"All I remember," said Drew Brees, as if he were trying to piece together the details of some long-repressed trauma, "is just getting clothes-lined in the chin and as I'm on the ground, I'm saying, 'That's got to be a flag.' " Well of course it's got to. I mean, what's the alternative? That Brees, one of the NFL's golden geese, on his field, in front of his crowd, was merely hit on the shoulder pads—nowhere near his precious chin—and fumbled away the game?

Yeah, that's the alternative. And since that can't be, then Brees must be right. That's got to be a flag.

Oh, I know. The Niners were lucky to even be in this game, let alone leading it late in the fourth. Once again, the offense had been abysmal. Short fields had provided our two touchdowns, and a fumbled pick-six had saved us another. But in this league, where every play is Armageddon, it doesn't matter how you get to the end. What matters is that you win when you get there. And Ahmad Brooks had delivered the win.

Ordinarily, I don't get involved with the officials. To me they've always been like the weather, or the conditions of the field. Maybe your opponent gets the lucky break—like the one you got the week before—but that's just the way it goes. You can't afford to worry about things you can't control; instead, you've got to overcome them. Even after the Super Bowl—when the Ravens got away with mugging Bruce Miller, mugging Michael Crabtree, and even mugging an official—I refused to give in. I wrote that "championship teams make the officials irrelevant." We didn't play well enough then, and we didn't play well enough now.

But oh, man, that quote from Brees. I just hate it.

I don't resent the league's efforts to make the game safer. Even now, the game is unimaginably violent; it amazes me that there isn't someone on a stretcher after every play. Those who ache for the carnage of generations past—who complain that the game is now nothing more than flag-football with beer commercials—strike me as unsettlingly akin to ancient Romans, screaming for blood at the Colosseum.

So no, it isn't the league's new safety rules. It's the league's mandate that the officials—who of course are tasked with enforcing those rules—should "err on the side of caution." This is where the issue is. Unless their intervention is so obviously warranted that a trained seal would throw a flag, the officials' top priority should be to stay the hell out of the way. Whether the rule prohibits headhunting, holding, or wearing mismatched socks, officials should follow a simple edict. If you see a clear foul, call it. If you don't, don't.

In other words, as Vic Fangio put it, "Err on the correct side, not on the safe side."

With all due respect to Mike Pereira, who had the audacity to assert that Brooks "clearly" struck "a blow to the neck," we've heard enough criticism to know that this foul, if indeed a foul at all, was anything but clear. Yet the officials "erred on the side of caution," and thus, in so doing, they erred, period.

But don't try telling that to Brees. As recently as five years ago, Brett Favre would've absorbed Brooks' hit, and then he would've congratulated him. Brees, by contrast, engaged in a kind of verbal flop: he escalated the hit to the flagrantly wrong "clothes-lined in the chin"—though, in fairness, he basically admitted that he might've blocked out the horror of it all—and figured, well, there must be a flag.

And worst of all, the refs proved him right, taking away a victory that the Niners oh-so-desperately needed.

But the Niners still had a chance to take it, as they'd had throughout the game. Yet for the second consecutive week, our lifeless offense was just unbearable.

Statistically, there was a modest improvement. Our total yards increased from 151 to 196; our net passing yards increased from 46 to 115; and our touchdowns increased from zero to two. But statistics aside, this performance was worse by a mile. In this game, we finally stepped off the wire we'd been walking, and plunged headlong, into the darkness.

See, last week, as bad as it was, I never stopped expecting the one big play, or the one long drive, that would win us the game. On Sunday, though, I never thought—even for a moment—that anything we did would work.

With Vernon Davis rejoining Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham, the receiving corps was finally legit, if still unspectacular. The offensive line, though still not great, wasn't the sieve that it was for Carolina. So, naturally, I've been asked: now will you blame Colin Kaepernick? If not now, then when?

I'll tell you when.

When Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman finally wake up.

Even they must see it now. For some reason, despite Manningham's return, they've continued to lead with the running-game. But with defenses now selling out to stop it, the running-game won't work until they spread the field with the passing-game. And the passing-game won't work, either, until they commit to making it dangerous.

So no more two-back, two-tight-end formations. No more runs on first-and-10s and second-and-longs. Be aggressive, for crissake. Send Davis deep to stretch the defense vertically; and send Boldin and Manningham (or soon, Crabtree) on intermediate routes to stretch it horizontally. And since LaMichael James was drafted to be the next Darren Sproles, maybe we should finally give him a try in that role; send him into the flats. Keep Frank Gore in the backfield for play-action fakes, pass-blocks, and only the occasional carry. And then we'll see if Kaepernick can go through his progressions and find an open man. I'll bet that he can. And even if he can't, he'll once again have room to run—once again unleashing that spectacular weapon, which will drive a stake through the heart of the D.

Sound good?

It should, but it should also sound disturbingly familiar. Indeed, what's so exasperating about all this is that we've been through it already, time and time and time again. In 2009, our offense flourished when we moved from an old-fashioned power-running scheme to a new-wave shotgun-spread. I implored our coach to stick with it—as did Crabtree, who noted that he "really can do something in that spread"—but the coach refused, as a season was lost. In 2010, the coach, now under fire, replaced both his coordinator and his quarterback, getting immediate results from an aggressive passing-attack. Even Gore was impressed: "It's nice to be dangerous, really dangerous." Yet once again, the coach retreated, as yet another season was lost. In 2011, Harbaugh began with what I called "the same stodgy O in a shinier wrapper," until a stirring comeback raised hope that he'd finally release his competitive violence. I made "the same plea to Harbaugh that I made to his predecessor": pass early, and pass often, so we can get moving. And Harbaugh did open things up, though his quarterback could only handle so much. And when Kaepernick took over in 2012, he carried us all the way to the Super Bowl, with the most aggressive passing-attack in the league.

And yet, incredibly, here we are again. Another season slipping away, a coach stubbornly fiddling while it burns. With any coach, it's frustrating. With Harbaugh, it's utterly stupefying.

But it's not too late. The Niners have lost to four strong teams; three are division-leaders, and the fourth is 7-and-3. The division is gone, but with our remaining schedule, we should finish no worse than 11-and-5, which should be good enough for the playoffs. And though the playoff-road would be daunting, history shows us that anything can happen there.

But history shows us something else too.

Eventually, it is too late.