Systemic issues from the San Francisco 49ers decision-makers have set this team back in 2013.
Overall, the 49ers have a pretty great team. They still have one of the better offensive lines in the game. The defense has a ridiculous amount of talent—especially in the front seven. Its depth would be one of the most impressive aspects of the entire roster if it weren't for that man named Frank Gore who plays running back.
Run the ball and play defense—that's the key to winning football games, right?
Well, probably not anymore.
The NFL turned into a passing league, and it's possible that no one told general manager Trent Baalke or head coach Jim Harbaugh. This team is set up like a power-rushing, throwback team, hearkening back to a by-gone era football purists pine for but hasn't actually been witnessed outside of pockets of high school football in over a decade.
Yet it was only a year ago the 49ers were a couple of plays away from a Super Bowl championship, so it isn't like the team has gotten that much worse (or really, any worse) since then. So, what in the heck is the problem?
The only all-inclusive, definitive answer is that there has been a perfect storm of bad decision-making from the people that are supposedly responsible for how good the 49ers were in 2012. It's a strange juxtaposition that would be impossible to fathom if it weren't staring us right in the face.
Colin Kaepernick Needs to Be Better
What a difference a year makes.
At this point last season, Kaepernick's spotlight was just beginning to shine. It was November 11, that he took over for the injured Alex Smith and led the 49ers to an overtime tie with the St. Louis Rams. A week later, he threw for just under 250 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions to blow out the Chicago Bears.
While many (myself included) foolishly called for Smith to be inserted back into the lineup, Kaepernick proved himself to be an able passer as well as athletic enough to make plays with his legs. The coaching staff wisely added a pistol-option component that perfectly complemented the already-impressive power run game.
The 49ers were a forced to be reckoned with.
But for as impressively fast as his star rose a year ago, it has fallen back to earth this season. The same boo birds that wanted Smith to continue his impressive start in San Francisco a year ago have watched the veteran win game after game after game for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Meanwhile, the 49ers have fallen to 6-4 and have increasingly looked lost on offense this season. Kaepernick hasn't progressed as a pocket passer, and the coaching staff looks reticent to continually subject him to the shots he took as a first-year starter.
Early on in 2013, it seemed as if the 49ers wanted to press the issue by turning themselves into a pass-heavy team (or at least not as run-heavy), but a lack of consistency from both Kaepernick and his receivers put the breaks on that plan in a hurry.
Then, the 49ers seemed to recommit to the power-rushing attack Harbaugh brought from Stanford. That worked right up until they ran into the brick wall that is the Carolina Panthers defense.
The common denominator in the offense's lack of explosiveness is the signal-caller. The quarterback position is where the buck stops in the NFL. It needs to. Quarterbacks have the most important role relative to their peers in all of sports. A great quarterback can pick a team up almost single-handedly. A subpar quarterback can keep even a talented team back—just look at last year's Chiefs.
Like I said last week, Kaepernick just doesn't inspire confidence in two-minute drill. Doesn't seem "dialed in" or aggressive.— Sigmund Bloom (@SigmundBloom) November 18, 2013
Kaepernick seems to fit almost perfectly in the middle of those two extremes this season. At times, his mental errors seem to hold San Francisco back. Against the Saints, Kaepernick looked almost skittish in the pocket as he decided to run or pass. Gone were the lightning-quick decisions and resulting big runs from last season.
It has looked, at times, like Kaepernick was focusing on playing not to lose, rather than doing what it takes to win—paralysis by analysis.
He even hinted at that in his post-game presser, saying: "We made it difficult on ourselves" and "we didn't have successful plays." He also credited the line, inferring that there are some things in the passing attack between him and his weapons that are not quite there.
Trent Baalke and the Rest of the Front Office Haven't Done This Offense Favors
OK, 49ers faithful, I can hear you already!
"Don't blame Kaepernick!" You'll say. "Who does he have to throw to?"
Well, the short answer is Vernon Davis (one of the best tight ends in the game) and a solid stable of running backs. The real question, then, is whether any of the receivers are worthwhile in Michael Crabtree's absence.
Last season, Crabtree was a valuable piece to the overall offense, a willing and capable blocker on the perimeter as well as a makeshift safety blanket for Kaepernick, who learned to throw to his No. 1 receiver early, often and (at times) with an almost reckless abandon.
When Crabtree went down, the 49ers did not have an answer.
At different points in the offseason, San Francisco had guys like Kyle Williams (later waived), A.J. Jenkins (traded), Quinton Patton (ineffective, then hurt), Ricardo Lockette (waived) and Marlon Moore (waived) ticketed for substantial roles at or near the top of the depth chart.
One look at the 49ers' stats shows that they haven't found their answer outside of that group, either. After the veteran Anquan Boldin, their leading receivers are Davis, a fullback (Bruce Miller), Gore, Williams, another tight end (Vance McDonald) and then-wide receiver Mario Manningham, who has four whole receptions on the season.
The numbers look even more frightful when you remember that Boldin had 208 yards toward his season total in Week 1. Since then, he's failed to eclipse the 100-yard mark even once. Heck, he's only eclipsed the 75-yard mark once. His paltry three touchdowns leads all 49ers wide receivers, and he's the team's only target not named Davis to catch a touchdown pass this season.
Since Crabtree went down on May 22, it isn't as if the front office could've drafted another receiver in addition to Patton in the fourth round. They could've done more to search out his replacement, however. Plenty of receivers have come and gone off waivers. The 49ers were willing to make a low-risk/low-reward trade, bringing in former Chief Jon Baldwin, but that's hardly a Crabtree-replacing move.
You're telling me that between May and now, the best they could do is add Baldwin?
What Happened to the Well-Coached 49ers?
Remember when Jim Harbaugh ascended to the tippy-top of the NFL coaching hierarchy?
Jim Harbaugh makes second, poor-judgment challenge of the half. Baldwin did not maintain possession through the catch.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) November 17, 2013
Although he's only coached in the NFL since 2011, Harbaugh (and his brother John) have quickly found themselves on the top of people's lists for best coaches in the league. The 49ers have earned a reputation of making few mental errors, improving young talent and always being in the best position to win football games.
Jim Harbaugh should have his red flag confiscated until he learns how to play properly with it.— Ray Ratto (@RattoCSN) November 17, 2013
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman was a highly respected head coaching candidate this past offseason, and reportedly a finalist for the Penn State job the offseason before. Maybe that hasn't changed, but he's had to have lost some of his luster, no?
The offense, as we've discussed, has been lackluster and impotent. Maybe the players haven't been there and the quarterback play hasn't been what was expected, but how does this offensive staff not have a better plan than what we've seen?
Another loss, another game where #49ers RB Frank Gore had less than 20 carries. Colin Kaepernick had 31 passing attempts.— Dylan DeSimone (@DeSimone80) November 18, 2013
Are Roman and Harbaugh just so well-regarded that they're bulletproof?
They shouldn't be.
Wide receivers coach John Morton was hand-picked by Harbaugh after coaching under him at San Diego State in 2005. While he is credited with Crabtree's ascension to legitimate No. 1 receiver status, is there another receiver who has improved under his watch?
Jenkins? No. Patton? Not yet, at least. Williams? Nope.
This offensive coaching staff's inability to mold a wide receiver makes them just as culpable for the current situation as the personnel staff.
Hey Vic Fangio, don't think I don't have something for you as well.
Fangio, the defensive coordinator, has done a good job this season, don't get me wrong. Statistically, the 49ers are among the best in the NFL in terms of yardage, points and passing. Their rushing defense (12th coming into this week) is respectable as well.
But for two weeks in a row, the 49ers could not get a stop when they needed one. No, I'm not putting the onus solely on the defense when the offense has only put up 29 points in two games, but such a talented unit should be ready to step up when it's needed the most.
The investments have been made in the defense, as it is the cornerstone of this team.
Before, I mentioned that quarterback is where the buck stops when it comes to the blame game in the NFL. But the blame also has to go to the most talented stars on a team. On the 49ers, that's the defense.
No, I'm not calling for anyone's head—not even close.
The Niners are still in good position to challenge for a playoff spot in the NFC. They could also still, conceivably, win the NFC West. The season is not over. I'm not preaching doom and gloom, and I'm certainly not saying this team is on the decline.
However, the question is: Why aren't the 49ers as good this year? The answer has almost everything to do with the quarterback, front office and coaching staff that have not put this team in position to win football games.