Did I ever tell you about my first (and only) Niner game at Candlestick Park?

I lived 2,000 miles away, so seeing a game required a special trip. And though NorCal is one of this country's most worthy vacation spots, I was never quite willing to make the (mostly financial) commitment. Finally, I got the kick in the pants I needed. A family friend planned a Bay Area wedding for a fall Saturday, and the Niners would be playing at home the next day—September 22, 2002.

That did it.

After stopping at Santa Clara to see the trophies (and to park for a while in Bill Walsh's spot, much to the ire of some mugshottish security guys), I headed up to the 'Stick. I found my seat in the very top row of the ugly hulk, and under a typically perfect sky, I settled in to watch the Niners take on Washington—though I "watched" only technically, as I could barely see which team was which.

Of course I would've been excited anyway, but I felt particularly excited to be at this game, which was billed as an opportunity for revenge. During the preseason, Washington had pummeled the Niners, 38 to 7. In the first game of his ill-fated NFL coaching career, Steve Spurrier, as was his wont, ran up the score, playing first-stringers into the second half and throwing the ball all the way to the end. Niners coach Steve Mariucci reportedly stewed, telling Spurrier afterward, "We'll see you in six weeks." Mariucci insisted that he'd meant it literally, an honest-to-goodness see-you-later. Yet in the eyes of the assembled media, Mariucci had sworn that he'd have his vengeance, in this life or the next.

But Mariucci wasn't that kind of guy.

Ahead 20 to 10 with eight minutes left, the Niners took over at their own two-yard-line. With Kevan Barlow picking up yards in huge chunks, the Niners drove down the field while draining the clock, until they had a first down in the final minute, at Washington's 16. Mariucci's team urged him to exact the revenge that he'd (allegedly) promised, but Mariucci had other ideas. He told Tim Rattay, subbing for an ailing Jeff Garcia, to take a knee and run out the clock.

And Terrell Owens, the Niners' top receiver, had this to say, a line that will live in infamy: "We have no killer instinct, period."

Four months later, after Mariucci did the same thing again, in a playoff game in which he was trailing, he was out as coach of the Niners.

But anyway, that's what I remember about my first Niner game. (Plus I bought a hat.)

Now right up front, let's acknowledge that there are myriad reasons why the Niners blew a 17-point lead over the Bears, and thereby pooped on their brand-new field. The Niners were wildly undisciplined, getting slapped with an unbelievable 16 penalties, most of which they actually deserved; Colin Kaepernick committed four turnovers, though all were forced by surprisingly strong defensive plays; the Niners chose to "cover" Brandon Marshall with a rookie roughly half his size; and perhaps most embarrassingly, the Niners' vaunted offensive line was grossly outplayed by a Bears' line held together with tape.

Yup, that'll do it.

But Michael Crabtree, the Niners' (alleged) top receiver, had this to say: "We need that killer instinct." Or, as echoed by Anquan Boldin, the Niners' (actual) top receiver: "When you have a team down, you have to put your foot on their throat."

Perhaps because of my history, this was the part that struck me most.

No question, this indeed was part of the issue. It was most apparent, and appalling, on the drive that opened the second half. Having given up a soul-draining touchdown at the end of the first half, the Niners had a golden chance to do some timely throat-stepping. At their own 10, the Niners started a nine-minute march, culminating in a first-and-5 at the Bears' 6. Emotionally, a touchdown here might well have put the Bears away. But even though the Bears were stacked against the run, the Niners ran a running back on three straight downs, which netted exactly zero yards. That is to say, the Niners played for a deflating field-goal. They never scored again, and the Bears, energized, never stopped.

Again, this wasn't the whole story, but it's telling that Crabtree and Boldin went there. They didn't spout the usual twaddle about execution ("We've just gotta execute better") or turnovers ("You can't turn the ball over and expect to win"). Instead they chose to attack their coaches.

And make no mistake, that's what they did, just as surely as Owens did. A player would never suggest that he or a teammate lacks a "killer instinct," which players deem mandatory for mere survival in their violent world. So when a player says that his team lacks a "killer instinct," he's saying that his coaches lack a player's go-for-the-throat mentality. He's accusing them of lacking the necessary aggressiveness. He's accusing them, essentially, of Marty Ball.

We've had this discussion before, of course. Two years ago, after the Niners blew a 28-point lead (though they recovered to win), I pointed out that "Jim Harbaugh's aggressive competitive philosophy—knock your man down, kick him in the ribs, then crush his windpipe under your heel—doesn't seem to extend to his coordinators. Those two have shown that they tend to let up, and it almost produced an epic disaster."

Once again, this wasn't the whole story, but Sunday proved that not much has changed. What has changed, though, is that players are noticing, and speaking up.

Last week, in the aftermath of a happy victory, I pissed you off by giving credence to the reports that Harbaugh was "losing the locker room." So, I suppose, you won't think that the comments by Crabtree and Boldin—delivered, as they were, in the aftermath of a crushing defeat—are any sign of a growing rift. And, of course, maybe they're not.

But then again, we've seen this before. This is precisely how it starts. And Harbaugh ought to respond, strongly. His public response—"the 'foot on the accelerator' analogy, I'm not sure exactly what you're saying there"—will not suffice to impress his team.

In the wake of a nearly total collapse, Harbaugh's got plenty of work to do. But finally instilling his aggressiveness might be his most important task.

Steve Mariucci would surely agree.