SAN FRANCISCO

The game ended. The nine-point lead had been blown in the fourth quarter. The victory had turned into a 40-26 loss. The 49ers walked off the field like a team that has no answers.

Then the locker room doors opened. And everybody pretty much confirmed it.

Frank Gore, the running back, had no answer when someone wondered why, after he had been used so effectively with 20 touches of the ball in the first three quarters, he had received just two handoffs in the fourth quarter — in which the 49ers' net offensive "output" was minus-2 yards.

"I'm not the coach, and I don't make the calls," Gore said.

Ray McDonald, the defensive end, had no answer when someone wondered how the 49ers can learn to stop losing.

"We just have to watch film and get better,'' McDonald said. "This is the NFL, and this is a profession."

Mike Nolan, the coach, definitely did not have a clear answer when asked about his replay challenges — except to say that after he threw one flag to challenge a play, the referee told him the play couldn't be challenged, but the challenge would count anyway. Huh?

And there was quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan, who was candidly non-forthcoming (if that's possible) when someone wondered what had happened on his two interceptions in the final period.

"I don't know if I have a good answer for you," O'Sullivan said.


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And so it went. From locker to locker. No answers. Until the questions hit the most honest man in the room, linebacker Takeo Spikes.

"I just know,'' Spikes said, "that all of us, on offense and defense and special teams, as individuals, we have to look in the mirror and say, 'I can play better.'"‰"

Throw the coaches in front of that mirror and you'd have the big picture, wrapped up in one all-encompassing package.

It is not one handy-dandy item that is wrong with the 49ers. It is all the items, on all of the shelves, in every grocery aisle. Could anyone watch that fourth quarter and conclude anything different?

Granted, Nolan is the handiest and easiest target to blame. He is hardly unworthy. But as the Raiders demonstrated so splendidly Sunday, a change of head coaches is usually not the answer when trying to turn around a team in October. History shows that most midseason coaching switches accomplish little.

Yes, Nolan's strange replay challenges are straight from the Area 51 playbook. But on Sunday, it was more telling to point out one sequence with 4:20 left. The 49ers were trailing by just four points. Before an offensive play, O'Sullivan took a timeout because of personnel confusion. The 49ers then came back from the timeout and ... were still confused. They lined up in an illegal formation that drew a 5-yard penalty.

Know why that sort of inexcusable stuff happens? Improper coaching, sloppy focus by one or more players, the inability of the quarterback to get it all organized, and mostly a lack of comprehensive mental preparation. Lots of stuff in the mirror.

Are there any changes that can be made to get things back on track for the season's second half? Answer: (See? It is possible to have answers.) Yes.

The coaches can start seeing that some of this is their own fault and admitting it. They can make some daring adjustments. They can shuffle personnel in what's been a shaky secondary.

And to be sure, they can reassess the situation at quarterback. We all love the J.T. O'Sullivan story. But in the final quarter of the past few games, he has become less adorable. Sunday he compiled his third consecutive passer rating of under 60.

In the NFL quarterbacks' reputations are made in the fourth quarter. Here was O'Sullivan's fourth period stat line Sunday: Nine pass attempts, two completions, 18 yards gained, two interceptions, one lost fumble ... while being sacked three times for 24 yards. The three turnovers led directly to 13 points by the Eagles. They won by 14 points.

In fairness, O'Sullivan did elaborate a bit more on his interceptions after he thought some more. But he truly wasn't sure what had happened on the first one, aimed at Isaac Bruce. O'Sullivan said his second pick was a "hot read" that was thrown to the right place with the wrong result. But he didn't question the calls by Mike Martz.

"I believe whatever play Coach Martz calls is the best play for our offense," O'Sullivan said.

If he says so. But over in his corner, Gore was being more frank, pun intended.

"We got ahead, and we got comfortable,'' Gore said. "We made mistakes, and we lost the game."

He and Spikes were right. This week, someone had better order a tractor trailer full of mirrors to be delivered to Santa Clara.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com.