Jim Harbaugh Rumors and Speculation Round 2

san-francisco-49ers-rumorsAdam Rifkin/Flickr

We are once again embroiled in a Jim Harbaugh rumorstorm. Harbaugh is one of the most polarizing figures in sports; his sideline demeanor, thinly-veiled dislike of the media and his status as the catalyst for the 49ers’ resurgence have made him the subject of no small amount of discussion. He has been brought up as a possible candidate for the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines, and last year was supposed to be heading to either USC or Texas. Most recently, analyst Deion Sanders reported hearing from anonymous sources that the 49ers’ players were getting tired of Harbaugh.

I should note that this has happened before, last December to be exact. Village idiot Tim Kawakami reported that there was tension between Harbaugh and Trent Baalke, no doubt hunting for clicks amidst the discussion around Harbaugh’s future with the team. Nothing came of it, and Kawakami’s claims, which were much more detailed and substantial than Sanders’, proved incorrect.

Alex Boone and Antoine Bethea have already defended Harbaugh pretty fiercely, but it’s clear that as long as Harbaugh is coach, this will keep happening. But that doesn’t mean we should listen to it. That isn’t to say that Sanders is necessarily incorrect, only that, until we see actual evidence for this, it doesn’t mean anything. People asked Sanders why he didn’t want to give up his source, and this is how he responded:

He’s right, except for one wrinkle: Sanders isn’t a journalist. Journalists don’t float rumors out into the aether on national television and then take to Twitter to defend them. They don’t do this because their job is predicated on a certain amount of credibility, and there are consequences if they don’t maintain it. Sanders, on the other hand, faces no consequences if this rumor proves to be incorrect. Sports analysts aren’t paid for the quality of their sources and journalistic integrity, but rather their personality and experience with the game. They have only publicity to gain from these stunts, and nothing to lose, which makes comments like these seem almost comical:

Until something actually substantial happens regarding Harbaugh or the locker room, we should listen to Boone:

“Here’s my problem with all this: if you’re not in our locker room, then keep the 49ers name out of your mouth, because you have no idea what goes on in our locker room.”

Eagles at 49ers: Righting the Ship

Patrick Willis, Eric Reid, Jeremy Maclin

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

The 49ers got their first win at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, outlasting the Eagles in a bizarre game. It wasn’t exactly a must-win, but it was a very welcome one, and hopefully something that the 49ers can build on. Facing down one of the most prolific offenses in the league was a big test, and it was one the 49ers passed with flying colors. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Defense

The 49ers’ defense was insane on Sunday, holding the Eagles inside their own territory until late in the 4th quarter and shutting out what had been the NFL’s highest scoring team. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio gets a lot of credit, but as he pointed out after the game, they didn’t do anything especially new to stop Nick Foles and the Eagles. Intense training regimen aside, the 49ers played the way they have for the last three seasons, stuffing the run and not giving up big plays. Aaron Lynch, who I am tremendously excited for, and Antoine Bethea were the standouts, but it was an all-around great day for the defense.

Run Defense

The run defense gets a little extra shout out in this recap, because they have been earning their stripes every week. Ian Williams, who only started two games last year, has been a force at nose tackle, and has anchored a defensive front that faced down three outstanding running backs and gave up next to nothing. They’ve surrendered 279 rushing yards in four games, holding opponents to an average of 3.5 yards per attempt. If you ignore the first game against Dallas, the 49ers held Andre Ellington, Matt Forte and LeSean McCoy to just 2.71 Y/A on the ground. This is a good sign, as they will need to stand up to one of the best in Jamaal Charles next week.

Run Game

The 49ers finally got back to running the ball, and lo and behold, they stormed all over the Eagles, picking up 218 yards on the ground and 5 Y/A. Frank Gore led the way, doing exactly what we knew he was capable of with 164 total yards and a touchdown. Some have suggested that the return to the ground game was the result of Jim Harbaugh exerting his will over Greg Roman and balancing things out a bit, but there isn’t any direct evidence for that. Either way, this is exactly what the 49ers need to be doing.

The Bad Things

Offensive Line

The run blocking was fairly solid, but the o-line continues to be a major weak point for the 49ers. Even stalwarts like Joe Staley and Alex Boone have been less than impressive, which is alarming. However, this group has never been all that great at pass blocking; it was their impressive push on the ground that earned them accolades over the last few seasons. We know Staley, Boone and Anthony Davis (provided the injury isn’t serious) have the talent to get it together, but when will it happen?

Special Teams

Other than Phil Dawson, who was 4 for 4 with a 51 yard field goal, special teams was a dang mess. I can’t decide whether this is a fluke or an ongoing problem, but it is worth noting that the 49ers cut a lot of their special teams talent in the offseason, including longtime ace C.J. Spillman. Maybe Brad Seely is having a little trouble with newcomers like L.J. McCray, or maybe things just got away from them.

The Other Thing

Colin Kaepernick

If you had asked me immediately after the game, I would’ve said Kaep was a shoe-in for The Bad, but after the smoke cleared, I realized that wasn’t totally fair. Kaep certainly didn’t look good, but it wasn’t necessarily godawful. After the game, I spoke with a few people that said that his ‘lack of intelligence‘ was evident in the way he handled himself, but I don’t think that has ever been the issue. He made some great decisions, and showed off just how excellent he can play when he sees the field. However, he was just off on a lot of throws, and was wholly to blame for the horrible pick-six that gave the Eagles the lead in the 2nd quarter and the baffling delay of game that took the 49ers out of a short yardage situation in the 4th. As I mentioned above, the pass protection was horrible, and Kaep can’t be blamed for making a few mistakes while getting constantly harassed by the Eagles’ pass rushers.

49ers vs. Eagles: What I’ll Be Watching For

628x4712Rob Carr/Getty Images

The 49ers season continues with a home game against the Philadelphia Eagles, who have been, for all intents and purposes, the inverse of the 49ers. The Eagles are undefeated, thanks to three second-half comebacks and some breaks going their way. Much like the 49ers’ second half issues, these comebacks are unsustainable. In fact, it is worth mentioning that a lot of what has worked for the Eagles in the Chip Kelly era is unsustainable. Like any game, the 49ers have the talent and coaching to win, as long as they execute. We will see which unsustainable trend lasts, and which ends. Here is what I’ll be watching for:

Run Game

The 49ers need to run the damn ball. This is sort of counter-intuitive, as Philadelphia has a rotten secondary, but keeping the ball away from Nick Foles will be essential. Thankfully, both Anthony and Vernon Davis will be back, giving the 49ers offense a major boost. The Eagles haven’t faced any great rushing teams, but they managed to give up 169 yards on the ground to the Colts, which is baffling. The 49ers will have an advantage in the trenches, but it won’t mean anything unless Greg Roman calls a smart game.

For an extreme example of what the 49ers need to do, check out Stanford’s game against Oregon in 2013. Stanford was able to hold on to the ball for most of the game, thanks largely to some heroics from halfback Tyler Gaffney. The game was coached by Jim Harbaugh and Kelly’s predecessors, David Shaw and Mark Helfrich, who run comparable schemes to the 49ers and Eagles. Like Stanford, the 49ers must ‘impose their will’ and use the run to control the ball.

Pass Rush

Another broken record category, but damn do the 49ers need to turn up the pressure. After boasting the very best offensive line in 2013, the 2014 Eagles have been rolling out a hodgepodge unit of backups. The 49ers secondary is simply not good enough to contain Foles without a little help. I know the 49ers have the talent to do it; Corey Lemonier, Ahmad Brooks and Dan Skuta have all been underperfoming, and this game will be a great chance to set things right.

Penalties

I still firmly believe that the flood of penalties against the 49ers was partially a fluke, and it will slow down as time goes on. That said, however well or poorly Ed Hochuli and co. call this game, the 49ers need to stop the dumb mistakes; the Anquan Boldin headbutt mistakes, the Jonathan Martin needless cut block mistakes. It was those mistakes that compounded some bad luck penalties and turned them into a major are of concern.

49ers at Cardinals: What Did You Expect?

crdsgore

Rob Schumacher/AZCentral Sports

The 49ers blew another one on Sunday, losing to a seemingly inferior Cardinals team led by backup quarterback Drew Stanton. The 49ers made similar mistakes to last week, much like they did in weeks two and three of last season, unloading a full clip into their own foot en route to an embarrassing loss. It was a wholly unentertaining game; I actually turned it off towards the end of the fourth quarter when it became clear that the refs were determined to continually break up the flow of the game. Here is what I saw:

But first! A little something to keep in mind. Lost in the moaning and groaning, the complaints about the officiating, the calls for Greg Roman’s head on a pike is a very obvious and significant truth. The 49ers are missing a ton of talent. Navorro Bowman is out. Aldon Smith is gone until later in the season. Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald both missed Sunday’s game. Anthony Davis, for four years an anchor at right tackle and a key cog in the 49ers’ ground game, is still out. Even newer players like Tramaine Brock are missed. No matter what anyone says about Colin Kaepernick, Roman, Jim Harbaugh, the struggles in the second half or anything else, the undeniable fact is that this 49ers team is banged up, in many ways worse than they were last year. Just keep that in mind.

The Good Things

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep was SHARP on Sunday, completing over 70% of his passes and leading the offense in two strikingly effective drives. What stuck out the most to me was how composed he looked leading what was effectively a brand new offensive scheme . He made mistakes, to be sure, and has been criticized for his yards-per-attempt (8.8), but the short range of his passes was more the result of the game plan and a noticeable lack of speed thanks to Vernon Davis’ absence. It was great to see him bounce back and use all the weapons available to him, including Derek Carrier. This is also one of the more annoying parts of the game; the 49ers wasted a really solid effort from Kaep.

Stevie Johnson

Newbie receiver Stevie Johnson was one of Kaep’s favorite targets on Sunday, particularly on third down. He showed off some of his ‘wiggle’, picking up plenty of yards after catch, and was a huge part of the 49ers’ offensive successes. His chemistry with Kaep will be something to watch going forward.

The Bad Things

Penalties

More on that here.

Pass Rush

Discounting an unofficial sack from Justin Smith and a little pressure from Dan Skuta, Drew Stanton enjoyed an immaculate pocket on Sunday. This is becoming a crisis; the 49ers road is getting a lot tougher in the next couple of weeks, and their secondary isn’t currently capable of holding off the likes of Nick Foles and Peyton Manning without a little help. Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear answer here. Aldon Smith can’t come back, and, other than Tank Carradine, the 49ers have exhausted their options to get some new blood into the pass rush rotation. Other than dialing up more blitzes, which had some moderate success in the first half against the Cardinals, the cavalry is a long way away.

Run Game

What can I say? Discounting a few designed runs for Kaep, the 49ers ran the ball a grand total of nine times on Sunday. Other than a nifty six yard touchdown run from Carlos Hyde, most of the runs were unremarkable– the back was either stuffed behind the line of scrimmage or good for a few quick yards. This is eerily similar to last season, but it makes a little bit more sense. Unlike last year, the 49ers have a lethal set of receivers, and the 00 personnel formations they rolled out on Sunday were pretty damn effective. Also unlike last year, the offensive line is in shambles, with stalwarts like Alex Boone and Mike Iupati failing to get the push that was so central to the run game. However, none of this stops Roman from at least trying to be a little more creative in the run game. It seemed like every give to Gore was an incredibly obvious run formation, and, more often than not, the Cardinals sniffed it out and prevented the 49ers from picking up significant yardage. I don’t understand why it needs to be so black and white with Roman– part of the benefit of having such a threatening complement of receivers is that it can open things up on the ground. I don’t know if this is Roman playing the long game, and he’s planning to move seamlessly into a more balanced offense soon, or he is just utterly unaware of the running back talent on the roster. Whatever the case may be, it needs to change.

Secondary

It’s hard to talk about this secondary, which is full rookies, has-beens and hopefuls, without talking about the pass rush. Jimmie Ward has been ‘exposed’, but throwing a rookie out there against some of the best in the game is rarely a great idea. We’ve seen some good things from Perrish Cox, Dontae Johnson and Antoine Bethea, but they haven’t been able to make up for the lack of pressure on the quarterback. I suppose this group has actually met our expectations, as no one was expecting much of them to open the season. I can only hope that Brock’s return solidifies things a bit.

The Other Thing

Second Half Struggles

The worst thing about the 49ers’ struggles in the second half is that we have to go through another week of idiotic theorizing about why the team seems to fall on its face in the 3rd quarter and never get up. There isn’t a reason for this. There is nothing inherent about the second half that is baffling the 49ers. This is the worst kind of aberration, the kind that fits so neatly into a talking point but that lacks any substance. A combination of factors, most of them outlined above, have contributed to the 49ers scoring almost nothing in the second half.

The 49ers and Penalties

pnicardsturningpoint0922

Rob Schumacher/AZCentral Sports

I’ve been mulling over the 49ers’ issue with penalties for the last few days. As I said in my recap, the amount of flags actually inspired me to turn off the TV on Sunday. I can’t remember the last time I did that. The 49ers have lost or given up a total of 303 yards to penalties over the last three weeks, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The flags seem to have come in clusters, or have fallen at the exact worst time, making it seem like everything is going against the 49ers.

However annoying it might be to hear, the bottom line is that the 49ers have deserved most of them. That said, I would estimate that, after controlling for blatant homerism, roughly 35% of the penalties over the last few weeks have been what some would describe as ticky-tack, or they were on things that players from both sides commit all the time that just happened to be called. This is the unfortunate truth about penalties; they are effectively random. However, this also tells us that if the 49ers tightened things up just a little bit they could wheedle the penalties down to a manageable level.

Following the game, Anquan Boldin told the press that he wanted the officials to be held accountable, and that ticky-tack penalties were costing the 49ers wins. Boldin himself committed arguably the dumbest flag of the game, a 15 yard penalty for ‘headbutting’ a Cardinal at the end of the 3rd quarter. It was something players do all the time, but which Boldin did at the worst possible moment, as it forced the 49ers’ drive to stall in the red zone. These are the sorts of mistakes the 49ers need to stop making.

The flip-side of this penalty was a much maligned pair of flags on Dan Skuta and Patrick Willis, which helped the Cardinals eventually take the lead. Both were the result of hits on Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton, and both were flagged less for their illegality and more for the apparent violence of the tackles.

Just for a second, imagine the decision-making process of Willis or Skuta, who, seconds from their intended target, are preparing to perform a legal tackle. They can either:

  1. Stop or fall over, opting to fail at their job for no reason.
  2. Legally tackle the other player to the best of their ability, knowing that the outward appearance of violence will result in a flag.
  3. Hit the player as lightly as possible, once again abdicating their role as a hard-hitting professional football player and hoping the light hit is enough to bring the player down.

Until the league allows these sorts of game-changing penalties to be reviewed, they place the players in a bind. This affects every player in the league, as they are all being put in situations where doing their job properly costs their team yards.

When I decided to turn off the TV and not watch the rest of the game, it was primarily because the game had ceased to be entertaining. I can deal with the 49ers losing. I have done so in the past, and will no doubt do so in the future. The problem with penalties is that they add another actor to an otherwise two-piece equation. When I reexamine a flag-heavy game like the one on Sunday, I struggle to put confidence in my analysis, as nothing I conclude can escape from the influence of the officiating. I cannot say with confidence that the 49ers’ defense has underperformed, as penalties, some of them undeserved, have kept them on the field. I cannot say that the 49ers are or are not struggling, because everything they have done has been affected by penalties. Nor can I conclude that the Cardinals are a better team when their go-ahead scoring drive looked like this:

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 8.56.02 PM

Pro Football Reference

This is the thing I find most annoying about heavy-handed officiating; the game becomes less about playing well and more about being lucky.

49ers vs. Cardinals: What I’ll Be Watching For

gordcardssChristian Petersen/Getty Images

The 49ers will play the Cardinals tomorrow, their first NFC West matchup of the season. Much like last week, this feels like the 49ers’ game to lose. The Cardinals’ defense lost a lot of good players in the offseason, and they will be rolling out second string signal caller Drew Stanton. However, after the absurdity last Sunday, it feels wrong to take anything for granted. Generally speaking, I want the 49ers to get back to what they do well: playing fundamentally sound football, limiting big plays and running the damn ball. Here’s what I’ll be watching for:

Run Game: The Cardinals have held teams to 2.6 yards per rush this season, which is a pretty scary stat. The catch? Say it with me: small sample size. They’ve dominated on the ground, but only against the Giants and Chargers, two teams with offenses that don’t lean on the run game all that much. I foresee the 49ers having a tough time picking up rush yards, but that shouldn’t dissuade them from giving Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde plenty of carries. They need to commit and wear down the Cardinals’ banged-up front seven.

Pass Rush: This is will be THE thing to watch tomorrow. If the 49ers can get their pass rush firing and make Stanton uncomfortable, they can give their secondary chances to make big plays. Stanton has a 5-9 touchdown-interception ratio, and is not nearly as good as he looked last week against the New York Giant Tire Fire. However, that means nothing unless players like Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch can make an impact.

Calm Colin: Colin Kaepernick had a horrible 4th quarter against the Bears last week, and his mistakes have no doubt been stewing around in his head all week. I’ll be watching to see how he handles the Cardinals blitz-happy defense, and whether he can take what they give him. He struggled in back to back games last season, but it was against better teams than the Bears and Cardinals. I’m hoping and praying that he can keep the jumpiness to a minimum, and instead show the remarkable composure he had in week one.

Penalties: The 49ers have lost 198 total yards over the last two weeks to penalties, 103 on offense and 95 on defense. They actually did the same thing last year, giving up 206 total yards to penalties in their first two games. This trend needs to stop; penalties were one of the things that kept the Bears in the game last week, and the 49ers will not be able to make these many mistakes against the Broncos or Eagles.

Bears at 49ers: The Horror

Chicago Bears v San Francisco 49ersJeff Gross

The 49ers dropped a horrible, ugly, unwatchable game on Sunday, blowing a 17-point lead against a demonstrably inferior team. As much anger and frustration has been heaped on this game, it is important to keep in mind how strange it was. The reversal of fortunes in the fourth quarter was among the most dramatic I have ever seen. It is also important to remember that this is week two, and the 49ers are missing some crucial pieces. Here is what I saw:

The Good Thing

Run Defense

The run defense was stout on Sunday, holding Matt Forte to just 21 yards on 12 attempts, a pathetic 1.75 YPC. This was heartening to see; it was, for the most part, a good day for the defense, and it was great to see Ian Williams show a little something in the trenches.

The Bad Things

Colin Kaepernick

People are calling Kaep’s performance among the worst of his career. Although I usually avoid those kinds of blanket statements, I have to agree, at least to some extent. Kaep was playing with an ugly mix of apprehension and excitement, and he looked extremely jumpy in the pocket. As things started to fall apart, he got worse, and continued to dig the 49ers into a deeper hole. The reality of playing the first regular season game in a new stadium may have gotten to him (more on that later) but we’ve seen this before, most notably against the Seahawks. The ability to calm down and overcome mistakes is something Kaep has shown in the past, but I can understand the concern that his contract and the revitalized receiving depth have put more pressure on him.

Run Game

Frank Gore has run the ball 29 times in the last two weeks, the lowest total for weeks one and two of any season since 2005, his rookie year. As I established in the offseason, the 49ers tend to perform better when they give Gore lots of chances. Greg Roman clearly wants to air things out a bit more, but he needs to use the run to open things up if he wants to put the receiving corps to use. Gore made the most of his carries on Sunday, but the 49ers never gave him the chance to really feast on a weak Bears defensive line. Of all the bad things we saw on Sunday, this is what worried me most. We saw the same thing last season, when the 49ers first three games boasted a pass-heavy attack and went 1-2. I had hoped Roman had learned his lesson, but clearly he has not.

Pass Rush

The 49ers’ pass rush is nonexistent, with only Justin Smith and rookie Aaron Lynch looking remotely productive. Touted veteran Ahmad Brooks and second year linebacker Corey Lemonier have been nonexistent thus far. Whether this is simply due to the absence of Aldon Smith isn’t clear, but what is clear is that the 49ers will need a stronger pass rush if they want to force turnovers and dominate on defense. I have faith in Vic Fangio to get things sorted out, but until then this remains a major concern.

The Other Things

Ball Distribution

For the second straight week, Kaep managed to give every receiver a chance to move the ball. He still isn’t trusting newcomer Stevie Johnson enough, but compared to the distribution last season (meaning: 90% of his throws going to Anquan Boldin) it is nice to see him spread things out. I’m a little concerned about his overreliance on Michael Crabtree. Their chemistry has brought good things in the past, but it is a tendency that can be exploited.

Random Stats

There have been a lot of random macrostats floating around since before the game started. Home teams are 20-29 in stadium openers. 49ers are 1-3 in week two of the Jim Harbaugh era. The 49ers lost stadium openers at Kezar and Candlestick. These are fairly meaningless, but they do speak to certain things. The stadium opener number does point to the gravity of the moment; it could help to explain the 49ers’ apparent nervousness on Sunday.

Penalties

There were 26 penalties thrown on Sunday, which is more than I can ever remember seeing. Some were fair, some were ticky tack and some were ridiculous. However, none of them take away from the fact that the 49ers turned the ball over 4 times. I am only mentioning it here because the volume of laundry on the field DOES have an impact on the outcome of the game. However, it does not excuse the 49ers’ utter failure to put this game away

49ers vs. Bears: What I’ll Be Watching For

yahoo_kaepernickbearssnapGetty Images

The 49ers play their first game at Levis Stadium tomorrow, looking to shut down the Chicago Bears. The Bears are… pretty similar to the Cowboys, with a potent, if inconsistent, offense, and an uncharacteristically bad defense. The 49ers will be playing a historical home opener in front of what promises to be a very loud and excited crowd; it’s their game to lose. Here is what I will be watching for:

Run Game- The Bears’ defense has been surprisingly bad over the last two seasons, struggling to keep pace with an offense that is certainly playoff-caliber. They retooled a bit in the offseason, signing Jared Allen and Lamar Houston to beef up the defensive line and drafting Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller. However, they gave up 193 yards on the ground to the Bills last week, meaning picking up rushing yards will be crucial for the 49ers. Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde and surprise running back Bruce Ellington will all be relatively fresh after last week, and the offensive line will be improved with one of its best run-blockers, Alex Boone, returning to the fold.

Run defense- On the other side of the ball, the 49ers will need to play much tougher against the run. Chicago’s Matt Forte is as talented and consistent as they come, and he showed no signs of slowing down last week, picking up 169 total yards against the Bills. I do think the 49ers’ front is capable of slowing him down, but they will need to generate much more push than they did last week. The Bears will be playing without center Roberto Garza and guard Matt Slauson, giving the 49ers something of an edge, but it will be on them to step up and control the run.

Pass rush- Bears quarterback Jay Cutler poses the same threat as Tony Romo: if you give him too many chances, he can carve your defense up. Like Romo, he is also prone to throwing picks, making the performance of the 49ers’ pass rush central to their success on Sunday. It will be on the 49ers to prove that their lack of success getting pressure last week was simply season-opening jitters, and not a deficiency of talent.

Read option- This could be a great game for Colin Kaepernick to pick up some yards with his feet. The Bears defense has struggled against the read-option before, making the threat that Kaep represents all the more valuable to the 49ers’ offensive game plan. If the 49ers are able to establish things on the ground, I could see Greg Roman throwing in some designed runs or read option to further complicate things for the Bears.

49ers at Cowboys: Opening the Season in Style

628x471Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The 49ers move to 1-0 after defeating a decidedly inferior team on Sunday afternoon. Just as I wrote in my pregame post, a hefty percentage of this game is semi-irrelevant; the 49ers we watched probably aren’t the 49ers we will be watching for the bulk of the season. We can be thankful for the macro results of the game, but there was too much downright weird stuff for us to look at this as anything but a typically aberrant season opener. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things:

Turnovers

It was great to see the 49ers out there ballhawking. Whatever glaring weaknesses the defense had, they more than made up for them by taking advantage of each and every mistake the Cowboys’ offense made. Tony Romo threw three picks, but it was nearly five, and the 49ers started the game on the highest possible note with Chris Culliver recovering a fumble for a touchdown on the second play of the game. As I’ve written before, turnovers are erratic and cannot be counted on, but the sheer volume of turnovers is at least partially the result of a sound defensive scheme and the 49ers’ talent.

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep was more crisp and composed than I ever remember him looking. He was facing down one of the league’s worst defenses, but was impressive nonetheless, posting a career-best 125.5 QBR and throwing some incredible passes. It was a small sample size, as the game was basically over at the half, but I saw a lot of good and very little bad from Kaep. My favorite thing was the ball distribution: Anquan Boldin was Kaep’s favorite target, but he managed to give everyone some touches, including newcomer Stevie Johnson. This game was not enough to dispel the lingering doubts about Kaep’s ability to go through progressions, but it was a big step forward.

Run Game

Amazingly, the 49ers did not run the ball once until the 2nd quarter . Again, this was more due to the turnovers than anything, but even without actually looking it up I feel confident saying that this was the first time Frank Gore did not get a touch in the first quarter in the Jim Harbaugh era. That weirdness aside, the run game looked great, with Gore showcasing his prodigious vision (and surpassing the 10,000 yard mark) and Carlos Hyde showing some incredible burst off the line. What was particularly striking was how well balanced they were; Greg Roman struggled to fully incorporate LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter in recent years, but I love that he was willing to give Hyde plenty of chances.

The Bad Things

Defensive Line

The d-line was inconsistent on Sunday, never really pressuring Tony Romo and struggling to stop the run through the first half. It seemed like the 49ers were more committed to preventing big plays through the air than short yards on the ground, but Navorro Bowman and Aldon Smith’s absences loomed large. As I have said repeatedly before, this was the season opener, and I know that Jim Tomsula and Vic Fangio are going to be working overtime to get the d-line back in working order this week. The 49ers are facing one of the league’s most prolific rushers next week in Matt Forte, and they will need to generate more pressure if they want to beat the Bears.

Penalties

Stupid officiating aside, the 49ers looked out of synch, giving up 80 total yards on 11 penalties. We saw the same thing week one last year with the 49ers losing 85 yards on 11 penalties, and generally lacking discipline. Hopefully this goes away quickly like it did in 2013.

The Other Things

Offensive Line

The O-line was less than impressive on Sunday, a fact that is easily ignored given how well Kaep performed under pressure. They are missing two starters in Alex Boone and Anthony Davis, so some struggles can be expected. Jonathan Martin and Joe Looney actually did quite well; it was veteran Mike Iuapati that failed to impress. Boone and Davis should be back soon, which, apart from newbie Daniel Kilgore at center, would round out the same group the 49ers had in 2012 and 2013.

Secondary

The secondary was a bit of everything, providing tight coverage but also showing some of rawness. Rookies Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson had great starts, while Tramaine Brock and Culliver were solid, if not impressive. Brock, Culliver and Ward were all injured, but none of the injuries proved serious other than Culliver’s concussion. The secondary was also not thoroughly tested, but they will be tried a bit more thoroughly next week by Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.

2014 Expectations and Ray McDonald

Aaron Lynch, Cornellius CarradineAP/Patrick Semansky

The 49ers begin another long road tomorrow, taking on the Dallas Cowboys with a battered defense and a potentially resurgent offense. The timeline of this season is fascinating; we will know exactly how this year will go within the first eight games. The defense is missing two of its most talented players in Aldon Smith and Navorro Bowman, who will be back mid-late season. It will be on the offense to keep the 49ers above .500 for the first leg of the season.

Every season is ‘major’, in some way, but 2014 feels a bit more so. Colin Kaepernick signed a massive contract in the offseason, and it will be on him to prove that he was worth the money. The offense looks a lot better than it did in the 49ers’ first game last year, when the wide receiver depth chart consisted of Anquan Boldin and almost nothing else. Kaepernick has weapons; he has a reliable run game and a good offensive line. The only thing left is for him to produce.

If the offseason wasn’t such a mess for the 49ers, I would look at this year more hopefully. As it stands, I’m looking at this as a pseudo-rebuilding year. The 49ers should make the playoffs, and should give us plenty to cheer for, but I don’t think the defense is going to be up to the standards of the last three seasons, at least for a little while. That’s okay, though. The 49ers have drafted really heavily in the last few years, and this year we’ll see the fruits of Baalke’s labor. Redshirt players like Tank Carradine are going to get their first chance to play in a while, and rookies like Aaron Lynch and Bruce Ellington are going to fight for a role.

It is worth noting that my expectations were low last year too. Michael Crabtree’s injury was huge, and the 49ers still managed to weather it. We’ll see.

I also wanted to address what is the biggest storyline going into this game: Ray McDonald. The response to McDonald’s arrest and the 49ers’ stance has been simultaneously intriguing and nauseating. Tim Kawakami and Ann Killion both weighed in on the issue of McDonald playing while the police decide whether or not to take legal action. They did not like that the 49ers are going to wait and see what the police want to do, as that approach essentially shelters a man who in all likelihood abused a pregnant woman.

Many fans have fallen in lock step with Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers, saying waiting it out is the right thing to do, as it shows that the organization has some measure of faith in McDonald’s character (McDonald maintains that he did nothing wrong). I don’t feel pulled one way or the other. I would prefer that McDonald sit, but I can also understand the 49ers’ thinking. Nobody disagrees on the point that McDonald should be cut if he is found guilty; it’s just a matter of how they treat him until then.

Even though I think Kawakami and Killion have the right to believe what they believe, that does not hide the fact that both of them, for a long time, have gone out of their way to attack the 49ers and Harbaugh. Kawakami has done little to hide his dislike of Harbaugh since he arrived, and has been making his bones alternating between speculation about Harbaugh’s future and towering moral screeds against the organization it is his job to cover.

The fact that I understand and respect their viewpoints in this instance does not take away from the opinion I and many others hold about them and some other Bay Area sports writers. This is a complex problem, but writers like Kawakami and Killion consistently fail to write informative stories about the 49ers. What makes them truly deplorable is that they continue to hide behind a veneer of journalistic integrity. Were they to admit that the combination of some personal animus and the pervasive reality that sensationalism gets clicks is what drives them, I would look at them more favorably.