Frank Gore has been through the 49ers’ ups and downs since 2005, and despite this season’s astonishingly rocky road, Sunday’s 24-13 loss to the NFL’s cellar-dwelling Raiders was even “shocking” to him.
“It’s been an off year,” Gore said.
Back-to-back losses have the third-place 49ers (7-6) reeling like never before in previous stretch runs under fourth-year coach Jim Harbaugh. With three games remaining, they are three back of NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals (10-3) and two out of the wild-card hunt, which includes next Sunday’s rematch with the host Seattle Seahawks (9-4).
Gore, more than any of his teammates afterward, acknowledging how distant their playoff hopes are: “If we were to beat the Raiders, we’d still have a lot of hope. So I feel like this is the lowest point (of the season).
“It’s my last year under contract and I want to go out and at least get a shot to hold the trophy,” Gore added. “I’ll see how the chips fall, I’ll keep fighting with my teammates and hopefully other teams help us.”
Serving as symbolic and damning bookends to Sunday’s defeat were a pair of Colin Kaepernick passes that got intercepted, on the game’s first snap and on his penultimate toss in the final minutes.
“I’m giving everything I have every time I step on the field,” Kaepernick said. “I have to play better.”
After passing for a season-low 121 yards in a 19-3 Thanksgiving loss to Seattle, Kaepernick threw for 174 yards against the Raiders (18 of 33, one touchdown, two interceptions). He got sacked five times and drew three penalties for delay of game.
Although Gore agreed with a reporter’s assessment that everything starts with any quarterback on any team, he couched his response by adding: “Everybody’s had ups and downs, and bad games.”
Sunday brought an uncharacteristically bad game from the 49ers defense. That allowed rookie quarterback Derek Carr to lead the Raiders to only their second win in 12 games. Carr (22-of-28, 254 yards) threw three touchdowns, the final two of which erased the 49ers’ 13-10, third-quarter lead.
Carr got sacked once by an inept 49ers pass rush that played without outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who missed a Tuesday meeting because he said he thought the team had the day off. Brooks had started every game since 2010. Sunday he stood on the sideline with helmet in hand while Dan Skuta took his spot on run downs and occasionally Aaron Lynch on passing downs.
Brooks disagreed with his benching, and although the 49ers lacked pressure on Carr, repeated breakdowns in coverage led to seven-catch, one-touchdown days for fullback Marcel Reece and tight end Mychal Rivera.
The 49ers had taken a 13-10 lead on its first series after halftime, settling for a 20-yard field goal once Kaepernick’s third-down pass to Carlos Hyde gained only eight yards to the 2. The 49ers also led earlier 7-3 when Kaepernick completed an 8-yard touchdown pass to fullback Bruce Miller.
Gore’s 5.3 yards-per-carry average was his second-best this season, but he had just 12 carries for 63 yards. He refused to criticize his coaches’ play calls that have drawn scrutiny throughout this mysterious season of chaos and despair.
“I just don’t feel like we’re us,” Gore said. “It’s just hard to get in a rhythm. It’s just hard. It’s just hard. As a player you need to be in a rhythm on the field to be successful. It’s been tough all year to get in a rhythm.”
Three games remain to find a rhythm. They can only hope one trend continues: they’ve twice answered back-to-back losses with three-game winning streaks.
“There is no surrendering,” said Harbaugh, whose future fell into further doubt entering the final year of his contract. “… It falls on me if we don’t win these games.”