Since I’m not watching any of the pre Super Bowl mishmash of torrential bullshit being generated by ESPN and the like (although I did hear that Dick Sherman did say Peyton Manning throws like a girl or some shit) I’m of a mind to talk about the state of the Forty Niners. Think back to 3 years ago, and marvel at what has transpired. In January of 2011, the 49ers were a clusterf*ck of an organization. The team had numerous high draft picks and a talented defense, but could not play any kind of consistent offense and thus struggled to win. Aluminum Mike Singletary had been shown his walking papers, Mike Tomsula cemented his status as the Niner coach with the highest winning percentage in Niner history, and Young Jed was looking for a head coach.
In walks Jim Harbaugh, his Stanford coaches in tow, with an impressive track record of turning programs around in a hurry and laying down a solid plan for the future. In a dramatic turn of events, the Niners, with little training camp or practice time together, go 13-3 and lose a heartbreaking NFC Championship game to the NY Giants. Not bad for a 1st year coach. The 2nd year sees starting WB Alex Smith getting benched after recovering from a concussion in week 7. He never saw another start in a Niner uniform. It was a very bold move that was fraught with the potential to divide the team and lead to major problems. Colin Kaepernick of course lit the football world on fire and smoked the vaunted Chicago Bears defense on Monday Night Football. Season 2 of course ended up 5 yards short of the end zone in Super Bowl XLVII. This year saw a bit of a comedown for Kaepernick amid struggles around the red zone, lack of capable WRs, and Colin struggling with reads at times. And of course, another game that ended up 18 yards short of moving on to the Super Bowl.
So, 3 years, 3 NFC Championship games. A very enviable position that about 28 other teams would love to have. Problem is, we are 1-2 in those games with this current team and coaches. My question is, can this team as currently constructed win it all? The prevailing theory would seem to be an emphatic yes, but what is the issue at hand? What has stopped this team from getting over the hump? Is our quarterback too locked-in to the pre-snap design of a given play? Is there room for him to do a better job of reading coverages and looking off defenders? Is Kaepernick showing too much bravado by trying to force a pass past Dick Sherman to make him look bad? Will this be an ongoing issue with him? Were his struggles due to all the injuries to the WRs? Is the lack of a speed WR that big a deal?
How about the coaches? The lack of imagination in the passing game, and the year-long insistence to run out of the jumbo formation seemed to hinder the team at times. The chaotic scene of just trying to get a play off in time was a critical problem. Conservative red zone play calling, and lack of the killer instinct led to many close games. The red zone offense scored TDs 53% of the time. Good enough for 15th in the league. The run game worked against lesser opponents but stalled out against the tougher teams. The pass blocking was atrocious at times, and the passing game was all over the place. Are the coaches restricting Kaepernick’s reads? Still and all, 12-4 and another NFC Championship game. Yes, we have the pieces. Especially on defense.
How do we get over the top? Well, I think there needs to be a fundamental change in the passing game philosophy. While the run game appears to be a well-oiled maching at times, it was stymied by Seattle, Indy, and Carolina. When that was stopped, the Niners couldn’t respond with a passing attack that relieved the pressure on them. The passing game works sometimes, but it also can be maddeninly inconsistent. The biggest problem I have is that Jim Harbaugh has forgotten one of Bill Walsh’s tenets of a successful passing game. Put the quarterback in a position to make a successful pass on every attempt. This certainly wasn’t the case last season. When teams take away your run game, they WILL go after the passer. The 49ers did nothing to counteract incessant pass rushes. No screens, very few quick slants. No hot reads. No adjustments at the line. Just the same slow-developing 12 yard outs, and the occasional deep fade. They rarely gave Kaepernick an outlet when he was forced to break contain. The coaches wanted Colin to be a pocket passer, and seemed to want him to hang in the pocket longer, but all this resulted in were sacks. When he did start running more later in the season, it was very effective. So, I don’t think the coaches really know what to do at this point.
What I think they should do is start getting the team to pass protect better. Which means no more jumbo. All this does is let teams crowd the line. The base offense should be a 3 WR, one RB set. Quicker pass plays. Throw slants. Quick plays that get 5-7 yards on 1st down. How many 2 yard runs did we see on 1st down in the jumbo this year? 500? How many 3-and-outs were generated by shitty 1st down calls? If you go 2nd and 8 a lot, teams lick their chops. The play calling is lacking in imagination. Especially in the red zone. Good teams took Gore away (for the most part), and were able to focus on Kaepernick to force mistakes. Yes, he made them. He owns his part of that. But, again, giving him safer places to throw the ball will help in the long run.
So, yes, I think we need a new offensive coordinator. And Jim Harbaugh needs to buy into the fact that he needs to loosen the reins with Kapernick, and allow a more progressive passing game to flourish with a more forward-thinking OC (hello Chris Ault). The defense has been good enough these past 5 years to win it all. It has been the offense that has been lacking.