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The Rock Bottom Arrives!

San Francisco's Sorry Season Takes an Ugly Turn

If you are awaiting the San Francisco 49ers to hit rock bottom, you can stop holding your breath. The seemingly bottomless pit of despair into which the Niners have descended does indeed have a ground floor, and after an embarrassing 23-13 loss to the woeful Chicago Bears -- following a bye week, no less -- the Sons of Dennis Erickson are residing there. Now comes the fun part, at least for journalists in search of colorful quotes: the sadly predictable mutiny, complete with finger-pointing and discomfortingly public displays of dissatisfaction. Never before have the Bay Area faithful been treated to such fine whine.

For those who have already turned their attention to another scintillating season of Golden State Warriors basketball, here's what you're missing: on Wednesday, one of the few Pro Bowlers left on San Francisco's roster, hard-nosed fullback Fred Beasley, officially kicked off the Season of the Scapegoat with pointed criticism of the team's receiving corps, singling out young prospect Brandon Lloyd -- though not by name.

"I want to win. I want to get to the playoffs," Beasley told reporters. "I guess they care about how much money they can make. It doesn't matter how long their braids are or how much bling-bling they can wear. It's frustrating when you've got some guys playing 100 percent and some guys not. That's what I'm talking about, that competitive heart. We don't have that."

Lloyd, a fourth-round draft pick last year, is known for his braided locks and his extensive collection of jewelry. He's also led the Niners in receiving yards each of their past two games, chipping in six catches for 93 yards and a touchdown in a 22-14 loss to the New York Jets and five catches for 63 yards in Chicago. In San Francisco's lone win of the 2004 campaign, a 31-28 overtime victory over the (slightly) superior Arizona Cardinals, quarterback Tim Rattay connected with Lloyd for the game-tying TD and two-point conversion with 1:07 left in regulation.

Granted, the sophomore receiver's numbers for the season (21 catches, 248 yards, two TDs) won't make anyone forget about Terrell Owens, the departed, three-time All-Pro wideout whose Philadelphia Eagles are ripping up the NFL, thanks in large part to his superb playmaking and eye-popping nine TDs. And Lloyd, who was expected to fill T.O.'s shoes as San Francisco's No. 1 target this year before missing the season's first two games with groin problems, didn't endear himself to holdovers from the Owens Era by suggesting in August that perhaps the team was better off without the outspoken, selfish superstar.

Just ask superstar running back Kevan Barlow.

"He shouldn't even be saying we're a better team without T.O.," said Barlow, whose less-than-stellar 2004 campaign (423 rushing yards to date, three TDs) has also dashed whatever preseason hopes surrounded the sinking Niners. "How are we a much better team without T.O. when we're 1-6? If we're a better team without T.O., then you need to step in and do what T.O. (did) or don't say anything at all.

If you're going to call somebody out, then you should step up to the challenge and make us forget about that guy. But other than that, if you haven't proven yourself on this level, you should just be quiet, come to work, do your job and then make us forget about T.O. Until you make the Pro Bowl, or you do what he did -- then you can say something."

Interesting point, given the source.

Like Lloyd, who has exhibited flashes of brilliance during his two NFL seasons, Barlow has shown off his rare mixture of speed, strength and good hands ever since his 2001 debut with San Francisco. Yet he has never carried the load alone, and in his first season without the help of savvy veteran tailback Garrison Hearst, he has struggled to resemble the back who, in 2003, rushed for 1,024 yards and six TDs.

At least his old sparring partner, Beasley -- with whom Barlow has endured a volatile relationship -- has a 2003 Pro Bowl selection to his name and seven strong seasons in a Niners uniform as a short-yardage specialist and expert blocker. But as a veteran on a young team, he should know better than to air his complaints to the media before addressing his teammates. While Beasley has implied that an internal discussion preceded his very public critiques, which came as news to the embattled Lloyd.

"We're all frustrated, that's all that is," Lloyd told reporters Wednesday. "I don't know what [Beasley]'s trying to do. He doesn't mention any names. ... I think guys are working hard. It's not going to affect the way I catch balls. If it was important, he would have come to us first."

First-year receiver Rashaun Woods backs up Lloyd's story.

"I've never spoken to Fred ever, since I've been here," said Woods, a first-round pick who's been similarly stifled by the injury bug. "I'm just trying to do exactly what he said some guys aren't doing, and that's give 100 percent."

Now it becomes a question of he-said, he-said, but regardless of who is telling the truth, the reality of San Francisco's situation is as dire as it is familiar -- familiar, that is, to teams not named the San Francisco 49ers. After all, neither the Niners nor their fans are accustomed to 1-6 starts, and despite the off-season departures of Owens and quarterback Jeff Garcia, most Bay Area fans probably didn't figure on a last-place finish in the NFC West. "We'll always have the Cardinals," they chuckled to themselves.

Not this year. With their season not yet at the halfway point, the 49ers are officially the first team in the NFL to come apart at the seams, running to the media with a litany of petty barbs and abandoning the very concept of "team." That may sound pat, but before they stepped in front of the microphones, prepared to throw a very young, very talented colleague under the bus, perhaps Beasley and Barlow should have considered the lesson of the 2003 Super Bowl champion Pats.

As you may recall, that New England squad was among the league leaders in man-games lost to injury, but head coach Bill Belichick convinced a decimated group that they could still win if every man sacrificed his ego for the good of the team. The young, clueless Niners may not be capable of winning at the level of the 2003 New England Patriots, even under the most favorable circumstances, but it's also apparent that they're not even capable of pretending to be a team.