As the National Football League limps into the halfway mark of the season, there is something distinctive in the air -- the smell of desperation.
While the league's ubiquitous PR department praises a high tide of undefeated teams, four, the more prevalent news is carried by the stench from an undercurrent of a season going to waste.
Every cheer for those undefeated teams, each at 7-0 -- the New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers -- is countered with twice as many jeers from teams and fans suffering from the smack of reality that a 2015 season is already a bad memory. Even worse, there are some teams so sadly deluded that they are in denial of the obvious.
The stench is particularly obnoxious on the left coast where the 49ers -- only a couple of seasons removed from the greatness of Super Bowl coach Jim Harbaugh and his quarterback discovery Colin Kaepernick -- have thrown in the towel at 2-6.
After graciously allowing tight end Vernon Davis to escape to Denver in a trade, they benched Kaepernick on Wednesday in favor of Blaine Gabbert, who will start against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday with an offense that is also missing running back Carlos Hyde and wide receiver Anquan Bolden.
Kaepernick knows the feeling. Although he did plenty of damage to his own rep this year, he could sue the team for abandonment. At least 15 stars -- six of them former first-round picks and almost all Pro Bowl or All-Pro caliber -- deserted the ship, helping it to sink. And that's not including Harbaugh.
Kaepernick's missing playmates include Davis, running back Frank Gore (free agent, to Colts), wide receiver Michael Crabtree (FA, to Oakland), wide receiver Stevie Johnson (released, with San Diego), guard Mike Iupati (FA, to Arizona), defensive end Ray McDonald (released, with Chicago), outside linebacker Aldon Smith (released, with Oakland), cornerback Perrish Cox (released, with Tennessee), cornerback Chris Culliver (released, with Washington), punter Andy Lee (traded to Cleveland) and five stunning retirements -- defensive end Justin Smith, offensive tackle Anthony Davis, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, inside linebacker Patrick Willis and one-year veteran inside linebacker Chris Borland.
Still, the Bay Area is ignoring the team's obvious lack, or loss, of overall talent and continues hand wringing over "what is wrong with Kaep?"
Short answer is he gained fame, and many yards, as a quarterback with sensational running ability. His presence was feared on the edges of a defense, but the 49ers seemed to insist that he morph into a pocket quarterback. Wrong course for that horse, pure and simple.
Former Bay Area coaches John Madden from the Raiders and Steve Mariucci of the 49ers joined the cacophony this week, each agreeing that Kaepernick lost something else that is even more important -- his confidence.
Madden recited the tale of how the Raiders resuscitated the career of Jim Plunkett (two Super Bowl rings). Mooch recalled when he was an assistant coach at Green Bay that the Packers came "within an inch" of benching Brett Favre, who is now headed to the Hall of Fame next year. OK, first there is the formality of being voted in.
"I wouldn't give up on Kaep," Madden said. "He showed tremendous ability, then he lost his confidence. He needs to get that back."
The financial realities may mean Kaepernick will not get that chance in San Francisco.
Sniffing around the rest of the league this week:
--Indianapolis fired offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton on Tuesday, which immediately impacted quarterback Andrew Luck, who said "it hurts" because his history with Hamilton goes back to their days at Stanford. Meanwhile, Luck needs to focus on a visit Sunday by the Broncos and the man he replaced in Indy, Peyton Manning.
--Tennessee fired head coach Ken Whisenhunt after 23 games, only seven of them with this year's No. 2 overall draft pick, quarterback Marcus Mariota. Mike Mularkey takes over.
--Detroit head coach Jim Caldwell fired three assistant coaches, then fired at the media: "Negativity has always been here from you all's standpoint. I think that's always been part of this. It's the first thing I think you notice here. I think I called it the 'Dungeon of Doom' when I walk into that room sometimes. So that hasn't changed, it's a matter that our guys play better, and we've got to get them to play better." Nice, coach. That will fix everything.
--Dallas (2-5) continues to circle Nov. 22 on the calendar, the date that quarterback Tony Romo (broken collarbone) is scheduled to rescue the team. Right, as he did all those other years. Heart rates rose Wednesday when he threw in practice. Owner Jerry Jones brews strong Kool Aid. Sadly, for those of us from elsewhere, and old enough to remember, the mention of Nov. 22 and Dallas recalls a dark day in U.S. history.
--And speaking of waste, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is wasting another great season -- he is leading the league in passing yardage. The Chargers are 2-6 with a dozen players out of commission due to injuries. The latest is Rivers' top receiver, Keenan Allen, with a lacerated kidney. Allen was on pace for more than 130 catches, a franchise record. Speaking of records, the Chargers have lost nine of their past 12 games, and in the third season of McCoy's run, his 20-20 record is not exactly job security.
QUOTES TO NOTE
--"The dynamic between us is wonderful, and it's going to continue to be that way." -- 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert, on his relationship with previous starter Colin Kaepernick.
--"It's painful enough to get me out of changing diapers. That's been the one positive." -- Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, a father of five, on his injured left thumb.
--"Super Bowl. That's simple. We play this game for one reason." -- Quarterback Cam Newton, when asked about his vision for the unbeaten Carolina Panthers.
--"I missed the monkey. You know, the monkey thing is pretty humorous. I am a monkey fan. I can stand in a zoo and look at them all day long and die laughing. My dad was in the wild animal business and had over 5,000 wild animals. And he always was, no matter what, he would hand somebody a card and say, 'Be sure and come out and visit my monkeys.' And we've got quite a show that goes on." -- Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, on wide receiver Dez Bryant's pet monkey.
--"Everything just speeds up. You have to do more early. I wouldn't say it's tough emotionally, especially because it's a division game. There is extra importance on that. We have had the right mentality this whole year, we just have to keep up what we've been doing." -- Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, on having a short week to prepare for the Thursday night game.
--"Just frustrated, angry to not be on the field. Just to see my team lose, it hurts me, and that's just something I gotta get over with, and I gotta get healthy and get back on the field." -- Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins, on his frustration over not being able to get and stay healthy.
--"What stands out is how good he is. He's a phenomenal football player. I don't know him off the football field very well, but he must dedicate himself, his time, his body. It's not like he's just out there. He's playing at a very high level." -- Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, on Oakland Raiders defensive back Charles Woodson.
--"We're still sitting fine with a number of teams with nine games to go." -- Dolphins interim coach Dan Campbell, on Miami's playoff hopes.
--"We have to be the strong ones because we have been around here the longest and we have been through the ups and downs." -- All Pro free safety Eric Weddle, when asked if the San Diego Chargers' veterans are helping others through the team's 2-6 start.
--"He's from up north. He's one of those always walk-around-pissed-off guys anyway." -- Redskins defensive end Jason Hatcher, on trash-talking cornerback Chris Culliver, who laid into his wide receivers during one-on-one drills in practice Wednesday.
--"I think he does a lot of things that people don't recognize, that people don't see, whether it's getting in plays, out of plays, moving in the pocket, avoiding a bad, negative thing. There's a lot to be said for that." -- Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, talking about the growth of 22-year-old quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
BY THE NUMBERS
--0: Victories Miami has when quarterback Ryan Tannehill throws 40 or more passes in a game this season.
--4: Times quarterback Tannehill has attempted 40 or more passes in a game this season
--1: Punt-return yardage total for the Chargers at the season's midway point.
--1: Road wins for the Redskins in 11 games under coach Jay Gruden. The only victory came on "Monday Night Football" last Oct. 27 at Dallas. Washington plays five of its final nine games away from home.
--2: Rushing touchdowns scored by the Cleveland Browns at the halfway point of the season.
--2: AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker this season. Tucker had five field goals Sunday against the Chargers, including a game-winning 39-yarder as time expired in the 29-26 win.
--3: Games in the Colts' losing streak. It is the first three-game losing streak since Chuck Pagano became head coach in 2012. It is also the first three-game losing streak at any level for quarterback Andrew Luck.
--5: Offensive line combinations in eight games for the Kansas City Chiefs, with two different left tackles, two different left guards, one center, two different right guards and three different right tackles.
--5-5: The Bengals' record on "Thursday Night Football." They are 2-4 on Thursday nights under coach Marvin Lewis.
--7: Games the 7-0 Panthers won all of last season.
--9: Special teams touchdowns the Vikings scored since Mike Priefer was hired as special teams coordinator in 2011. Marcus Sherels' 65-yard punt return for a touchdown Sunday moved the Vikings into a tie with the Eagles for the most special teams touchdowns since 2011.
--11: Touchdowns of 20 yards or more scored by the Bills, the highest figure in the NFL. Buffalo has a league-high 92 points from outside the red zone.
--11: The Bengals' sack differential, which ranks third in the NFL. Denver at plus-17 and St. Louis at plus-15 are the only teams ahead of them.
--49: Carries for Dallas running back Darren McFadden the past two weeks -- the most he has had since his 55 in Weeks 2-3 in 2010 with the Raiders. Only four other times did he have 40 or more carries in consecutive games.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Call these faux matchups because the key participants don't really go head to head, although they may be in each other's heads.
--Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, coming off a heady victory over Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay to stay unbeaten vs. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, ripe with raw emotions after losing to unbeaten Carolina and Cam Newton. ... and also losing his offensive coordinator, and former college coach, Pep Hamilton. All this in the house that Manning built.
--Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and his unpredictable, strong arm vs. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, the most prolific quarterback in the NFL, whose team evaporated with 12 injuries and six losses. This was once a great, twice-a-year AFC West shootout when Cutler was with Denver.
--Rams rookie running back Todd Gurley vs. 30-year old Vikings star runner Adrian Peterson in a battle of look-alikes. Peterson is third in the league with 633 yards rushing, while Gurley has the most rushing yards in a player's first four starts (566) since the merger in 1970.
--Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and is a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Material in this report was contributed by The Sports Xchange NFL network of reporters.