At the end of tight games last year, Colin Kaepernick brought energy and made plays. Even in the infamous "tie" game with the Rams and the loss to the Rams to St. Louis in 2012, Kaepernick - with his arm and often with his legs - somehow willed his team to late scores to force overtime. In short, there was something special, something unique about Kaepernick last year - a spark, if you will - especially late in games, even in contests the 49ers did not win.
Against the Panthers, the spark was gone and he looked very ordinary. He couldn't get away from the Panthers defenders, who sacked him six times, which is a career worst for Kaepernick. His previous high-water mark for sacks was four, which came in a win last year over Miami. Most of the sacks Sunday were coverage sacks, and Kaepernick struggled when his first read wasn't open. Kaepernick completed only 50 percent of his passes and had a 42 passer rating. When he decided to take off and run, there usually was a defensive linemen with his arms wrapped around his knees before he could pick up any steam.
Having said that, there's no overstating Vernon Davis' loss to this offense. The common thread in the 49ers' three defeats this year: Davis either was hurt for some or all of the contest (yes, his hamstring injury came late in the Week 2 blowout to the Seahawks). Without Davis, the 49ers have no deep threats - zero, zilch, nada. At one point, Kaepernick threw a perfect, deep throw down the seam - Davis' go-to play - to No. 2 tight end Vance McDonald. The rookie, however, couldn't haul in the pass.
McDonald's lack of production adds to the 49ers' pass-catching issues. Last year Kaepernick had Delanie Walker as a legitimate option when defenses took away Michael Crabtree and Davis. McDonald, who had issues as a blocker on Sunday, has six catches on the season and hasn't hauled in a pass in the last two contests. That is, there doesn't seem to be much of a connection between the quarterback and McDonald.
Kaepernick also didn't get much help. Late in the game he had a 16-yard scramble with an unnecessary roughness penalty tacked onto the end. It seemed to be the spark the 49ers needed. But on the next play, Anquan Boldin was called for a false start and the 49ers already were in an "and-long" situation that plagued them - mostly because of sacks - throughout the afternoon. Boldin also was called for pass interference on the sequence and the 49ers had to punt.
It's also worth noting that Kaepernick's counterpart, Cam Newton, didn't exactly set the world on fire. Newton also completed only half of his throws, was sacked four times and finished with a 52.7 passer rating. Newton and the Panthers were far better, however, on third downs than Kaepernick and the 49ers. Carolina converted 7-17 attempts (41 percent); San Francisco was 2-13 (15 percent).
Eric Reid's concussion is disturbing. He's played nine NFL games, and in two of them he seems to have been knocked out cold. He initiated contact on both. The one against Seattle in Week 2 sent up red flags because it did not appear to be a very hard blow. After that concussion, I asked around to see if Reid also had concussion issues at LSU. That was not a concern in the run-up to the draft, I was told.
I thought Craig Dahl played well at free safety after Reid left the game, and Dahl may have to have the game of his life against red-hot Drew Brees and the Saints on Sunday. This is a game that Reid, who is from Louisiana, would badly like to be part of. However, it was nice to see one prominent teammate preaching caution for Reid's return.
"To see him go down today, it's unfortunate and I pray that he'll be ok," linebacker Patrick Willis said. "But (I) also pray that he does the right thing and take the kind of time that you need. I think this is his second time going down like that. So at the end of the day it's about your health."
Aldon Smith played 11 snaps in the game, which Smith said was the plan going into the contest. There was no impetus to give him more playing time because Dan Skuta had an excellent game at right outside linebacker. Skuta, Ahmad Brooks and Glenn Dorsey all stood out for the 49ers defense.
Ray McDonald appeared to injure his ankle when an offensive lineman fell on him from behind on the pass play that resulted in Tramain Brock's interception. McDonald was walking with a slight limp after the game. Both Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs played well as backups - they alternated series - and Dobbs had a key batted-down pass on third down. My sense is that when Nick Moody returns to the 53-man roster, the 49ers will have to release either Dobbs or Jerod-Eddie. That makes for a tough decision.
The 49ers had a solid day on special teams. But the Panthers won the special teams battle, especially when it came to field position. After a three-and-out on the Panthers' opening drive - including one of Brooks' three sacks - backed the Panthers deep inside their own territory, punter Brad Norman had a 65-yard punt to flip the field position.
New 49ers kick returner Anthony Dixon made a bad decision to come out of the end zone following the Panthers' go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter. Dixon probably felt the 49ers needed a catalyst. He was right in that regard. But the kickoff was deep into the side of the end zone, and Dixon was stopped at the 12-yard line. That helped assure that the 49ers would have bad field position for their last three drives, which was further cemented when ex-49er Colin Jones downed a punt at the half-yard line.
Finally -- and I know no 49ers fan wants to read this -- San Francisco is now 2 1/2 games behind the Seahawks in the NFC West. Seattle recently has had similar games in which they've hiccuped offensively and played shoddily overall. But unlike the 49ers, they managed to pull out wins in tight contests against St. Louis and Tampa Bay. The best teams find ways to win even when they're not at their best.
-- Matt Barrows