Greg Roman and Frank Gore

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While the 49ers kick tires at Pro days and in free agency, I wanted to look at one of the most striking stories of the 2013 season. The 49ers had a pretty rough start to the season, and, despite some great defense, failed to repeat anything like their incredible offensive burst in week 1. People blamed this on Colin Kaepernick and the lack of receiving depth, but no one received more blame than offensive coordinator Greg Roman. The criticism slowed somewhat towards the middle of the season, but his name became a pejorative, the reason for every stalled drive or botched play. It was a shocking turn, in retrospect. A season before, Roman was the ‘mad scientist‘, the man who designed the 49ers’ stalwart, and still excellent run game. He helped turn Alex Smith around in 2011, and revamped the offense to play to the significant strengths of Kaepernick in 2012.

I do not want to imply that Roman does not deserve a healthy share of the blame. Indeed, I wanted to look into how he brought about this vitriol. There are a number of reasons that I could cite off the top of my head -red zone play calling, lack of creativity in short yardage situations, ineffectiveness at using speedy players- but the one that stuck out the most was the number of times the 49ers ran the ball. Two games from last season come to mind.

Example 1: 49ers at Seahawks, Week 2

Seattle hosted the 49ers for their home opener, an extremely overhyped matchup between divisional rivals. Seattle had what many would end up calling the best secondary in the NFL, and a much improved defensive line. Despite this, Kaepernick attempted 28 passes, turning over the ball 3 times en route to a 29-3 loss. Looking at the score now, a pass heavy attack makes basic sense. The 49ers were down, and needed to make big plays to get back into the game. However, the score was only 5-0 in favor of Seattle at halftime. The 49ers had multiple opportunities to change up and try something new. Frank Gore was given the ball a season-low 9 times for 16 yards, but otherwise played a minimal part in the 49ers offense. Despite the lead being within reach for most of the game, Roman forgot about Gore. Kapernick did a great job rushing, picking up 87 yards on 9 attempts, but was relied on far too much to carry the offense.

It was a baffling game from start to finish. Roman was trying to repeat what he had done the week before, when Kaepernick threw 412 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Packers. However, what he failed to recognize was that the 49ers’ leading back might have helped bring some rhythm to the offense.

Example 2: Colts at 49ers, Week 3

The 49ers started strong; their second drive combined Anquan Boldin, a scramble by Kaepernick and some big runs from Gore and Kendall Hunter, and took the offense from their own 9 yard line to the Colts’ end zone. Gore contributed 54 yards on three carries, gashing the Colts’ mediocre front seven.

After that drive, the 49ers would never reach the end zone again. Gore was only given the ball 7 more times despite averaging a superb 7.9 yards per carry. Roman was determined to utilize the 49ers’ depleted receiving corp, but Kaepernick was only able to throw for 150 yards, an interception and no touchdowns. Much like Week 2, the 49ers’ defense kept them within striking distance until the 4th quarter. Roman’s abandonment of the run game made no sense, and was, in my opinion, the primary reason the 49ers started the season 1-2.

I decided to look at the amount of times Gore was given the ball over the last three seasons, and see if there was any correlation between his carries and wins. Naturally, it is dangerous to draw massive conclusions from one statistic or one particular player. However, given the 49ers’ propensity to use Frank Gore to lead the rushing attack (he accounted for 67% of all rushing attempts from all 49ers backs since Roman arrived in 2011) it is not wrong to say that Gore plays a huge role in the run game and the 49ers’ offense as a whole.

I looked at the number of times Gore was given the ball and broke it into three groups: less than or equal to 13, more than thirteen but less than or equal to 20, and more than 20. I then recorded whether or not the 49ers won or lost that game, and how much they won or lost by:

As I said above, these numbers take a very limited amount into consideration. However, they do show a rough trend, indicating that when Gore gets opportunities, the 49ers win. When Gore was given the ball 13 times or less, the 49ers have gone 6-8, losing by an average of 12 points. When he was given the ball more than 13 times, the 49ers have gone 35-6, winning by an average of 14 points and only losing by an average of 2 points. The difference is so dramatic that the multitude of factors these numbers ignore cannot overcome the basic truth that the offense follows Frank Gore, and giving him opportunities to move the ball leads to wins, and significant ones at that.

What I found most distressing about Roman’s decisions in 2013 doesn’t just relate to Gore’s use. The 49ers’ game plan took so little into consideration; the offense was lacking legitimate receiving threats for the first half of the season, but Roman decided to test some of the best defenses in the NFL with pass-heavy attacks. This speaks of a lack of awareness. Roman seemed oblivious to the ways teams were exploiting the 49ers’ weaknesses, and he ignored players like Gore, who could have been the difference between a loss and a win. Had the 49ers been better prepared against the Seahawks, Colts or Panthers, they could have won home field advantage in the playoffs, and quite possibly a championship.

49ers Free Agency So Far

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The 49ers’ front office got busy in a hurry. Most free agency decisions of the last few years have been met by loud cries of “huh?”, or “what, really?” and sometimes even “who?”, and this year was no exception. Aside from Anquan Boldin and Phil Dawson getting resigned, the 49ers have done their usual, unexciting thing, bringing in castoffs and role players to plug the gaps. The 49ers never seem keen on blockbuster trades, and for good reason. They have found sustainable success with a steady core of players, and signing a high priced star to ‘push them over the edge’ would probably do more harm than good. Let’s take a look at the moves thus far:

Anquan Boldin resigned for five years

This was easily the most important signing, thus far. Boldin and Frank Gore carried the offense last season, and having the veteran wideout back will give the 49ers some leeway in the draft. He brings a lot of stability to the position, and, provided everyone can stay healthy, will be a big part of the 49ers’ potentially prolific offense in 2014.

Phil Dawson resigned for two years

No surprise here. Dawson was excellent in 2013, helping keep the team in the lead despite some meagre offensive output. Stability at the kicker position has been one of the more important parts of the 49ers’ recent success. As long as the red zone struggles continue, the 49ers will need to be able to rely on field goals and strong defense to win games.

Safety Donte Whitner to the Browns, Colts Safety Antoine Bethea signed for four years:

This move was unexpected, and has some writers worried about the 49ers’ back field in 2014. Bethea is a solid veteran who was willing to take less money than Whitner. He isn’t great in pass coverage, but he has been a part of a mediocre defensive squad for his entire career. He will provide some veteran leadership, and will no doubt help Eric Reid grow into his position.

The crux of this deal, in my opinion, is the penalties. The 49ers have let go of two safeties in the last two years, both of whom had a reputation for laying the wood on receivers. The league has been trying to move players away from making exceptionally violent tackles, and one of the ways they have done this is to flag hard-hitting plays. Whitner was penalized 8 times last year, costing the 49ers 72 yards. Bethea was not penalized in 2013, and does not have a reputation as an especially hard hitter. Although he does not make a lot of big plays, Bethea will also not cost the 49ers yards or spot opposing offenses extra downs.

Quarterback Blaine Gabbert traded from the Jaguars:

This was a weird one. Colt McCoy didn’t show much as a backup quarterback last year, but I figured the 49ers would go after a project signal caller in the draft and not in free agency. Gabbert has had a genuinely horrible NFL career, throwing 24 interceptions to 22 touchdowns during his three years in Jacksonville. If you find yourself really worried about this trade, just try to think of the potential upside. Gabbert was the 10th pick in the 2011 draft, and had a great three years leading Mizzou’s spread offense before joining the NFL’s worst team. This trade is very Harbaugh-esque; the 49ers are hoping that Harbaugh can do for Gabbert what he did for Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck.

Should everything go according to plan over the next two seasons, however, the only thing we will see Gabbert doing is handing off to Frank Gore and Marcus Lattimore.

Cornerback Carlos Rogers Released:

Although Rogers was not as bad as many people say, he was not worth the money it would have cost to keep him around. He was a solid corner during his time in San Francisco, but he gave up too many big plays and was clearly struggling to keep up with receivers last season. All in all, Rogers seemed like a pretty good guy and a leader in the secondary, but was simply not worth hanging on to.

Linebacker Michael Wilhoite tendered a contract:

Wilhoite was a solid backup last year, filling in for Patrick Willis and having some great, if unremarkable games. This is an important signing because Wilhoite will most likely be filling in for Navorro Bowman next season.

Cornerback Eric Wright resigned for one year:

This is another ho-hum signing, but one that the 49ers desperately needed. Barring another free agency addition, the 49ers will be looking to grab at least one starting-calibre cornerback in the draft. Having cornerback depth is crucial, and Wright brings a sure set of hands to the secondary.

Demarcus Dobbs tendered contract:

The 49ers’ late season run was sustained by many factors, but one of the most crucial was the team’s willingness to give their starters more time to rest. Having players like Demarcus Dobbs, who can sub in when the starters need a breather, will be extremely important going forward.

Offensive Tackle Jonathan Martin traded from the Dolphins:

The outcome of this trade hinges on whether or not Martin is on the starting roster in 2014; if he does not impress at training camp, the 49ers will lose nothing and Martin will walk. Offensive line depth is always welcome, and Martin will have a chance to play as well as he did at Stanford under his old coach. This was a smart move with very little downside, and it will be an interesting one to follow going forward.

Cornerback Chris Cook signed for one year:

Cook is another under-performer, playing corner in the NFL’s 31st ranked defensive unit. Cook is a project player; he has shown flashes of talent, but the Vikings were unable to capitalize on it. A lot has been made of Trent Baalke’s infatuation with long-armed players, and Cook brings a 32.5 inch wingspan. If he can do well at training camp, he will most likely be slotted in to provide depth in the regular season. Otherwise, the 49ers should be set up well enough to let him go.

Dawson and Boldin aside, all of these moves are classic Harbaalke. For three years, Baalke has been able to bet on the 49ers’ coaching staff to turn underperforming athletes into skilled role-players. This strategy has worked for the most part, allowing Baalke to dig in the league’s bargain bin and keep the 49ers stacked with depth. Gabbert, Bethea, Cook and Martin may not have shined in their NFL careers, but all four were parts of bad, or at least inconsistent environments. This incarnation of the 49ers franchise seems extremely skilled at bringing out the best in players. Nothing is certain of course, but we have every reason to be positive.

49ers Offseason Overview

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We are just now dipping our toes into the wet cement of the offseason. The 49ers front office is currently under siege by reporters, who are determined to guess at the inner workings of one of the NFL’s most successful front offices, cite suspect evidence and claim that the 49ers’ 36-11-1 record is far less important than how unnamed members of the team feel about Jim Harbaugh’s enthusiasm. Despite this, the front office is facing an incredibly important offseason, and must make good choices to ensure that the 49ers’ run can continue.

Most experts have asserted that cornerback is the 49ers’ number one concern, but I am not convinced. The secondary played pretty well last year, even after losing Chris Culliver and Nnamdi Asomugha to injury. This has a lot to do with the 49ers’ pass rush, which seemed to improve as the season went on. The 49ers didn’t really go after a top flight corner in 2012; they drafted Marcus Cooper, who ended up having a great season… in Kansas City. Cornerback will be a priority in the draft, but with Culliver set to return and Tarell Brown likely to continue his career in San Francisco, they will have decent depth at the position no matter what they do.

I am not partial to megadeals or over-aggressiveness in free agency, but there is a small part of me that would love to see some creativity at the wideout position. If we learned anything last season, it is that Colin Kaepernick needs targets. The loss of Delaine Walker, Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss took its toll early in the season. I would love to see the 49ers front office focus on turning the receiving corp into a place of strength. This means spending a first round pick not on Justin Gilbert or Jason Verrett, but on Odel Beckham Jr., Mike Evans or even trading up to get Sammy Watkins. The 49ers have been linked to Oregon State speedster Brandin Cooks, but I just don’t have confidence in Greg Roman to utilize a speedy player effectively. I would personally prefer a big-bodied pass catcher like Kelvin Benjamin, who can help the 49ers overcome their red zone troubles.

I doubt this will happen; the 49ers do need depth in the secondary, and the draft holds some great prospects. However, it would be nice if the front office made some moves and helped the offense take a step forward. A healthy corp of Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Quinton Patton and Vernon Davis was difficult to handle at the end of last season. Just imagine what a talented rookie receiving threat could add.