What a mess! After coming close to participating in three straight Super Bowls, Head Coach Jim Harbaugh and his team took a huge step backward, stumbling to an 8-8 record. Offensively, blame Colin Kaepernick and/or his teachers for his seemingly regression of development. Defensively, the elite LB corps was shredded by injury. Other factors also contributed but by season’s end it was no secret that a coaching change was imminent. Jim Tomsula has been their defensive line coach for the past eight seasons. He has the respect of his players but this is a big leap forward, especially for an organization that seems to possess differing views as to how to get back on track. ’15 will be interesting.
What went right: The run game is still well above average, even with Frank Gore slowing down a bit and Kaepernick carrying the football fewer times. The seasonal numbers were a stout 4.6-136 yards per game. WR Anquan Boldin clearly still has something left in the tank. A rookie LB, Chris Borland led SF in tackles and made some big stops in the absence of his high profile positional teammates. The run defense “regressed’ but still finished in the upper half of the NFL at 4.0-100+ per game. As usual the turnover ratio was solidly plus as the 49ers intercepted 23 passes. Most of the units on special teams were good.
What went wrong: Let’s start with Kaepernick. His pass % was average at 60.5% but he missed some easy throws and for some reason has never learned the art of throwing a touch pass. One source noted that Kaepernick did not throw a fourth quarter TD pass all season long! How is that possible? WR Michael Crabtree put up pedestrian numbers and cannot stretch the field. TE Vernon Davis was invisible! Thanks to a reduction in red zone efficiency the offense finished 25th in scoring. The OL did not play as well as in the past, as sacks allowed rose from 39 to 52. Any other 49er issues were chemistry related.
2014 draft recap: SF got only 22 starts out of its 12 member draft class, with five players seeing no action at all. Versatile DB Jimmie Ward had 20 tackles in eight games played. It is hoped that he wins one of the starting CB spots for ’15. RB Carlos Hyde looked decent in spot duty but with a 4.0 per carry average he may or may not evolve into someone special. OC Marcus Martin started eight games due to injury and hopes to grow on that experience and start in September. LB Chris Borland was the star of the class. If all goes well he will join Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and DE/OLB Aldon (Mr. LAX) Smith to form one of the very best NFL LB units. WR/return specialist Bruce Ellington played decently as a rookie but probably won’t be much more than a #3 option in ’15. CB Dontae Johnson was pressed into action and contributed 34 tackles, exceeding expectations. DE Aaron Lynch has 23 tackles in six starts. He validated his sack potential with six as a rookie. The remaining four picks were typical 49er throwaways. All were unrated by me. Not one of them played a down as a rookie, with three of them IR, PUP or non-injury related lists. For now all four remain on the roster. Let’s see what happens in ’15.
ROSTER ANALYSIS AS OF SEPTEMBER 3RD:
QB: Colin Kaepernick is a dynamic dual threat QB with a fastball arm and a lack of touch when he needs it.
RB: The SF powerful 49er run attack is not in the hands of Reggie Bush and promising 2nd year player Carlos Hyde.
WR: Torrey Smith will make a nice deep target for Kaepernick. The underachieving Q Patton and the elusive Bruce Ellington will compete for the 3rd spot (Anquan Boldin of course is #1).
TE: Will this be the year Vernon Davis reemerges? Converted QB Blake Bell is developing into a #2 option.
OL: Once built to run block, now SF needs to convert to more of a pass attack. This line is a work in progress and will be exposed at times in pass protection.
DL: They go five deep on the three man DL, meaning even without Jim Harbaugh the run D might still survive.
LB: Once elite, now SF finds its LB corps shredded! Navarro Bowman hopes to regain his pro bowl form after missing ’14. Ahmad Brooks is rumored to still be a starter but he’s under legal investigation. The 49ers had the deepest roster in football. Now that depth needs to prove its worth.
CB: It looks like Tramaine Brock and Shareece Wright are the starters. That isn’t good enough, but the back-ups are just that, back-ups. Jimmie Ward can swing over from safety to help.
Safety: Eric Reid is really good, and Antoine Bethea is decent as well. This unit is still above average.
Special Teams: Phil Dawson returns afer a two year stint in Cleveland. Andy Lee departs, going to Cleveland. New punter Brad Pinion has had trouble putting kicks inside the 20. The return game has some nice options.
Coaching: Jim Tomsula jumps from position coach to head coach. Geep Chryst moves from QB coach to OC. Eric Mangini has had two largely unsuccessful stints as the head guy. He was the tight ends coach here a year ago.
TEAM KEYS AS OF SEPTEMBER 3RD: SF and its new staff needs an early September win to reverse months of negativity. The OL allowed 52 sacks in ’14 and looks no better this year. Vic Fangio consistently kept the pass under 60%. How will Eric Mangini’s defense fare? SF has been from +7 to +12 in turnover margins the past three seasons. The ’15 margin could falter. Note that SF only turned the ball over 67 times in the past four years combined!
DID THE PRESEASON MEAN ANYTHING? SF was not nearly as bad this August as people would be led to believe based on how everyone thinks they will drop off the map. That’s a tribute to past team depth, even if preseason numbers are to be taken with a grain of salt. I’m not sure why Kaepernick got so little work, and that is a concern. He was 5-13 with no TD’s or interceptions and three sacks taken. He knows who Boldin is and can easily throw the ball as far as Torrey Smith can run, but there was no game play bonding taking place other than perhaps in controlled team vs. team camp scrimmages. Carlos Hyde looks good, as does their whole run game. TE Davis showed no stat line. Let’s see if the OL can keep sacks down. Right now I don’t think so. The run D remained as solid as ever, and the pass D% was in a nice range. LB Bowman actually looked ready to go after missing all of ’14. So far this does NOT look like a team about to go 5-11 or even 6-10. SF only allowed 60 points despite having a negative 11:19 time of possession figure! The new punter was just 5-27 putting kicks inside the 20. The stat sheet did not show it but I do believe the 49ers have some player options in their return game.
STRATEGY AND BOTTOM LINE ANALYSIS: Unlike other teams, the 49ers will still have their fair share of prime time games. My question will be whether or not the new staff will be able to navigate through the short weeks and time changes. Just looking at current rosters, SF and Minny are not that far apart and in fact SF may still have the edge despite severe losses at LB. They could, and maybe must win that 1st game, as the rest of the 1st half schedule is very tough. Here is the rundown. They go to Pitt off their Monday game (short week). They stay on the road to face Arizona. They host GB, a team desperately wanting to avenge recent defeats to the 49ers. They play on Sunday night vs. the NYG, who will not be in any schedule traps. The return home to host Baltimore and you know John Harbaugh does not want to lose to the team who “replaced” his brother as head coach. The short week (Thursday) game is normally a plus for the home team, but visiting Seattle has virtually shut down the SF offense for years. The 1st half of the season ends with a visit to STL. Even with a win week one I believe the 49ers could be underdogs in each of these games! SF will have their bye week after hosting Atlanta. As my readers know, I’m not fond of late bye weeks for teams with new coaching staffs, as it will be too late to sit down and make necessary adjustments. Playing at Seattle after that rest probably won’t help SF get an outright win. Games 11-16 are far more manageable, but what will the record be at this point? They’ve had their way hosting Arizona but the gap has closed. They could gain a split at Chicago and at Cleveland but 2-0 is probably unlikely. They finish hosting Cincy, at Detroit and hosting STL. 2-1 seems like the best they could do in these games. BOTTOM LINE: If not for what I would call a fairly decent August I might have pegged this team as a candidate for a top five NFL draft pick in ’16. There remain some good players, such as Kaepernick, RB Hyde, WR Boldin, the DL depth, LB Navarro, both safeties, and PK Dawson. I won’t automatically assume they fall apart, but the new staff is not as good as the old staff and I do believe SF might slip in their turnover #’s. The best I can give them is a 2-6 start. If all goes well they can exceed 6-10, but I think that could be the ceiling, and the floor is quite low! Remember in February when CG Gaming in Las Vegas opened SF at 8.5 wins? The offshore opening # was 7.5. Let’s do it! KEY GAME: Once again, it’s game #1, 9/14 vs. Minny. Lose this, and I don’t know when that 1st win will come. But Kaepernick can make noise vs. the still young Viking defense, and by all accounts the SF run D will still be strong enough to keep a very rusty Adrian Peterson in check. Handicapping Tip: NONE, but those who feel SF will take a big fall in ’15 should not be afraid to lay points vs. them.
TENTATIVE POWER # SET: 22.5