Three consecutive NFC title visits, one Super Bowl appearance from 2011-2013 and still no Vince Lombardi Trophy for the San Francisco 49ers. Since Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach in 2011, he completed one of the great turnarounds, taking a below-.500 club and making it a perennial contender.
Just ask Hall of Fame coach John Madden, who confirmed as much on his radio show, referring to Harbaugh’s impact as "one of the all-time great coaching jobs,” via Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News.
It’s been something else—but it also means he’s raised the bar.
The expectations are higher, and everybody’s waiting on an end result.
This team has gotten better every year, but it seems the same character flaws keep sinking them. And on top of all their strengths making their few weaknesses more visible, their three playoff eliminations have underscored exactly how they need to approach the offseason.
While they’ve taken implausible strides under his direction—as substantial as the ones as the team’s gangly franchise quarterback—they’ve shot themselves in the foot three years in a row, turning it over at the worst times and not being able to score enough points to recover.
Impeccable defense and special teams have gone to waste because of a team that can’t find a rhythm in the air or score touchdowns in the red zone. Let’s take a look at a few things the 49ers can do in the upcoming offseason that would help correct the weakest part of their game, which no surprise, is the offense.
Educate Themselves on Passing Systems
Coaching staffs work on things each offseason, evolving with the game and tweaking nuances to improve for the next season. Example: getting hit in the face with the read-option sent Green Bay’s staff packing for Texas A&M to learn about the attack from coach Kevin Sumlin, who's got it down cold.
However uncommon, it wasn’t the only time two coaching staffs met and shared info—not even this past offseason alone.
Don Banks of Sports Illustrated reported that coach Greg Schiano, when he was still with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, arranged for his staff to meet with the wizardly Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots organization so they could be briefed on how to run a $2.6 billion sports team.
Unorthodox for two NFL teams to meet—especially ones that played each other—but okay.
This seminar provided a platform for the Bucs to pick the brains of the league's finest, sharpening their own acuity. Again, it was a very interesting way to attack the offseason. Also, Banks described the summit as going over the “logistics of running a team,” so clearly these meetings can vary by need.
Pursue what you need to know.
The Niners don’t need help when it comes to organizational structure, but X’s and O’s in the passing attack? Yeah, maybe a little bit.
While it’s not the most traditional way to approach the offseason, and it may be tough finding a suitable partner, it’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon. Sure, the 49ers may have one of the more revered staffs—largely due to Jim Harbaugh and the bountiful league experience at the assistant positions—but they have as much reason as any to take a similar field trip.
They must address the passing game.
Obviously with their ties, the Baltimore Ravens would be a logical choice, but they’re having issues of their own. They could look to another nonconference team with less overall success, like the nearby San Diego Chargers, who became the No. 4 passing team under coach Mike McCoy.
In exchange, the 49ers could offer some tips on how to run the football. It’d be a lot like a mental scrimmage between two teams, as opposed to the physical ones teams have every year. And should they not find an NFL or college team to link up with, the staff can still outsource help on offense in some form or another.
Hiring an extra coach or assistant coordinator is a very realistic option. The reason they must explore it is because even after personnel upgrades and changes, the 49ers have encountered the same setbacks for three straight years, and there are things that need to be fixed once and for all.
They’ve improved on paper, but the results haven’t changed, which would lead most to believe it’s system-related.
Things like situational play-calling, pre-snap communication and scheme all need to be revisited to certain degrees. These have been constant headaches. And in a lot of ways, San Francisco has gotten away from the West Coast ideologies that made it just as successful in 2011 with even less talent.
Therefore, with their issues being internal and deep-seated, some reflection will be necessitated.
Maybe an outsider’s perspective and having an open mind when it comes to change will be the healthiest factor for this offense.
I've ripped a lot of 49ers OCs the last few years. Will criticize Roman if this continues. But umm, is Harbaugh always totally faultless?— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) November 12, 2013
Get a Mega-Sized Wide Receiver
Gannon on 49ers: "Defensively they do everything great but the passing game needs to evolve. Teams will force Kap to function in the pocket"— 95.7 The GAME (@957thegame) January 22, 2014
Winning all but eight regular-season games in the past three seasons and fighting their way to three straight NFC titles, the 49ers have proven that they can get past any team in the league. The U-turn they made as a team, putting together that string of victories, and the fashion in which many of them have occurred, has been impressive.
As the NFL’s best road team, they’re the favorite to win virtually every Sunday now, except one or two weeks a year.
But if there’s one area they can develop, it’s as a passing offense. They'll go into a half with double-digit passing yards at times.
They'll go weeks without throwing a touchdown in the red zone.
While they’ve been 11th in scoring for three straight years, they’ve been saddled with an anemic passing offense that’s averaged out as the 27th-ranked unit from 2011-2013. Envision how dominant they’d be if they could optimize all of their weapons each week and score touchdowns instead of three points in goal situations.
Moreover, if there’s one team that they need to construct themselves to defeat, it's the NFC West adversary Seattle Seahawks, who are representing in Super Bowl XLVIII instead of them. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Niners only had one red-zone touchdown in six tries versus Seattle during the regular season.
And there's no need to rehash how the 2013 NFC title game ended.
That being said, they can kill two birds with one stone this offseason.
The plan? Acquire a true height/weight/speed receiver in the 2014 NFL draft.
While it seems simple enough, this is a tall order—literally and figuratively. When it comes to wideouts, the 49ers have had a particular type, and they’ve stuck to it even though it hasn’t worked out. They’ve tried to hit on speedier prospects that can take the top off the defense, but they’ve consistently failed to scout and develop guys there.
More often than not, they can't separate or they are misused. Free agents and undrafted rookies have also fit the same mold, and they've bombed out too. But that hasn't cost anything—the draft is the most disappointing.
Here are a few of the notable light-bodied speed receivers the 49ers thought they could turn into deep threats since Trent Baalke has been in the front office (None of whom are still with the team):
|Kyle Williams||ASU||2010, Rd. 6||5'10", 180 lbs.||4.32|
|Ronald Johnson||USC||2011, Rd. 6||5'11", 200 lbs.||4.46|
|A.J. Jenkins||Illini||2012, Rd. 1||6'0", 190 lbs.||4.37|
Best recorded 40-time provided, H/W per NFL Draft Scout
Had the Oakland Raiders not taken Maryland speed demon Darrius Heyward-Bey, then two-time Biletnikoff Award winner Michael Crabtree of Texas Tech wouldn’t have fallen right into their lap at No. 10 overall. And then what? San Francisco’s batting average at the position would be virtually nonexistent.
They might still be digging for scraps.
And even though Crabtree is the one that panned out, they can’t rely on him too much versus Seattle. In eight career games versus the Seahawks, Crabtree hasn’t had a single 100-yard game. Not one touchdown to speak of, either. And he doesn’t have a special dose of size or speed.
Crab is just a pure route-runner and hands-catcher, but with the Seahawks having lengthy technicians at cornerback, it doesn’t matter.
The Niners need somebody physically superior to challenge them. All told, they need a big target—a long-strider that’s always open, even when he’s covered. And they need a receiver that’s going to push back.
This is wide receiver Mike Evans of Texas A&M, a first-round prospect in the upcoming 2014 draft:
All he does is make big plays...
He’s built like Vincent Jackson but plays like Anquan Boldin: A sheer monster with All-Pro written all over him.
If you peruse the web, you’ll notice roughly 90 percent of mocks have Evans landing somewhere between No. 16 to the Baltimore Ravens and No. 18 to the New York Jets. To acquire him, the Niners could feasibly execute the same trade they did in last year’s draft, when they moved up from No. 31 to No. 18 for LSU’s Eric Reid.
And like Reid, Evans is the total package at his respective position, which again happens to be a team need, validating the trade.
Mike Evans still my #2, big catch radius WITH good hands and separation ability. 40 time will be big, but I think he can be a #1 in NFL— Shane P. Hallam (@ShanePHallam) January 12, 2014
Another unique note about his fit with San Francisco is that in his record-setting career with the Aggies, Evans worked with a similarly mobile quarterback in Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, so he is adept when it comes to improvising.
He immediately cures the red-zone woes and provides the Niners with leverage in contract talks with Michael Crabtree.
If they can’t wrangle a trade in the first round for Evans, a player that is likely to be available later is Florida State gargantuan Kelvin Benjamin. The 6’5”, 234-pounder is a big cyclone of a receiver with infinite upside if he develops properly. He has the necessary long speed, and in his final year with the Seminoles, he really learned to high-point the ball.
His current trajectory may make him a steal at the end of Round 1.
And as a receiver, he'll give the 49ers exactly what they need:
Kelvin Benjamin had 7 rec in red zone this year and all 7 went for TDs. Benjamin had 1 career RZ catch that wasn't a TD (11 Rec, 10 Rec TD)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 10, 2014
Benjamin will also run up and hammer cornerbacks in the run game, which is not something the 49ers are guaranteed to get with a speed/slot-type receiver like, say, Oregon State's Brandin Cooks (5'10", 182 lbs.) or Southern California's Marqise Lee (6'0", 195 lbs.) for instance:
Referring back to our original point, that’s what the 49ers they've been missing. They've done just fine driving the length of the field. So the ACC's 2013 leader in TD receptions will make San Francisco deadly in goal situations, while giving them a bully to help combat their fiercest rival.
But there is some risk with Benjamin. As Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller notes, he has a tendency to drop the simple catches.
Kelvin Benjamin has amazing size/length…does a great job high-pointing and boxing out, but drops the easy pass. Needs work as a route runner. I’d say Kelvin Benjamin’s ceiling is Alshon Jeffery, but his floor his Mike Williams (Detroit, not Tampa). How he develops is the gamble. I’d much rather have Mike Evans over Kelvin Benjamin if I’m looking for a box-out WR. Not even close in my opinion.
Moreover, Miller saw the 6'5" Evans as a fit for the 49ers in Anquan Boldin’s jump-ball role, which would make for a seamless transition.
And that’s what the 49ers need—a true box-out wide receiver who has the least risk possible. So if they feel they can afford the better of the two, which they should with as many picks as last year, it seems like a move they should make.
While its still incredibly early, look for the rumor of Mike Evans to the 49ers to get some weight as draft talk heats up. Like Eric Reid of LSU, it’s something that makes a lot of sense even months before the draft.
Finally Deploy the Running Back By Committee
In 2013, a season after the 49ers added a third talented running back in Oregon’s LaMichael James to their one-two punch, general manager Trent Baalke spoke about a three-headed attack at the position (via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area):
I'm a big believer -- we are big believers -- in a three-headed approach. In other words, having a group of backs that bring to the table something a little bit different than the other one so you can do a lot of different things. But also having those backs be able to do enough things the same so you don't become so predictable on game day.
This never materialized.
They became more reliant on one rusher as Kendall Hunter’s output and workload dipped (even when you take the Achilles injury into account). Meanwhile, James has been inactive for the majority of his brief pro career and, on his good days, still doesn’t see the field outside of special teams.
How should the 49ers use the four running backs in 2014?
A lot of teams utilize the committee approach and find great success with it, since they get a variety of different things from the position, plus fresh legs. Unique styles also throw defenders off balance on a down-by-down basis.
It’s yet another way the 49ers can give themselves an edge.
It’s also important that the Niners prepare for life after Frank Gore, who will be 31 years old for the 2014 campaign. Gore has logged nearly 13,000 yards from scrimmage in his career and only has so much mileage left on him. They must use him a bit more sparingly because he needs rest and other guys need opportunities.
It’s important in the short and long term.
Because in the meantime, they can take advantage of a very small window and utilize the scope of what may be the NFL’s most talent-laden backfield in 2014. On top of Gore, Hunter and James, coach Jim Harbaugh confirmed on Tuesday, January 21, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, that running back Marcus Lattimore will be full-go by OTAs.
They’re filthy rich at the running back position.
49ers get LaMichael James in 2nd round last year, Marcus Lattimore in 4th round this year. In the pipeline....— Andrew Brandt (@adbrandt) April 27, 2013
Teach LaMichael James the Slot Position
Fans and analysts constantly play this tug-of-war of what LaMichael James is or isn’t capable of in the National Football League, but the truth is, nobody knows yet. He has not seen the field nearly enough to prove one way or the other.
And when he has, James has been very explosive, breaking several long runs and maintaining an exemplary average on punt and kickoff returns. There is a lot of unrealized potential in James, especially considering he has one of the best NCAA resumes on the 49ers 53-man roster.
That's saying something with all their freaks and high first-rounders. James also possess a skill set that is tailor-made for the new NFL.
And as we mentioned, the 49ers will be loaded at the running back position, which means James is going to have to offer something the other backs can’t.
By learning the slot position, this allows the 49ers to sign or not sign wide receiver Anquan Boldin, supplement the slot production and empower the front office to select one of the aforementioned boundary receivers.
I'm not sure there's a faster NFL running back in the first five yards than LaMichael James.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) August 26, 2013
Like that the 49ers are using LaMichael James as a punt returner. Have to get him the ball in space.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) November 10, 2013
It will give San Francisco a much more complete-looking offense; bracing it for the future while making the passing offense more dangerous, which as previously stated, it needs to be.