SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Every time you get the sense the San Francisco 49ers are in deep trouble and have seemingly lost their offensive identity -- a 1-2 start -- they go on a run. Or a three-game win streak.
But as soon as you buy in and think the 49ers have turned the corner -- as in said three-game win streak -- they get blown out at Denver and drop a heart-breaker at home to St. Louis.
So who are the 2014 49ers? The team that put on a show on "Monday Night Football" at the Rams? Or the one that’s looked so disorganized and conflicted?
At 4-4, they are both.
Midseason MVP: He does not have eye-popping stats, though his three sacks are tied for the team lead, and you don’t necessarily notice him, unless he’s blowing up a play, which happened more frequently early in the season.
And yet, the Cowboy, defensive end Justin Smith, has been just as integral to any success the 49ers have enjoyed thus far, especially as a team leader. His 23 tackles rank fifth on the team but first among down linemen.
A close second to Smith would be cornerback Perrish Cox, who was thrust into a starter’s role due to injury yet has a team-leading four interceptions.
Biggest disappointment: The offensive line was supposed to be a strength. Instead, it’s become a weakness. Of course, injury and ineffectiveness have hampered the growth and the projected starting O-line of LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Daniel Kilgore, RG Alex Boone and RT Anthony Davis. They have played one quarter together this season, so there are growing pains.
Now rookie Marcus Martin is the center, after Kilgore’s season-ending broken left ankle. More cohesion is needed.
Consider: The 49ers have allowed 14 sacks in their past two games, including a career-high eight of Colin Kaepernick in Sunday’s loss to the Rams.
Best moment: Strong safety Antoine Bethea’s game-saving tackle of Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who had a full head of steam, at the 49ers’ 1-yard line with the Niners clinging to a five-point lead with two minutes to play in Week 4.
It was second-and-goal at the 6 for the Eagles, and if McCoy got in, the Niners were looking at a 1-3 record. But Bethea came flying out of nowhere to trip up McCoy.
The Eagles passed on the two ensuing plays, but a pair of Nick Foles incompletions followed as the Niners handed Philadelphia its first loss.
Worst moment: Kaepernick’s fumble into the end zone on a QB sneak with two seconds to play and the 49ers trailing the Rams by three Sunday at Levi’s Stadium. The Niners had first-and-goal from the 2-yard line and a timeout remaining, so it was shocking they did not at least try a Frank Gore run.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, it was the first time in Kaepernick’s career that he attempted a rush from his opponent’s 1-yard line -- in 16 such 49ers plays.
When Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis recovered the fumble in the end zone, it gave the Niners a 4-4 record, the worst mark after eight games in Jim Harbaugh’s tenure.
Key to the second half: The same as it was after that 1-2 start: re-establishing the offensive identity as a power-running team that flows from Gore.
Yes, Gore is getting older, but when he is getting his carries and dictating the game’s tempo, the 49ers are at their best. Not so when Kaepernick is flinging the ball all over the field and compiling gaudy stats.
The Niners getting back the likes of NT Glenn Dorsey and LBs Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman in the coming weeks will help the defense, but the offense must also find some continuity and trust, especially in the running game.