By EVAN BUDROVICH
College Contributor Network
When Jim Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco he changed the culture with one simple phrase: "Whose got it better than us? NOBDODY!!!"
Now playing games in Santa Clara, featuring a roster missing key pieces from campaigns past, the 49ers have lost their mental edge. Three straight years knocking on the doorstep and the fan base has reignited, if not demanded, the championship expectations for the five-time Super Bowl winners.
When All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman tipped the entire spectrum of the playoffs towards Malcolm Smith's basket-laden arms, the entire legacy of the Legion of Boom and a distraught Niners squad took a mighty turn.
The 49ers went into the house of the team they had bested in the regular season each of the past two seasons, not afraid of the Seahawks' daunting home record, and gave them a great game. But does losing a game of that magnitude -- what many called the "pseudo" NFL Championship -- against a bitter divisional rival eventually deflate the "us against the world" sails of teams past?
Following a summer maligned with injuries (NaVorro Bowman), looming suspensions to top players (Ray McDonald, Aldon Smith) and worrisome holdouts from veteran contributors (Adam Snyder, Vernon Davis) the 49ers have seemingly lost a mental edge that Jim Harbaugh willed into their spirits starting in 2011.
The offense got some more toys at dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick's disposal, like pass-catching threats Stevie Johnson (13 catches for 162 yards this season) and Brandon Lloyd and a powerful tailback-of-the-future in Carlos Hyde (a second round pick from Ohio State). But what about Vic Fangio's "Gold Rush" defense which had ranked inside the top-5 each of the past three seasons?
In years past, the 49ers would've pulled out a game leading by double-digit points in the fourth quarter... but against the Chicago Bears it just didn't happen. Players could only blame themselves for a penalty-ridden (16 in total) performance in the Levi's Stadium home opener, a game everyone expected San Francisco to win quite handily.
Those struggles have been well documented -- not in the way San Francisco has burst out of the gate, but rather the way in which they've finished games. The 49ers have been anything but golden in the second half, being outscored 52-3 by opponents through three games.
Where has that confidence gone? Well it's been lost by the wayside of inexcusable penalties, bad turnovers and low third-down conversion rates; areas of concern that you note from teams coming off three-straight losing seasons, not seasons in which the 49ers reached the NFC Championship Game.
The 49ers lost back-to-back games last season, setting the mark against Carolina in one sloppy 10-9 contest where the team was physically manhandled and against the New Orleans (23-20) after blowing a fourth quarter lead in the Superdome.
Many thought the post-Super Bowl curse would crush the 49ers' dreams of postseason success but that was exactly what didn't happen. The Niners won each of their next eight, limiting opponents to 20 points or less in five of those contests.
The 49ers slow start to 2014 was highly predicted, but not for the reasons many experts have expected. Sure, the team was missing a legitimate pass rusher in Smith, a leading linebacker in Bowman and a hard-hitting safety in Dashon Goldson, but where has the discipline gone from the "NOBODY!!!" mindset?
Being outplayed is one thing, but losing because of a lack of discipline, a slew of questionable unsportsmanlike penalties and non-consequential pass interference calls is quite another concern all together.
There comes a time when a team makes or break its season by either rallying together or coming apart at the seams. The 49ers have seemingly allowed the legal system to play itself out in the McDonald situation but, much like the team's woes on the field, a monumental moment will take place in the not-too-distant future.
Facing a quartet of games before the bye week, the 49ers have the chance to regain some swagger before the flood gates open wide in Santa Clara. Harbaugh has done wonders for the 49ers, but if he doesn't instill the killer mentality back into his football team, the years of success will only be tainted by the growing sentiment that the coach has quit on his team. And you know what comes next.
Evan Budrovich is a senior at the University of Southern California. He has a passion for the 49ers, Dodgers baseball and all things USC athletics. Follow him on Twitter: @evanbud
By EVAN BUDROVICH