Hold the phone—there are negatives about Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers?
You better believe it.
This team is not the perfect model. Come to think of it, there is no perfect model. But comparing the vision of what this team was believed to be this year, as to what it currently is, it seems fair to assume not everything went according to plan.
There have been a few questionable decisions along the way—whether it be on the field, on the sideline or in the front office—coupled with a number of catastrophic losses and notable misconceptions, which have led to this more hollow version of the 49ers than we all expected to see.
Albeit, their luck hasn’t been terrific; but we’ll get into that as well.
Instead of giving the team a total pass because the logo looks good again under Harbaugh, we're going to dive headfirst into all the hot-button issues, with little to no omissions. So, if you’re a 49er Faithful here for a confidence booster, you might want to turn away now. It is time for a reality check for the reigning NFC champions.
Statistics are courtesy of Pro Football Reference and Pro Football Focus, unless specified otherwise.
Full List of Injuries Entering Week 6 (via Pro Football Reference)
* denotes a featured player/starter
+ denotes drafted/intended 53-man player
|Mario Manningham *||PUP||Knee|
|Michael Crabtree *||PUP||Achilles|
|Nick Moody +||Injured Reserve||Hand|
|Darius Fleming||Injured Reserve||Knee|
|Chris Culliver *||Injured Reserve||Knee|
|Ian Williams *||Injured Reserve||Ankle|
|Alex Debniak||Injured Reserve||Achilles|
|Brandon Carswell||Injured Reserve||Knee|
|Aldon Smith *||Non-Football Injury||N/A|
|Eric Wright *||Non-Football Injury||N/A|
|Quinton Dial +||Non-Football Injury||Toe|
|Luke Marquardt +||Non-Football Injury||Foot|
|Cornellius Carradine +||Non-Football Injury||Knee|
|Marcus Lattimore +||Non-Football Injury||Knee|
|Carlos Rogers *||Questionable||Knee|
|Alex Boone *||Questionable||Shoulder|
|Ray McDonald *||Questionable||Biceps|
|Patrick Willis *||Questionable||Groin|
|Nnamdi Asomugha *||Questionable||Knee|
|Anthony Davis *||Questionable||Shoulder|
|Justin Smith *||Questionable||Shoulder|
|Quinton Patton +||Out||Foot|
|Joe Staley *||Probable||Knee|
|Frank Gore *||Probable||Knee|
|Kyle Williams *||Probable||Knee|
|Mike Iupati *||Probable||Shoulder|
|Vernon Davis *||Probable||Hamstring|
You think this list is long? Imagine standing directly in front of this entire grouping of individuals. You could fill a Starbucks. Twenty-six players are out for significant time or not at 100 percent—most of whom have missed games. After experiencing this, the 49ers may never draft injured players again.
As you can plainly see, the 49ers caught the injury bug in a bad way in 2013, stemming back to the early offseason when they lost star wideout Michael Crabtree on a non-contact drill in OTAs. The team’s top corner, Chris Culliver, followed suit, going down with an ACL tear.
2012 draft pick Darius Fleming re-tore his knee that caused him to miss his rookie season, so he is on IR for the second year in a row.
Added to which, wide receiver Mario Manningham is still not fully recovered from tearing two of four ligaments in his knee last December in Seattle. The late-season injury kept him out of the playoffs, Super Bowl XLVII and will cause him to miss half of the 2013 campaign.
Aldon Smith is taking a leave of absence to resolve a personal matter.
Even week to week, they seem like the most fragile NFL team.
To start things off with a bang, the 49ers lost their starting nose tackle in Ian Williams to an ankle break—the result of a cut block by Seattle Seahawks offensive lineman J.R. Sweezy, which the league deemed legal.
After getting caught underneath a pile, left tackle Joe Staley had a pretty frightful scare and had to leave the game versus the St. Louis Rams. Starting defensive tackle Ray McDonald was also sidelined against the Houston Texans in what turned out to be a partially torn biceps, via Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.
Vernon Davis had a legitimate hamstring pull in Week 2 versus Seattle, which caused him to miss the next loss against the Indianapolis Colts. He has returned to the lineup, but out of desperation by the team. He is still getting back to 100 percent.
After already having a broken hand, Patrick Willis fell victim to a groin injury and has also missed time.
The next crushing blow was the loss of wideout Quinton Patton, who was perhaps the most likely of candidates to step up in the absence of Crabtree and Manningham. He fractured a metatarsal bone in his foot and looks to have a similar timetable to return as the two aforementioned receivers he was meant to replace.
Add in all the injured rookies that the 49ers drafted, plus free-agent cornerbacks Eric Wright and Nnamdi Asomugha being unable to contribute, and it’s been a mess. Luck, as it were, does not appear to be on their side. Given the overall hit to the roster, it is surprising the team has not outsourced for help.
Where to begin? People don’t want to praise him nor cast him out. It is safe to say that 49ers offensive play-caller Greg Roman is becoming notorious for being one of the more hot-and-cold coordinators in the league.
When his unit is rolling, it is rolling.
They have a star quarterback with a revolutionary skill set, a freak tight end and perhaps a Hall of Fame-caliber receiver and running back, fronted by the most bruising O-line in the NFL. The tools are there to engineer wins, even without Michael Crabtree in the lineup.
But every now and again—especially in the first three games of 2013—the offense comes out with an anomalous look and gets suffocated. The pundits yak and yak about players being inconsistent; but don’t be fooled, the exact same can be said about coordinators.
And for Roman, it boils down to his play-calling; even entire game plans for opponents. Now, the play designs in his book, mainly in the run game, are masterful—we’ve seen them, we know they’re there. But the order of which certain plays are called and others are blatantly ignored is very suspect.
- Oftentimes, the 49ers OC is totally unwilling to adjust.
- He’ll fail to pinpoint which plays are working, while continuing to call others that had been ineffective.
- He will go into a game with a very limited, cookie-cutter blueprint, and stick to it.
- Outside of the star players, Roman has consistently failed to integrate supporting skill players by not recognizing their individual gifts or finding a schematic solution to getting them touches, which could ultimately help them to assimilate and settle into a role.
- Instead of using what he has, he’ll disregard the strength and identity of this team, struggling to be this makeshift reboot of the Greatest Show on Turf, which the 49ers are not.
However, his greatest violation this year might’ve been putting too much on Colin Kaepernick.
Just 10 points in last 7 quarters for the 49ers. Where is Greg Roman?— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) September 22, 2013
Something to note, when Jim’s brother, John Harbaugh, took his Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl and won it, he made a drastic change by switching offensive coordinators, resulting in a late-season surge. Considering the history between coach and coordinator, the change from Cam Cameron to Jim Caldwell was not an easy one to make.
Though, sometimes an outsider’s perspective can be cathartic, even if the process itself stings a bit. When it was all said and done, Harbaugh said it was “[T]he hardest thing I’ve had to do as a coach,” via Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com.
Thankfully, the ring on his finger gives him constant assurance that is was the right move to make. To his credit, even Cameron himself said the change “was a brilliant move,” per NFL.com writer Marc Sessler.
Although unpopular to a lot of non-49ers fans that generally don’t care for his running style, the truth is Frank Gore is still going strong, returning as one of the most productive backs in the National Football League.
In a league where it is all about space and spreading defenses out with a multitude of talented receivers—while ground games are predicated on insipid committees—Gore is one of the last remaining feature backs.
Even at age 30, he is functioning at a high level.
That is because Gore’s ability was never tailored around top speed, quick cuts or excessive power. His assets have always been his patience, vision and ability to set up blocks—and because of that, he can still hang. Those sorts of attributes do not diminish with age.
Currently a top-10 rusher in the league, it's hard to attest that Gore is wearing thin because of his age or losing his touch. That does not appear to be the case at all. So, even though there are those who are clamoring for Colin Kaepernick to pave the way on game day, it is No. 21 who will continue to be the centerpiece of this offense, even in 2013.
Sorry, Kap, but it’s the Inconvenient Truth.
Let that resonate.
As a unit, the four wideouts aside from Boldin are collectively averaging 22.4 yards per game receiving in Weeks 1-5 (includes totals from Kyle Williams, Quinton Patton, Jon Baldwin and Marlon Moore, via 49ers.com). The fact of the matter is, in the team’s time of need, with every opportunity in the world, not a single one of these receivers has stepped up.
The 49ers truly thought they’d be fine with the receivers they had, at least until Mario Manningham returned, but they’ve limped badly until now. It is easily one of the most underwhelming and least-productive units anywhere in the National Football League in 2013.
The 49ers spent most of their time in the offseason hoping A.J. Jenkins was going to assert himself, but that moment never came. So in a lot of ways, San Francisco was doomed from the get-go. They fell behind the eight ball and perhaps overestimated what they had.
Acquiring Jon Baldwin from the Kansas City Chiefs and dumping Jenkins was never going to be a game-changer.
If any receiver can be ridiculed for not stepping up, it has to be fourth-year-man Kyle Williams. This looked like his first, and perhaps his last, real opportunity to prove he is a starting NFL receiver. He had the most knowledge of the system, Boldin to complement him and a quarterback with a sensational deep ball that would finally take advantage of his downfield speed.
For whatever reason, Williams and Kaepernick are not connecting.
Outside of that, the 49ers were depending on Marlon Moore and Quinton Patton to be the answers—or at least stopgaps—for this offense. And with a quarterback that is still in the developmental stages of his career. How is that fair to any of the parties involved? It is not a winning formula.
The shock isn’t that San Francisco’s receiving corps isn’t producing; the shock is that the brain trust relied on so many unknowns.
Now, with word of Manningham and Crabtree not returning till mid-to-late November, a report surfaced that the Niners were in contact with the Cleveland Browns, inquiring about a potential trade for wide receiver Josh Gordon, via ESPN insider Adam Schefter.
However, time has passed, the dust has settled and it appears as if the 49ers will not proceed with the deal.
If that is indeed the case, offensive coordinator Greg Roman will need to scheme ways to get other receivers touches. The level of the 49ers' run dependency is astronomical and it is not a sustainable direction over the course of the season. One tight end, one wide receiver and a running game is very beatable.
Don’t be surprised if the 49ers passing offense continues to struggle.
A lot has been said about the 49ers' current predicament, namely the powerlessness to mount some semblance of a passing game. The easy thing to say is that the wide receiving corps is banged up and that is it. It certainly did not help things, but it is not the end-all, be-all to why this unit can’t take off.
We discussed offensive coordinator Greg Roman and the shortcomings he has had. This also contributed to the woes. But somewhere down the line, you have to look at the quarterback, which is 25-year-old dual-threat sensation, Colin Kaepernick.
What is going on with San Francisco's star QB?
It isn’t a physical thing because the whole world saw him make all the throws last year and blow past a defense with his legs.
It does not matter how slow his start to 2013 has been, Kap remains one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the league. People don’t devalue Calvin Johnson or Julio Jones when they don’t blow up the stat sheet one week—because we’ve seen them do it and know what they’re capable of (physically speaking).
What Kaepernick is experiencing right now is what we in the sports world call a “slump.” They happen.
Interestingly enough, the popular football rumor out there is that Kap is all of a sudden a one-read quarterback. Certainly a unique take. Definitely a gut-wrenching one for the organization if it proves true, seeing how the 49ers planned their future around him. But critics may have jumped the gun on this assessment.
On the contrary, it seems more mental than anything.
The 49ers quarterback looked off defenders plenty last year (see: Touchdown to Delanie Walker), even hitting his third and fourth reads at times (see: Touchdown to Michael Crabtree). It seems shortsighted to label him as a one-read quarterback.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady isn’t quite thriving with a nonexistent receiving corps. Is he a one-read quarterback?
First read and go again, this really is the worst trait of Kaep's game. Wrote about it previously: pic.twitter.com/h2VN02JirO— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) September 24, 2013
Kaepernick is still way too quick to leave the pocket at times: pic.twitter.com/tmDsHGvhpY— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) September 24, 2013
Thing to note: He has only started 15 games (including the playoffs).
It takes some time. He does not have that year-to-year callus built up and there are about 100,000 game situations he has not lived. That is why there was a flash flood of hype following his breakout performance last season—most quarterbacks are not supposed to be that good right away.
Now, the fact that Kaepernick is not spreading the ball around like a seasoned vet does not, by any means, depreciate his value as the future of this 49ers franchise. But right now, it is the weakest part of his game. This year, he has not consistently hit all his progressions, and when he does, Kap does not always pull the trigger.
Kaepernick said it himself: “I have to be able to throw to open receivers and give them a chance to make plays,” via Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo! Sports.
As Cian Fahey of Bleacher Report points out, he is too quick to leave the pocket. It is as if he is seeing ghosts in the pocket or over-thinking throws. It is not that he’s failing to see the entire field, which has resulted in missing open receivers; it has been his decision-making and, ultimately, his playing mentality.
The killer instinct has to return.
So, don’t buy into the slander, Colin Kaepernick is not a one-read quarterback. He is a young, inexperienced NFL player with a sudden confidence problem, having too many options on a given play, too many voices in his head chiming in and too little time to decipher it all.
Wait until Kaepernick figures it out (goes through 2nd-4th progressions). With his ability to extend plays, he's just getting started.— Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) January 13, 2013
As a brainy, conservative and methodical coach—almost to an obsessive-compulsive degree—Jim Harbaugh was 100 percent the antithesis of Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, making him a godsend to the 49ers fanbase, which endured trying times in the 2000 decade.
Not only did he come in as an offensive guru with a sensational pedigree, but he also had the persona of a bona fide player’s coach; he is not the Neanderthal type, in that he’d publicly call out a player or throw his coaching staff under the bus.
All told, Harbaugh does appear to have the makings of one of the next great coaches to grace this league, if he stays the course. Even Pro Football Hall of Fame coach John Madden said the job that Harbaugh has done to date has been one of the greatest of all time, specifically the turnaround in 2011, via Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times.
Now, while the coach's disdain for drama and in-house confrontations have been a major relief since the days of Nolan and Singletary, it has had its downside (no coach is perfect, after all). Simply put, Harbaugh does not want to rock the boat.
So much so, that the 49es coach will hold back when decisions need to be made or intervention is needed. Oddly enough, the one time he truly went out on a limb and made a choice that was entirely his, it paid immense dividends (see: Alex Smith-to-Colin-Kaepernick saga).
When Greg Roman is puttering around with the call sheet and scripting questionable drives—whether it was in the playoffs, the last series of the Super Bowl or these two losses in 2013—Harbaugh never vetoes him, even though he himself is an offensive-minded coach and it might’ve saved the game.
And to a degree, it is wise because he is likely considering the aftermath; namely the toll it can take on their working relationship. After all, Harbaugh does not want Roman to believe that there is any shred of doubt, and by pulling rank, that is exactly what it would show.
But where is the line? When it costs games, you’re cognizant of it when it is happening and you have a “the team, the team, the team” mindset, is it wise to stand idly by, knowing it puts the 49ers further away from their ultimate goal, which is a Super Bowl victory? That’s a tough call.
Another case involved the team’s 2012 first-round pick, A.J. Jenkins.
When Trent Baalke’s hand-selected guy fell flat on his face, the 49ers head coach was left with a complete mess at the wide receiver position. Harbaugh and his coaches had to commit to the top pick for most of the offseason, which is when the organization really should have found a fix.
Instead, they wasted time and reps on Jenkins before finally cutting bait, sending him to the Kansas City Chiefs for wideout Jon Baldwin in a straight-up swap. This was a no-win situation that hurt the 49ers, even more so after not having Mario Manningham and losing Michael Crabtree.
It isn’t an accident or a sporadic blunder on a single decision—it is Harbaugh’s approach.
By not making an executive decision or enforcing his opinion, the 49ers have actually faced setbacks. These are just two examples, but there are several other minor ones peppered in there. Now, it is not condemning his value as a coach; he simply respects the chain of command that was instilled in 2011.
And again, it is the opportunity cost of having a conservative head coach that does not want to make waves.
Same goes for players. Harbaugh is not aggressive in pushing management to acquire outside talent because he does not want to disrupt the herd. Take a look at how he elected to deal with David Akers in 2012, and how conservative the team has been when it comes to the calamity at wide receiver this season.
When Harbaugh does bring in players, he wants to make sure that it is under the right circumstances and that the player will be positively embraced. He does not want to induce any negative energy in his locker room. Hard to blame him for being overly careful, but it is not a perfect methodology.
The 49ers flat-out bullied offenses in the past, particularly in 2011, when they had a fresh defensive coordinator and shiny new personnel, while being handcuffed to an offense that could not be relied on to score a ton of points. It was a lot like the 2000 Ravens defense or the 2002 Buccaneers defense in that sense.
They gang-tackled, tailbacks could not run it on them and offenses looked fearful because they: A) Hit so, so hard and B) Were taking the football away often. As a cohesive unit, they dictated the tempo by taking away the rushing attack, outhitting their opponent and winning the turnover margin.
It was a hot ticket and they had the personnel to do it.
However, it has since fallen off, and perhaps it is because San Francisco sacrificed the consistent run stuffing of Parys Haralson for the pass-rush upside of Aldon Smith. Maybe it is because they’ve fluctuated bodies at nose tackle, not settling on a player to lock down the position for good.
Hard to believe that, at one point, linebacker Patrick Willis and his gang did not allow a 100-yard rusher for 36 straight games—a mark eventually broken by Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks in December of 2011, via Mike Sando of ESPN.
Since then, the 49ers have allowed a 100-yard rusher or a rushing touchdown in 12 contests, including the playoffs, with Lynch, as well as Ahmad Bradshaw and Steven Jackson all going over the century mark.
According to the NFL’s director of communications, Randall Liu, the last time the 49ers had allowed a 100-yard rusher in consecutive home games was in September 2006, at the hands of Steven Jackson and Brian Westbrook (a division rival and a then-NFC East foe).
And what do you know, but that is how the streak-ending performances went down last year. This time it was Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle Seahawks and Ahmad Bradshaw and the New York Giants that dispatched of the impressive run in the early weeks of the 2012 NFL season.
The fear factor has all but dissipated, as teams are now prepared to run right at San Francisco. It’s not that they’re not effective stopping it, but you can almost forget about making teams one-dimensional. Offenses aren’t throwing down the sword and bowing down to the run defense anymore.
As for the takeaways and general splash plays?
The 49ers had 23 interceptions, one pick-six, 19 forced fumbles and 15 recoveries in the 2011 season. They also registered 44 sacks and the third-least tackles in the league, which means they were getting off the field a lot more (h/t NFL.com). Sorry to report, those bang-bang plays have not been as prevalent.
However, as Jim Harbaugh imaginatively put it, perhaps the defense has popped the top off the olive jar here. In Week 5 versus the Texans, the 49ers had four takeaways and six sacks, which could signal a positive chain reaction. Consistency week to week will be key, though.
Again, we’re not saying it’s a lackluster defense—because its not, it's actually very good—but it's clear the 49ers are not intimidating teams the way they used to. It's the factor, that essence. When you watched the San Francisco defense of old, they were always swarming and flying around the ball. Sparks flew and things happened.
You’d either succumb to a body-rocking hit or you’d be at risk of turning the football over to one of their hawks; but that aura appears to be gone. As much as San Francisco had an identity crisis on offense, it seems Patrick Willis and Justin Smith need to enlighten the new guys on how it was done when they didn’t have an offense.