In a league where one game represents 1/16th of the entire season and the accompanying drama is directly proportional, the unvarnished truth is cataclysm and catastrophe are just a loss away.
In the Philadelphia, their new Mensa head coach has yet to reinvent the offensive wheel. In Washington D.C., their fair prince has been transformed into an unsightly pauper with haste.
If one doesn't reside in Boston or Denver, Seattle, Kansas City or New Orleans, panic has either taken hold or will do so soon.
If one doesn't reside in Boston or Denver, Seattle, Kansas City or New Orleans, panic has either taken hold or will do so soon. Some part of the sky falls above most NFL outposts. Managing crises and keeping the wheels of the train on the track toward expectations is an arduous tasks. Franchises that appear to have everything in order are prone to unnerving spells of turbulence.
Two weeks ago, the San Francisco 49ers, purportedly unflappable, where in disarray. The heart and soul of their defense, linebacker Patrick Willis, was hobbled. Their heir to Willis' throne as the defensive stalwart, end Aldon Smith, checked himself into rehab. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was highlighting aggressively vile fan tweets as motivation and running back Frank Gore was upset over his lack of touches. When the Indianapolis Colts rolled into Candlestick Park and confidently laid the wood to them, the 49ers appeared to be teetering on the brink of disaster.
One victory in St. Louis against the Rams later and order was restored. Things can come together as quickly as they fall apart.
"I think it's just important to get back to what we do as a team," 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith said. "It seemed like we got our identity back: Stopping the run, running the football.
"I think that was important and I think it's going to be important for us to keep having success and keep doing that."
Had the 49ers approached the abyss with consecutive losses to the Seattle Seahawks and Colts, or were they simply the latest victims of the panic-stricken narrative that plagues most teams?
Via FootballOutsiders.com, the 49ers have experienced a sharp dive in all three phases of the game. Conceding that the NFL is only at the quarter pole, the 49ers ranked 18th overall in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, including 17th offensively, 18th defensively and a repugnant 26th on special teams. Last season, en route to Super Bowl XLVII, the 49ers ranked fourth overall in DVOA: fifth offensively, third defensively and fourth in special teams.
Such a precipitous drop would be cause for alarm, particularly defensively, if everything were equal.
However, the 49ers played the 13th-toughest schedule last season according to DVOA; this season they've faced the fourth-toughest, with the Green Bay Packers, Seahawks and Colts solid bets to qualify for the playoffs. Their defensive issues are easily identifiable on the surface, with Willis struggling through nagging injuries and Aldon Smith entangled in personal problems.
Willis (groin) is scheduled to return against the Houston Texans on Sunday night, and that should provide a boost to a unit that needed the hapless Rams to help regain its swagger. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman performed magnificently in St. Louis, setting the stage for Willis to gradually work his way back. The 49ers won't fully replace Aldon Smith and his 38 career sacks, but as he sorts his demons San Francisco will be forced to soldier on without him. The steps taken defensively against the Rams provided a glimmer of hope that normalcy is attainable.
The Kaepernick Questions
Answers aren't as readily available offensively. Kaepernick has yet to settle into a groove, a puzzling development given his masterful work against the Packers in the season opener. His sudden thrust into super stardom is having an adverse affect, evidenced by his unusual approach to online detractors and his curt responses with St. Louis media during a conference call.
Kaepernick's sudden thrust into super stardom is having an adverse affect.
It was wise of the 49ers to feed Gore his fill and watch him unleash carnage on the Rams. But an unhealthy obsession with Kaepernick continues to deepen, particularly over his role in the read-option that earned him renown and the 49ers' curious hesitancy to fully utilize that aspect of their offense. The less Kaepernick runs the more often banal queries of why he doesn't surface.
"It's a part of our offense," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "It's something that is at the disposal of our team to use like anything in terms of scheme is. We're not going to talk about what we're going to do, but it's always good to let the opponent know anything's possible."
More probable than possible is ongoing over analysis of what ails Kaepernick who, like most quarterbacks, garners too much credit when things unfold swimmingly and bears too much burden when things collapse. Kaepernick is sure to improve as he settles into his role as starter — he has just 11 NFL starts on his ledger, after all — and when the 49ers welcome back receiver Michael Crabtree from offseason Achilles' tendon surgery.
But logic lacks the sheer power to stifle fandom, and when panic strikes over a modest 2-2 start, explanations are sought with vigor.
"Well, just like everybody when you're 2-2, you'd rather be 4-0," Harbaugh said. "With that comes motivation and in that comes a drive to succeed and have a better result. That was then and this is now. This game is what we can control and that's what Colin is and what he's thinking about and what's important to him."
The similarities between where the 49ers were and where the Texans currently stand is uncanny. While Texans fans ready pitchforks and torches and prepare Matt Schaub effigies for what many believe will be a predictable, inevitable regressive display Sunday night, the 49ers are focused on rebuilding confidence shaken by consecutive losses to a pair of playoff-bound teams.
Their approach is laden with perspective and, not surprisingly, maturity. Perhaps both are byproducts of having executed deep playoff runs the past two seasons. While others around the league fret over falling skies, the 49ers handle their concerns admirably and stick to the task of maintaining their established identity throughout the course of a long and laborious NFL season.
"You know what you want to be and you know what you're trying to be," Justin Smith said. "That's important. Some teams don't know that."