When team owner Jed York, a cadre of investors and the city of Santa Clara built a $1.2 billion stadium for the San Francisco 49ers, they weren't just hoping to host a Super Bowl—they expected to host a Super Bowl contender.
Instead, Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense aren't contending for anything but the No. 1 overall pick.
That sounds unthinkable for a star-studded offense that's returning all its big names; jerseys bearing the names of Kaepernick, Gore, Crabtree, Boldin and Davis were all out there on the choppy Levi's Stadium turf. Yet, the unit was unrecognizable as the one that's been to three straight NFC Championship Games, and finished 11th in scoring in each of those seasons, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
The 49ers were outscored by a miserable 57-3 in the first two preseason games, getting spanked in 34-0 by the Broncos in the first game at their brand-spanking new stadium. Niners fans had to be hoping their offense would show a little more life in the all-important third preseason contest.
The San Diego Chargers defense dominated the 49ers offensive line, stuffing the run and disrupting the pass. The 49ers didn't score until the middle of the second quarter, when kicker Phil Dawson booted their only first-half points through the uprights. Kaepernick and many of the offensive starters called it a day, with a whole lot of work left undone.
The only chance they have to work out the kinks before the scores count is the last preseason game, a glorified walkthrough where starters play sparingly, if at all.
What's gone wrong?
"I don't know," Kaepernick told Fox Sports sideline reporter Erin Andrews at the halftime break. "We're just not executing like we need to."
As always happens for the starting quarterback, Kaepernick got a lot of credit when things went right. Now that things have gone horribly awry, he'll take a lot of the blame. He's gone just 12-of-22 for 115 yards and no touchdowns this preseason. That's a very subpar 54.6 percent completion rate and an anemic 5.23 yards per attempt.
When Kaepernick signed his unusual $114 million pay-as-he-plays-well contract extension, he was betting on himself. He may not have realized he was also betting on Mike Iupati, Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney.
For years, the 49ers offense has relied on the running of Frank Gore. Since Harbaugh's arrival, offensive coordinator Greg Roman has built an effective passing game on top of it, with first Alex Smith and then Kaepernick. The addition of explosive chunk plays by Kaepernick, Crabtree, Boldin and Davis made the 49ers' power-run offense far more powerful.
This preseason, though, it's been clear that the running game is still the foundation of the offense. Letting veteran center Jonathan Goodwin walk in free agency seemed like a small risk, especially when the Niners drafted rookie Marcus Martin in the third round to compete with 2011 fifth-rounder Daniel Kilgore. Kilgore, though, has struggled, and Martin was carted off the field in the second half against the Chargers with a knee injury, per Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News.
Meanwhile, with veteran guard Alex Boone holding out, Looney, a third-year player, has struggled to hold down his end of the bargain. Even two-time Pro Bowler Mike Iupati struggled against San Diego. Working mostly against Iupati, Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget registered four tackles and a sack on Kaepernick that forced a fumble recovered by the Chargers.
Officially, that was Kaepernick's only fumble. But on the first series, he lost the ball while scrambling to convert a 3rd-and-12. The officials' initial ruling of down-by-contact prevented that fumble from going into the history books—but it happened.
Kaepernick struggled to deal with interior pressure on every series, either bailing out on his reads or taking ugly hits while he threw. He looked flustered, and failed to run the offense effectively. Normally, when Kaepernick isn't effective, the running game bails him out.
Instead, Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde, and LaMichael James gained just nine net yards on eight carries while Kaepernick was under center. Not only does an ineffective running game put Kaepernick under far more pressure on second and third downs, it allows defenses to key on the pass. Why couldn't the running backs run?
They didn't have any daylight.
The struggling interior line didn't just hamstring Kaepernick, it stalled the power-running game that drives the offense. When Andrews asked Kaepernick about the offensive line's play, he said "This line needs to be a lot more aggressive."
"Aggressive" is exactly what Boone brings to the table. According to Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com, Kaepernick was clear about who was responsible for resolving Boone's situation.
"I tried to do something where we gave them space to be able to get players back now," Kaepernick said. "Who they sign and what they do with it is really up to them.”
Text from an OL coach: 49ers miss Boone. He set the tempo in the locker room, brings edge to the offense.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) August 24, 2014
He's right that personnel and contracts are the domain of head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke. Yet, it's pretty clear that Kaepernick signed that cap-friendly contract to keep key players like Boone around. Other than scraping together the cash for Boone, though, it's too late to make major moves on the offensive line.
Ultimately, it all comes back to Kaepernick. If he wants to earn the cash built into his contract, he's going to have to play like he did in 2012. This is what great quarterbacks do: They make the players around them better.
Great protection or poor protection, great running game or poor running game, Kaepernick has plenty of weapons around him and all the physical tools he needs to succeed. If the 49ers are again going to contend for the Super Bowl—or for that matter, win more games than they lose—he's going to have to put the team, and the responsibility, on his shoulders.