Young (24 of 40, 267 yards), sacked four times and hit on countless others, was limited by a groin injury he had sustained in the season opener against the Saints and aggravated the following week against the St. Louis Rams. He used his scrambling talents to complete his first touchdown pass of the season, a 44-yard lob to wide-open halfback Derek Loville. But Young, who says he and the Niners' offensive coaches "spent the whole off-season preparing for" the Panthers' defense, was made to look like a novice at times. He completed no passes to tight end Brent Jones, who didn't even get a ball thrown his way until 5:24 remained in the third quarter. And Rice, despite 10 catches for 127 yards, had no reception longer than 21 yards.
Rice wasn't even on the field for the Niners' last meaningful play. With 5:15 remaining and the Panthers still ahead 20-7, San Francisco had first-and-goal at the nine. Oddly, the Niners went with an alignment featuring two tight ends and rookie wideout Terrell Owens, a training-camp phenom who has yet to master the 49ers' intricate offense. Owens was supposed to run his route in front of Maxie but instead broke off the pattern, and Maxie intercepted. This week expect a new formation in which Young, Rice and Jones sprint directly into offensive coordinator Marc Trestman's office to complain about play-calling.
Meanwhile Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, who watched the game from the press box in his new capacity as administrative assistant to the coaching staff, remains relegated to a token role as the world's most renowned hot-dog fetcher. Standing on the sidelines with Niners vice president Dwight Clark before Sunday's game, Walsh joked of his role: "I'll be upstairs masterminding everything: 'Dwight, sauerkraut or chili?' "
Capers has much more substantial responsibilities, like making sure his players don't get too giddy over their fast start. Sitting in a chair next to the new sleeper sofa in his office an hour after the game, Capers was already in worry mode, saying, "It's much harder to handle success than it is to handle adversity, and that's our challenge right now."
And who's the team to beat in the NFC West? "Oh, the 49ers," Capers said. "No question about it." The couch-dwelling coach sounded as serious as ever, but you got the feeling he might believe otherwise.