
Simply, it’s not a terrible stretch to beat the 49ers these days. Last week’s mineshaft-drop at Cleveland confirmed the 49ers’ plight for 2015. They’re too young, too injured and too adrift at sea to be saved this season.
Another weekly occurrence at Levi’s was the plane circling overhead before the game. This one pulled the message, “Hold Jed Accountable,” a variation from the “Jed and 49ers should mutually part ways” at the previous home game.
Owner Jed York, who fast-tracked the 49ers’ demise by ushering Jim Harbaugh and much of his staff out the door, soon will welcome the football world to his sleek new house for Super Bowl 50. He probably didn’t mind DeBartolo receiving all the cheers. In his view of affairs, he built the stadium and DeBartolo didn’t. York counts that as a major win.
Funny, but DeBartolo counted his wins with Super Bowl trophies.
There’s trouble brewing in York-ville, and it has everything to do with those airplane banners and fast-emptying red seats. The 49ers Faithful were asked to pay steep ticket prices at Levi’s, and their reward is watching a train wreck disguised as a football team. This is called a bad business transaction. The 49ers must deal with the fallout for the next few years.
Their free fall won’t end until general manager Trent Baalke connects with a draft choice or two next spring. Thirty-five of the 53 roster players have played less than a full season in the NFL. Fourteen of the 22 starters are 26 or younger. The quarterback situation is, well, an open question.
The departures of Frank Gore, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and others left a frightful void in leadership. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman has carried that load almost by himself this season. He’s been a warrior swinging his sword in a lost cause. The 49ers won not long ago because they trotted out several pros like Bowman. He feels the fans’ frustration.
“If we were winning, they would have stayed in the stadium,” he said. “It’s just the position we’re in where we have to bring our own energy.”
The 49ers’ joy has been reduced to halftime ceremonies. “Watch what we used to be” seems to be the message.
Then the game restarts. And it’s back to grim reality.