What Went Wrong for the San Francisco 49ers in the 2014 Season?
When the 2014 season got underway, the San Francisco 49ers were one of the favorites to win a Super Bowl. As the season unfolded, however, things went terribly wrong.
A team riding the crest of popularity and three straight playoff appearances under head coach Jim Harbaugh has suddenly found itself in turmoil.
A myriad of factors led to the 49ers stumbling to a 7-6 record. The team is currently out of playoff position and only a near miracle would enable the 49ers to make it.
Let's take a detailed look at 10 things that went wrong and have led to this mediocre season.
No. 10: Two Poor Drafts in a Row
The initial seeds of demise of the 49ers this year can be traced back to the 2012 and 2013 draft classes.
The 49ers' 2012 draft was arguably the worst in the history of the team. General manager Trent Baalke selected seven players, including A.J. Jenkins, a wide receiver selected in the first round. In addition, the 49ers' next pick, LaMichael James, selected in the second round, also did not pan out.
Both Jenkins and James never quite fit in to the 49ers offense, and both are no longer with the team.
Only reserve offensive lineman Joe Looney is still with the team, but he rarely plays. Looney was selected in the fourth round.
Baalke also selected four other players in the later rounds. Linebacker Darius Fleming, safety Trent Robinson, tackle Jason Slowey and linebacker Cam Johnson, none of whom panned out. All four players are no longer with the 49ers.
This would be the third year in the league for the 2012 draft class. It is in this third year that many players typically show that they truly belong in the NFL and also are ready to make a bigger impact. They typically assume a more vital role on the team.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, with only Looney remaining, this draft class was a bust.
Getting valuable players in 2012 would also have helped the 49ers' salary-cap situation. These players would still be on relatively inexpensive contracts and would be much more cost effective than acquiring expensive free agents to fill your needs.
The 2013 draft was better than 2012, but it still lacks starting-caliber players.
Only safety Eric Reid is a regular starter. The 49ers traded up to get him, but that was a wise move. Reid is a good, young player and should be patrolling the San Francisco secondary for many years to come. He earned his first Pro Bowl selection in his rookie year.
After Reid, however, the list becomes far less exciting. After selecting Reid, Baalke and the 49ers made 10 more picks. At this point, none have the look of a quality starting player.
The 49ers made two Round 2 selections: Cornellius "Tank" Carradine, with the 40th overall pick, and Vance McDonald, with the 55th.
Carradine, sustained a torn ACL in November of his senior season at Florida State. The injury pushed his draft status down. Prior to getting hurt, Carradine, a defensive end, showed good pass-rushing skills, and with the advancing age of Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, the hope was that Carradine would be ready to assume one of those two spots.
Carradine missed all of the 2013 season and has rarely been seen on the field in 2014. He has played sparingly in six of the 49ers' 13 games, thus far. Whether he can emerge as a force on the defensive line remains a mystery.
The early returns on Vance McDonald is also one of underachievement. Expected to give the 49ers a strong, dual-tight end threat with Vernon Davis, McDonald has been far from reliable.
In his rookie season, McDonald dropped several passes and appeared to lose the confidence of his quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. He also looked slow and somewhat out of shape in 2013.
The hope was that McDonald would have a breakout year in 2014, but that has not occurred. McDonald is a good blocker but has not been able to stay on the field. Injuries have impeded his progress, and he caught only two passes this year, after having eight receptions in 2013.
After appearing in only four of the 49ers' first 13 games, McDonald was just placed on season-ending IR. He is the heir apparent to the tight end position, as Davis is aging, and his production is also way down. However, McDonald has not shown that he can stay healthy and produce at a level that warrants any confidence in him.
Baalke then selected linebacker Corey Lemonier in the third round. After showing promise in 2013 as a replacement for Aldon Smith, Lemonier had an excellent chance to make an impact this year, as Smith served his nine-game suspension.
Unfortunately, Lemonier was ineffective and lost playing time to Dan Skuta and Aaron Lynch. With Smith back, Lemonier had largely been relegated to special teams.
The 49ers' other pick in the fourth round was wide receiver Quinton Patton. In two seasons at Louisiana Tech, Patton was one of the top receivers in the country. He caught 183 passes for 2,594 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Unfortunately for Patton and the 49ers, the success he had in college has yet to translate to success in the NFL. Patton looked very good in the preseason in 2013, but he battled injuries throughout the season and ended up playing in only six games with three receptions for 34 yards.
2014 has been even more dismal for Patton, as he has been inactive for all but one game and has yet to catch a pass.
With the uncertainty surrounding Michael Crabtree's return to the 49ers after the 2014 season and Brandon Lloyd likely gone, Patton will have another opportunity next year to prove he belongs in the NFL. That proof has not materialized as of yet.
The second of two picks in the fourth round, Marcus Lattimore has retired, as he was never able to return from a serious knee injury sustained in his senior season at South Caroline.
Fifth-round selection Quinton Dial provides depth along the defensive line, but there is no star quality here.
Nick Moody, taken in the sixth round, has played in only two games this year and is a special teams player only.
The final three picks in the 2013 draft, B.J. Daniels, Carter Bykowski and Marcus Cooper, are no longer with the team.
The lack of highly productive or impact players coming out of these two drafts is now exposed and hurting the 49ers immeasurably. It is at this time now, two or three years into their careers, that the players from these two drafts should be emerging as quality NFL players.
These younger and cheaper players would also help the 49ers' very tight salary-cap situation. The 2012 and 2013 drafts have only produced one player, Reid, who looks like a quality NFL starter. This degree of ineptitude falls right on the shoulders of Trent Baalke.
No. 9: The Decision Not to Extend Jim Harbaugh's Contract After the 2013 Season
In the eight seasons prior to the arrival of Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers had a cumulative record of 46-82 and missed the playoffs every year.
Jim Harbaugh brought the 49ers back to relevance and got them into the NFC title game in each of his first three seasons. In his second year with the 49ers, Harbaugh had the 49ers in the Super Bowl. They came within five yards of winning the franchise's sixth Super Bowl title.
The decision not to extend Harbaugh's contract has created an underlying problem that has spread throughout the team.
Harbaugh has one year remaining on his contract, but it now seems very unlikely that he will see the end of it. The 49ers ownership was seemingly sending a message to Harbaugh and the team that the only acceptable outcome was a Super Bowl championship this year.
As a "lame duck" coach, it is tough to get the same intensity level and all-encompassing commitment from all of your players. Many on the 49ers exhibit this high level of commitment every day, but it appears that there are others who do not always share that intensity.
This management decision is one of the first causes of the breakdown of the 49ers in 2014. More on that later.
Suffice it to say that we are now seeing the ramifications for letting Harbaugh twist in the wind.
No. 8: Players Looking out for Themselves Before the Team
When the 49ers were most successful, their Super Bowl years under Bill Walsh and George Seifert, they always had a team-first mentality. That was the mantra in Jim Harbaugh's first three seasons, and it worked pretty well.
That has changed in 2014. An undercurrent is the fact that Harbaugh is quite possibly on the way out, and the players know it. Several players have displayed a "me first" type of attitude.
Right guard Alex Boone refused to report to training camp until he got a new deal. His absence for all of the 49ers training camp helped to increase the lack of continuity of the line.
Vernon Davis missed minicamp as he also tried to renegotiate his contract. Unlike with Boone, the 49ers did not cave in to Davis. Both Davis and Boone have had very poor years.
Michael Crabtree is at the end of his contract, and his return is highly questionable. Crabtree has also complained about his role in the offense, as reported by Tim Kawakami in the San Jose Mercury News.
Linebacker Ahmad Brooks was benched earlier this season for getting into a sideline argument with defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, per Mike Coppinger of NFL.com.
Brooks was again benched this past Sunday in the 49ers' loss to the lowly Raiders.
As reported by David Fucillo on NinersNation.com, Brooks missed a defensive team meeting earlier in the week, which resulted in his benching.
Brooks also reported to training camp overweight and out of shape, which drew the ire of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
It appears obvious to all concerned that Brooks does not want to be in San Francisco any longer. In fact, he, Crabtree and Davis are all uncertain to return.
As these players set their sights elsewhere, the level of focus required to be successful in the NFL also has diminished. When a team has players with multiple agenda's they are destined to underachieve.
No. 7: Trent Baalke Did Not Solidify the Cornerback Position
One of the most glaring weaknesses in 2013 was the cornerback position, and GM Trent Baalke did not do enough to fix the problem.
The 49ers lost cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown in the free-agent market prior to the 2014 season. The loss of Rogers was expected, as he made a lot of money and is on the downside of his career. Brown's departure was more of a problem, as he was a solid, though unspectacular corner.
Cornerbacks, by the very nature of the position, have a high susceptibility to injury. In today's NFL, with the emphasis on passing, a good team truly needs four good cornerbacks and two others who are at least functional.
The 49ers came into the season with only one proven cornerback, Tramaine Brock, who was not coming off injury. Brock was injured earlier this season and has played in only three games.
Chris Culliver returned from an ACL injury suffered in 2013 and has been the 49ers' best cornerback. He has played in all 13 games and has 39 tackles, two interceptions and one forced fumble.
Baalke selected safety Jimmie Ward with the 30th overall pick in the 2014 draft. Ward had sustained a broken foot playing his senior season at Northern Illinois. He injured the same foot in November and has been placed on season-ending ID.
No only was the selection of Ward a risk in the first round because of Ward's injury history, but the 49ers also had to convert him to a slot cornerback. Although Ward did play some at this spot in college, there are still plenty of adjustments needed to be successful at it in the NFL.
Selecting a player in the first round with a recent injury, plus someone that you have to move to a new position, does not make sense. Prior to his injury, Ward was performing with the typical ups and downs of an NFL rookie. He had some very tough games, but he was learning. The injury is another setback for him and the 49ers.
Although there were several highly regarded cornerbacks still available, Baalke waited until the fifth round and 129th overall pick to draft Donte Johnson, a cornerback out of NC State.
Later in the draft, Baalke also selected Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker, but both have not played due to injury. Reaser was injured in his final year of college, so the 49ers knew he was not going to play this season.
The only other cornerbacks on the roster at the start of the season were Perrish Cox and Chris Cook. Cox was actually cut midway through the 2013 campaign. He has been decent at times, but he has also had problems in other games.
Cook was one of the worst cornerbacks in the NFL in 2013, when he played for the Vikings. He was signed as a free agent by the 49ers. He subsequently got injured, also.
With Culliver banged up against the Raiders, the 49ers were playing Johnson, Cox and Leon McFadden, who was on their practice squad earlier this season. This group of cornerbacks will not make for a winning team.
Once again, Baalke's inability to adequately address a glaring need has come back to haunt the 49ers. The 49ers took 12 players in the 2014 draft and should have tried to trade up to get another quality cornerback. The other avenue was the free-agent market, and again, Baalke did nothing.
No. 6: Key Players Have Underperformed
Several key players the 49ers were counting on this year have not played anywhere near expectations. The biggest disappearing act has been the absence of Vernon Davis in the 49ers offense.
In 2013, Davis caught 52 passes for 850 yards and 13 touchdowns. He was a prime target for Colin Kaepernick inside the red zone.
In 2014, Davis has been a non-factor for the vast majority of the season, and at the age of 30, one must wonder if the end is rapidly approaching. Davis has only 25 receptions for 236 yards and two touchdowns. The touchdowns also came in the 49ers' first game of the year against the Cowboys.
Davis missed all of the 49ers' minicamps as he tried to renegotiate his contract. The 49ers did not succumb to the pressure, and no new deal was made. It now looks like a very wise move by Trent Baalke, as Davis has played extremely poorly this year.
Davis is under contract through the 2015 season, but the 49ers may very well cut him. Davis will be 31 years of age in January, and his poor play has not engendered any confidence.
According to Spotrac.com, the 49ers would save nearly $5 million in salary-cap expense by dumping Davis.
The second key player to have a down year is Michael Crabtree. In 2012, Crabtree had 85 catches for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. All the numbers were career highs.
After playing in only five games in the 2013 season due to injury, Crabtree has played in all 13 games this season. However, his production is significantly lower than what he accomplished in 2012. Crabtree has 60 receptions for 633 yards and only four touchdowns.
His contract expires at the end of the season, and he will undoubtedly want big money. The 49ers may not be willing to pay Crabtree what he wants, which means these next three games could be Crabtree's last in a 49ers uniform.
The 49ers have not seen the growth and improvement expected with Kaepernick either. He has been a major disappointment this season. More on Kaepernick later.
Other offensive players who have played well below expectations include Alex Boone, Anthony Davis and Vance McDonald.
Defensively, the 49ers have played well for the most part. The only key player to be a real disappointment is Ahmad Brooks.
In order to be successful, your key players need to produce. Unfortunately, too many 49ers have not played up to expectations.
No. 5: Too Many Injuries to Key Players
The San Francisco 49ers have had far too many injuries to key personnel this year.
Defensively, although the losses have been plenty, they have actually played well. The list of key players missing multiple games includes NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Ian Williams, Glenn Dorsey, Jimmie Ward and Tramaine Brock.
In addition, Aldon Smith also missed nine games at the start of the season due to his suspension.
The problems have manifested themselves more on the offensive side of the ball. The 49ers have two offensive linemen, Anthony Davis and Daniel Kilgore, who have missed significant time.
Tight end Vance McDonald and receiver Bruce Ellington have also missed several games.
Unlike the stellar play of the defense, the offense has yet to find any real synergy. Injuries are a factor, although not the only factor.
No. 4: The Offensive Line Has Been Very Weak
In previous years, the 49ers offensive line was a source of strength. However, that has all changed this season. The offensive line has played very poorly, and there is little cohesion at this point.
The 49ers offensive line has done a better job in run blocking. It is the consistency of its pass protection that has been lacking.
The problems are accentuated because the personnel has been in a constant state of flux. The left side of the line has been relatively stable with Joe Staley and Mike Iupati at tackle and guard, respectively. Staley is the 49ers' best offensive lineman.
Iupati is still good on running plays, but at times he struggles in pass protection. His contract is up at the end of the season, and the 49ers may not want to pay big money to both of their guards.
The center position was solid with Daniel Kilgore in there, but when he went down with an injury, rookie Marcus Martin was asked to step in. Martin has been adequate, but he has problems with stronger defensive tackles being able to overpower him.
Right guard Alex Boone has been a major disappointment. He missed all of the 49ers training camp, as he refused to report until he renegotiated his contract.
Now, with the contract in place, Boone has not played up to the level he did in 2013. The main area of weakness is the missed assignments in pass protection. Boone has simply whiffed on pass-rushers and been slow to react to the line stunts of the defense.
Anthony Davis was supposed to handle the right tackle position. However, Davis missed all of training camp also due to injury. As the season has unfolded, Davis has been in and out of the lineup as injuries have limited his effectiveness.
Even when he has played, Davis has looked slow and has been beaten off the line by faster defensive ends.
Davis' replacement, Jonathan Martin, has had his own problems, especially in pass protection. Martin is not quick enough or strong enough to be playing a tackle position on a regular basis.
The pass blocking has been inconsistent, and the lack of continuity of the line is a major problem. The 49ers have allowed 43 sacks, the third-worst in the league. Part of the problem is that Kaepernick sometimes holds the ball too long, but he has also helped to avoid sacks with his mobility.
The woes of the offensive line have also hindered the 49ers running game. Frank Gore's yards-per-carry average of 4.0 is the lowest of his career.
At the age of 31, there are whispers that Gore has slowed down, but that is not the real reason for his lower production. The number of carries he has received has been very inconsistent, and the real issue is the poor play of the offensive line.
Gore may not have the breakaway explosion he once possessed, but he is still an excellent running back. The offensive line has frequently been unable to open any running lanes for Gore or Carlos Hyde, his backup. Hyde owns a yards-per-carry average of 3.6, even worse than Gore.
The 49ers' offensive problems start in the trenches. When the line is unable to do the job, consistent offensive success is impossible.
No. 3: The Overall Ineptitude of the Offense
On paper, the 49ers offense looks like it should be decent. However, that has not translated to success on the field.
Every phase of the offense has struggled, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, along with head coach Jim Harbaugh, do not seem to know how to fix it. In their past seven games, four of them losses, the 49ers have scored over 20 points just once.
The 49ers rank 26th in the league with an 18.8 points-per-game average. Even more disappointing is that San Francisco has scored only four touchdowns in the second half of its games over the course of the entire season.
The lack of continuity of the offensive line is a major issue, which also has led to lackluster production in the running game. However, the biggest problem is with the passing game and lack of creativity of the 49ers offense.
Colin Kaepernick has not developed as quickly as hoped and has even regressed this season. Much more on him later.
The receivers are not getting separation from their defenders, and even when they do, Kaepernick often does not see them or throws inaccurately.
The play-calling and use of certain formations has become all too predictable. Defenses are easily able to diagnose whether the 49ers are going to run or pass, based on the formation, personnel and the shifts the 49ers utilize.
A systematic problem also continues to arise with the inability to get the plays off before the play clock expires. At this point in the season, this is inexcusable. The 49ers are either called for a delay-of-game penalty or are forced to waste time outs to avoid those penalties.
The San Francisco defense has played well this season, despite an inordinate amount of injuries. However, the lack of offensive production has put too much strain on them, and the result is a season that will fall well below expectations.
No. 2: Turmoil Between Harbaugh, Jed York and Trent Baalke
The underlying culprit of the 49ers' mediocre season is the uncertainty surrounding the status of head coach Jim Harbaugh.
The relationship between Harbaugh and 49ers CEO Jed York seems to be irreparably damaged. In addition, GM Trent Baalke and York have a solid relationship and Harbaugh is the odd man out.
As the season has progressed, the turmoil between Harbaugh and the senior management of the 49ers has become more public. In a recent article by Tim Kawakami on mercurynews.com, the tumultuous relationship between Harbaugh and owner Jed York is described.
The discord between Harbaugh and the 49ers executive management makes it extremely unlikely that Harbaugh will return next year as the 49ers head coach.
This trickles down to the field where players realize what is going on and that they are likely playing for a coach that will not be here next year.
No matter how much anyone disputes this, it is likely to be in the back of a player's mind. This issue can and appears to have led to a decrease in focus in San Francisco. No matter how slight that may be, even the slightest bit of distraction in a player can affect his performance and intensity.
The problem that York and Baalke face is that an upgrade over Harbaugh is going to be very difficult to find. Harbaugh has led the 49ers to a 43-17-1 record, including three trips to the NFC championship game and one Super Bowl.
With an aging roster, salary-cap issues and a quarterback who has been disappointing, it seems like the window of opportunity for the 49ers to win their sixth Super Bowl is nearly closed.
Unless the 49ers somehow make a dramatic reversal, the trend is down. Seattle and Arizona are both ahead of the 49ers, and the Rams are on the upswing. It is entirely possible that the 49ers finish last in the NFC West next year.
As the San Francisco Giants have proven, great teams that can sustain success start with cohesion from the top down. With the 49ers, that relationship is in disarray and has impacted the team quite negatively.
No. 1: The Regression of Colin Kaepernick
The most important player on the field is your quarterback. When he is playing well, it can mask some of the other weaknesses on the team.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, Colin Kaepernick is not playing well.
Kapernick has regressed this year and has not shown the improvement expected of him. He is still having difficulty reading defenses and will throw into tight coverage all too often. His 10 interceptions against only 16 touchdowns is further proof of this.
Kaepernick often locks in to his primary target and is slow to come off him, even when that target is not open. Because of this, he frequently misses other receivers who are open.
Accuracy is another issue that has plagued Kaepernick. He frequently misses his targets—even when they are open. In addition, he has still not developed the consistent ability to throw the touch pass effectively.
Even when the pass is completed, the receiver often has to jump, bend down or reach backward in order to make the grab. Rarely are the passes thrown to where they can catch the ball in stride. This limits the yardage they can gain after the catch.
Although the offensive line has played poorly and allowed 43 sacks, some of those are on the quarterback. Kaepernick tends to hold the ball too long or not throw it away to avoid the loss.
One telling comment by Greg Roman, reported by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, is that the 49ers have simplified their offense. Although Roman tries to make this a positive, it is not.
Kaepernick is in his fourth NFL season, where his knowledge and physical skills should be on the upswing. The fact that the 49ers are simplifying things means that Kaepernick has been unable to fully digest everything thrown at him.
The 49ers have tried to make Kaepernick a pocket passer, and he has not responded well. He is concealing his greatest asset, which is his mobility.
By trying to make Kaepernick into something he's not, it has hindered his play and therefore stymied the 49ers offense. Kaepernick has a lot of work to do in the offseason to hone his skills. If he cannot improve, the 49ers will be in for a long stretch of mediocrity.