For a few fleeting days last week, there was reason for the San Francisco 49ers to have hope.
The 49ers had a chance to win their second game in a row Sunday and fly to London for next week's game against the Denver Broncos with a sense of renewal. But that's gone now – and really, so is their season.
Quarterback Alex Smith is hurt – for how long, nobody knows – and the previously winless Carolina Panthers rallied twice for a 23-20 victory at Charlotte, N.C., that magnifies just how bad the 49ers are. At 1-6, they aren't going to make good on team president Jed York's promise to win the NFC West, and they're undoubtedly headed for a losing season under coach Mike Singletary's stewardship.
So what did Singletary say afterward? "As far as our football team, there's no doubt in my mind, somehow, some way, we will regroup and we will keep fighting and we will make a season of it," he told reporters. "And I still believe we can go to the playoffs. I still believe we can get those things done. We just have to get the right things in place and go from there."
That's just not going to happen, but at this point, the 49ers are doing the only thing they can – they're getting out of town. We can assume the overseas flight was quiet enough to hear a pass drop, giving players and coaches plenty of time for self-analysis and introspection.
There were few silver linings, but the 49ers won the turnover battle (two fumble recoveries and one interception that was returned for a fourth-quarter touchdown by Ray McDonald) and lost everything else. The Panthers entered the game as the league's lowest-scoring team but finished with a season-high 23 points. They ranked last in total yards and last in passing yards but had 379 yards against a usually stout 49ers defense and 308 passing yards by quarterback Matt Moore.
Smith's status for next week is uncertain. He suffered a sprained left (non-throwing) shoulder when he was sacked early in the third period by Charles Johnson, who got by rookie tackle Anthony Davis, but was on the team flight to London and may undergo an MRI when he gets there. In his place, David Carr was thoroughly unimpressive.
The 49ers needed to rely on Carr's arm after the Panthers tied the game 20-20 with 1 minute, 53 seconds left, but it's obvious why the former No. 1 pick is a backup. A badly thrown pass intended for Michael Crabtree was intercepted by Richard Marshall and opened the door to the go-ahead field goal by John Kasay with 39 seconds left. Then, in the final desperate moments, Carr couldn't keep the hope alive.
For the game, Carr was 5 of 13 for 67 yards, one interception and a 23.6 passer rating. Smith's many detractors must be wondering why they spent the past two weeks calling to Carr to replace him.
After the game, Singletary sounded lukewarm about Carr starting against the Broncos if Smith doesn't recover. But there aren't many options: Troy Smith, who was signed Sept. 6 after being released by the Baltimore Ravens, is the team's third quarterback. Nate Davis is on the practice squad.
Panthers rookie David Gettis caught two touchdown passes from Moore, including a 23-yarder against Shawntae Spencer that tied the game when it appeared the 49ers might be able to run out the clock with a seven-point lead. But Moore had a hot hand against a poor Niners secondary, and then Carr's interception at the Carolina 43-yard line put the Panthers in position to win it.
Now the 49ers have hit rock bottom and don't have a quarterback – at least not one good enough to inspire their fans. A season that supposed to produce a spot in the playoffs just keeps getting worse.