The Second Annual ‘We Don’t Deserve You’ Awards

gore-sfBrant Ward/San Francisco Chronicle

It’s that time of the year again! The 49ers are missing the playoffs for the first time in three years, making this a somewhat sombre edition of the WDDYAs. Thinking back over the season, it’s hard not to let the dark cloud of Jim Harbaugh’s departure distort my view. However, there were plenty of bright spots in 2014, even if you have to squint to see them. Here are the brightest:

Offensive WDDYA:

Frank Gore

2014 Stats: 255 Att.*, 1106 Yds.*, 4.3 Y/A, 4 TD, 11 Rec on 19 Tgt., 111 Yds., 1 TD

(*=Leads Team)

I remember when they announced that Gore had finally broken 10,000 rushing yards. I couldn’t believe it. Behind this offensive line? In this offensive scheme? There was no way. Gore was the greatest tragedy of the 2014 season. Rather than leading the offense to another playoff run, he became a misused instrument, repeatedly battered behind the line of scrimmage and held back from his role as the 49ers’ tone-setter. In a year when all of the team’s greatest assets vaporized, Gore faced the reality of the 2012 run being the closest he would ever get to a title, and the possibility of leaving the team he had given everything to. His response was one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen. Despite being eliminated from the playoffs, he delivered two of the most electrifying performances of his career: a 158 yard game against the San Diego Chargers, followed by an incredible 144 yard performance against the playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals. It was Frank as he had always been, patient, relentless and incredibly productive. We don’t deserve you, Frank.

Honorable Mentions:

Carlos Hyde

Very few backs could split duties with a player as talented as Gore and still stand out. The most remarkable thing about Hyde was how well he seemed to fit into the 49ers’ identity. He wasn’t perfect, but he responded to the rigors of NFL football with scads of physicality and some beautiful downhill running. I will be very excited to watch his career unfold.

Anquan Boldin

Even in an offense as dysfunctional as the 49ers’, Boldin got the job done. He put together his second consecutive 1000+ yard season, and the seventh of his career, bullying defensive backs several years his junior.

Defensive WDDYA:

Philadelphia Eagles v San Francisco 49ersEzra Shaw/Getty Images

Antoine Bethea

2014 Stats: 71 Tckls., 14 Asst., 4 Int., 1 Sk., 10 Pass D., 1 FF

Donte Whitner’s replacement was everything Whitner promised, with plenty more. His ability to hit as hard as Whitner was not in question after week one, and he was a huge part of one of the NFL’s best pass defenses. There were defensive players with gaudier numbers, or who had a more tangible presence, but nobody was as much of a surprise as Bethea. He seemed to come into his own in Vic Fangio’s system, making highlight reel plays despite being a typically low-key player. His history with the Colts was successful, if unremarkable (Super Bowl win aside), and many were concerned he would struggle to produce in San Francisco. His consistency was something the 49ers relied upon, particularly against high-flying offenses like the Eagles and Saints. I am looking forward to another year of Bethea leading the secondary. Congratulations, Antoine, we don’t deserve you.

Honorable Mentions:

Chris Borland

Had he played for a full season, Borland would be taking home the WDDYA trophy, as well as defensive rookie of the year. Borland’s brief stint as a human cyclone was something to behold. To think that a rookie could so ably step into the massive hole left by Patrick Willis was absurd to begin with. The fact that it was an undersized 3rd round draft pick with ‘t-rex arms’ only added to Borland’s epic story.

Aaron Lynch

Another rookie who nimbly stepped in to fill a major hole, Lynch had an incredible year. He didn’t put up incredible numbers, but has been recognized as one of the best rookie linebackers to play in 2014. He was asked to replace the skills of Ahmad Brooks, who spent much of 2014 having hissy fits on the sideline, and took full advantage of the opportunity. Lynch is one of many reasons to be very excited about the future of the 49ers’ defense.

Grading the 49ers’ 2014 Draft Class

hi-res-77284dc72587ecc87074d786e0232486_crop_northThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

About eight months ago, before the 49ers were a red and gold travesty, before Greg Roman became the leading cause of global warming, before Jim Harbaugh and Jed York began their six-month winner-take-all cage match, before Aldon Smith was exiled to Elba for committing crimes around the same time as Ray Rice, the 49ers were sitting on 11 draft picks. They had plenty of needs, to be sure, but Trent Baalke saw to basically all of them in just three days.

Baalke has played an interesting role amidst the recent turmoil in the 49ers organization. If recent reports are to be believed, the front office sees Harbaugh as eminently expendable, which essentially coronates Baalke as the future architect of the 49ers. Baalke is tremendously valuable; his draft strategy has not only brought a wealth of talented athletes, it has kept the team flush with future picks. I personally don’t think having a great General Manager is in and of itself enough to keep the 49ers relevant, but it’s better than nothing.

All that said, the 2014 draft will probably go down as the best in Baalke’s career. Despite the deluge of injuries, the 49ers were able to stay above .500 for most of the season, thanks largely due to the depth Baalke shoveled onto the roster over the last few seasons. The failure of the 2012 draft notwithstanding, Baalke has proven himself adept at finding bargain talent, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

Of the 12 players picked up in the draft, seven saw playing time, while five were shunted into starting roles. Here is how they performed:

Round 1:

Jimmie Ward- Defensive Back, Northern Illinois, 8 games started, 19 tackles, 1 assist, 2 passes defended

Ward was something of an unknown when the 49ers drafted him, and he remains one going into next season. His most notable games were the low points, when some rookie mistakes and blown coverages saw him give up multiple touchdowns to Brandon Marshall and John Brown. Ward is an unusual case, as he was drafted to play the safety position once Antoine Bethea’s contract expires, but he was also a first round pick, and thus had to contend with a galaxy of high expectations. I’m not comfortable calling him a bust, but I didn’t see anything incredible from Ward. Given that he’s an undersized rookie playing out of position, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’m still not sure he was worth a first round pick.

Grade: 60/100 (I am grading these because this is a list on the Internet.)

Round 2:

Carlos Hyde- Running Back, Ohio State, 14 games started, 4 touchdowns, 333 yards on 83 attempts (4.0 Y/A), 68 yards receiving on 16 targets

My second favorite pick of the 2014 haul, Hyde showed lots and lots of good things, while his shortcomings seemed more due to inexperience than a lack of talent. He has power and a little burst, and has been really, really fun to watch. Considering how inconsistent the run blocking was this season, Hyde’s solid Y/A and willingness to lower his shoulder and level defensive backs is encouraging. Oh, and he can cut a little bit.

Grade: B+ (You’re only here to see the grades, right? Are you even reading my blurbs?)

Round 3:

Marcus Martin- Interior Offensive Lineman, USC

Thanks to his injury during the preseason, Martin was able to bide his time behind Daniel Kilgore before being forced in as the starting center. It’s hard to honestly identify exactly how well he has done. He hasn’t really done anything of note, which may be a good thing. It’s also difficult to discern just how well any individual lineman performed given the constant o-line shuffling.

Grade: 4/7 (Grades are no less subjective than the stuff I’m writing… I guess you’re saving time if you aren’t reading, though. Good for you, I guess!)

Chris Borland- Linebacker, Wisconsin, 11 games started, 84 tackles, 23 assist, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery, 5 passes defended, 2 interceptions

Borland is easily the most interesting rookie of the class. I was skeptical of his ability to play in the NFL when he was drafted. He was one of those players that analysts felt did not deserve any kind of deep or descriptive analysis: they would say things like “He’s just a FOOT. BALL. PLAYER.”, “He has a nose for the ball”, “He plays with tremendous instinct” and so on.

I have never been happier about being wrong. Borland has been a revelation; he leads the teams in tackles and assists, and played his heart out in every single game. He does not have the sideline-to-sideline speed of Navorro Bowman or Patrick Willis, but his skill at run stopping and diagnosing plays will only get better with more experience. The future is bright!

Grade: +33.3 (Are you even paying attention to the grades? Write them on your hand so you can yell them at your family over Christmas dinner)

Also drafted: Clemson Offensive lineman Brandon Thomas (did not play)

Round 4:

Bruce Ellington- Wide Receiver/Running Back, University of South Carolina, 12 games started, 62 yards receiving on 12 targets, two touchdowns, 28 yards rushing on six attempts, 4.7 yards per attempt, one touchdown

188 yards on 23 punt returns, 8.2 yards per return, 614 yards on 24 kickoff returns, 25.6 yards per return

Say it with me: SMALL SAMPLE SIZE. I’m a Bruce Ellington fan, but he hasn’t really been tested yet. All that said, his athleticism and versatility were a huge part of the offense at South Carolina, and he has experience working with a mobile quarterback. His ability to return the ball for more than -10 yards is also amazing, but that’s more because I’m willing to take any kind of gain after years of Kyle Williams and LaMichael James. I don’t think Greg Roman has the aptitude to fully utilize a player like Ellington—here’s hoping the next offensive coordinator does.

Grade: Pretty Good (I had some friends in high school who didn’t get grades. They just got lyrical poems written on papyrus about their performance. It was very San Francisco).

Dontae Johnson- Defensive Back, North Carolina State, 2 games started, 21 tackles, 7 assists, 5 passes defended, 1 interception (pick-six)

Of all the rookies, Johnson got the rawest deal. He had the length, measureables and skill to be a great cornerback, but he needed time to bulk up and adjust to the demands of the NFL. However, losing Chris Cook, Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver and other corners for extended periods accelerated his professional debut. He played reasonably well, but still looks like a developmental prospect. He was easily manipulated by veteran quarterbacks, and even struggled against fellow rookie Derek Carr. He should improve going forward, but there isn’t much worth mentioning, other than his garbage time pick-six, of course.

Grade: 3/5 Faux hawksScreen Shot 2014-12-24 at 12.55.37 PM

 

Round 5:

Aaron Lynch: Linebacker, University of South Florida, 3 games started, 15 tackles, 6 assists, 5 sacks, 4 passes defended

My favorite pick of the 2014 draft, Lynch stepped in to help out the 49ers’ reeling pass-rush unit and never looked back. He might not have the run-stopping skills to be an all-around great linebacker, but his size, speed and ferocity were a factor in every single game. His college tape, particularly from his freshman year, showcases just how talented he could be. With both Ahmad Brooks and Corey Lemonier having down seasons, Lynch made his case for a starting position. He is only a strong training camp away from getting it.

Grade: 100% (Hope you memorized these grades. They will be incredibly important next season).

Also drafted: Florida Atlantic University Defensive Back Keith Reaser (did not play)

49ers at Rams: Kaepernick Steps Up

boldinnnAP Photo/Scott Kane

The 49ers won a wild game against the St. Louis Rams on Monday Night Football, moving to 4-2 and 1-1 against NFC West opponents. There was a lot to take away from this game; the 49ers looked totally helpless for most of the first quarter, but pulled things together in a hurry. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Colin Kaepernick

This was Kaep’s best game of the season, hands down. Until Monday, it was hard to tell whether or not Kaep was ever going to take control of the offense. We had seen him make some incredible throws, but he hadn’t looked dominant in a game like he did against the Rams. His stat line (22-36, 3 TD 0 INT, good for a 120.5 rating) doesn’t tell the full story, as Vernon Davis had numerous drops and broke up an easy touchdown pass to Vance McDonald in the 4th quarter. Kaepernick was a delight to watch, showing poise in the pocket and looking like a player wholly deserving of a long-term contract. Also worth noting: Kaep spread the ball around really well, involving everyone from Bruce Miller to Anquan Boldin. The 49ers’ receiving corp as a whole had 16 receptions for 270 yards and 3 touchdowns, good for a yds/rec. of 16.875.

Pass Rush

So, so glad to finally put this one in the good column. The 49ers were all over Austin Davis, picking up 5 sacks and getting all kinds of pressure. Ahmad Brooks had a huge game, redeeming himself after a stupid hands-to-the-face penalty that extended the Ram’s opening drive (his 3rd of the season by my count). Dan Skuta and Aaron Lynch were also consistently in the Rams’ backfield, and even Antoine Bethea picked up a sack on a safety blitz in the 4th quarter. The Rams’ offensive line isn’t great, but any production from this unit is a good sign.

This Pass

Whatta pass

The Bad Things

Run Game

The Rams committed to stopping the run from the outset, a strategy that has burned the 49ers’ opponents in the past. The 49ers were only able to gain 89 yards on the ground, averaging 3 yards per carry, by far their lowest Y/C this season. Although they have struggled to rush the passer, the Rams defensive front has been strong against the run, and it isn’t surprising they opted to take away the 49ers’ ground game.

Injuries

The 49ers lost a lot of talent on Monday, including Patrick Willis, Jimmie Ward, Stevie Johnson and Mike Iupati. This team has found ways to win without some of its key players, but they can’t really afford to lose anyone else at this point. There isn’t a ton of info on the other injuries, but Willis is expected to be out until after the 49ers’ bye. His replacement, rookie Chris Borland, filled in well, but will be hard pressed to replace the 49ers’ leading tackler.

The Other Things

Coaching

The 49ers’ coaches had a good day overall, out-scheming the Rams after a slow start and making some astoundingly effective adjustments at halftime. However, the decision to go for it not once, but twice on 4th down late in the came nearly burned the 49ers. Given how well they shut the Rams down in the second half, I can understand Jim Harbaugh’s willingness to go for it on 4th and goal, but the second attempt baffled me. All that said, none of this would matter if Vernon Davis hadn’t prevented Vance McDonald from scoring a touchdown.

Offensive Line

The o-line had a great day in pass protection, giving Kaep time to do what he does best and keeping the Rams sackless. However, the lack of push in the run game was frustrating, particularly on the two 4th down runs. It’s hard to get too upset given the quality of the defensive line they were facing, but it was uncharacteristic for a unit that so often overpowers opponents on the ground.

Chiefs at 49ers: Homecoming

alexcolinScott Strazzante/SF Chronicle

The 49ers moved above .500 on Sunday with a narrow win over the Kansas City Chiefs. The big story was the return of Alex Smith, who looked sharp after leading the Chiefs in a 41-14 thumping of New England on Monday Night Football. The 49ers looked solid, if not great, and were the happy beneficiaries of some critical errors by Kansas City. It was a welcome win, and one that will hopefully quiet the pervasive Jim Harbaugh-locker-room-team-discord-sky-is-falling rumors. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Run Game

The 49ers obliterated Kansas City’s defensive front, running for 171 yards on 40 attempts for 4.3 YPC. Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde both looked good, but it was the offensive line’s run blocking that really amazed me. Even without Anthony Davis, the 49ers’ o-line was able to open up huge holes and dominate for most of the game. There isn’t much else to say; this is how the 49ers are built, and how they need to play if they want to win games.

Penalties

The 49ers averaged 11.5 penalties per game going into this contest, but were only flagged twice for a net loss of ten yards. The deluge of penalties that was drowning the 49ers at the beginning of the season was probably aberrant, but it was worsened by a series of stupid mistakes on both sides of the ball. Hopefully the lack of flags on Sunday is a sign that the team is getting it together.

The Bad Things

Red Zone Offense

The 49ers reached Kansas City’s red zone four times, but only scored one touchdown. This has been a problem in San Francisco since 2011, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. It would be easy to blame Greg Roman and the play calling, but there was bad execution from the whole offense inside the 20 yard line. On the 49ers’ 5th drive, for instance, 2 of Kansas City’s three sacks came in the red zone, both following a 1st down false start on Mike Iupati. This implosion caused the drive to stall and robbed the 49ers of a chance at scoring the go-ahead touchdown.

Pass Blocking

The pass blocking was horrible on Sunday, and has been for the last few weeks. This weakness has been glossed over somewhat because of the o-line’s success on the ground, but it is starting to become a huge problem. The Harbaugh-era 49ers have never boasted an good pass-blocking line, but it has always functioned well enough. Football Outsiders has them ranked 28th in pass protection this year, down from 22 in 2013. Part of the blame rests on injuries, and the still-absent Davis, but even veterans Alex Boone and Mike Iupati have been struggling. As long as the team is winning, this is easy to ignore, but not giving Colin Kaepernick the chance to throw from the pocket will hurt the 49ers in the end.

The Other Thing

Defense

The defense was solid, surrendering just 265 total yards to the Chiefs and generally holding their own in the trenches. They limited Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis, who had days before gashed New England for 207 rushing yards, to just 90 yards on the ground. There were some major miscues, the most memorable of which was Antoine Bethea’s whiffed tackle on DeAnthony Thomas which resulted in a touchdown, but overall it was a decent, if not memorable effort.

Colin Kaepernick

I’m still not sure what to make of Kaep. He has shown incredible flashes, most notably in Dallas, but has also looked fairly pedestrian. He wasn’t impressive against Kansas City, but managed to control the ball and make a couple of incredible throws. I am curious to what extent his inconsistency is the result of the offensive line, which has already surrendered 13 sacks (tied with the Chiefs for 4th most in the NFL). Kaep has made a lot of his best plays while evading pass rushers, which is what leads to pundits dubbing him a ‘mobile quarterback’, but he hasn’t had great protection for most of the season, or indeed his career. This is somewhat alarming, as it limits what the 49ers can do offensively. I know Kaep can make reads and pick apart defenses, but it’s clear that the way the offensive line is playing, he won’t get many opportunities to do so.

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 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.

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

Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ersJed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

As with any season opener, there are far, far too many storylines to account for. The general consensus is that this game will be a shootout, but season openers are weird. Look no further than the 49ers’ season opener last year, when Colin Kaepernick threw for 412 yards and 3 touchdowns. He would not break 400 yards passing for the rest of the season, and only broke 200 yards 5 times. I’m not saying we won’t see a shootout, simply that games like this are can be really different from what we expect. The 49ers we see tomorrow are most likely not the 49ers we will be watching midseason. Here is what I will be watching for:

Run Game: If the 49ers want to win this, they will need to control time of possession and run the ball with authority. As bad as Dallas’ defense is, their offense is potent, and the 49ers will be starting a mishmash of rookies, projects and question marks on defense. Keeping the ball out of Tony Romo’s hands will mean running early and often. Hopefully rookie back Carlos Hyde gets some touches and spells Frank Gore.

Secondary: There are so many things to watch in the 49ers’ secondary. They will be starting Chris Culliver, who hasn’t played in a game of football since the 2012 Super Bowl and Tramaine Brock, who had a breakout 2013 season but still feels like an unknown. They will also be using rookie Jimmie Ward in the nickel, and could use has-been Chris Cook as well. This is a patchwork unit that probably won’t look very good initially. I’ll be looking for the two most trusted hands, safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea, to step up and lead.

Run defense: The 49ers lost Glenn Dorsey to injury and will be out one of their most prolific tacklers in Navorro Bowman. Dallas is not a running team by any means, but the 49ers have made stopping the run a cornerstone of their defensive style. All eyes will be on Ian Williams, the starting nose tackle who was injured in week 2 last season, and Michael Wilhoite, who was recently tapped as Bowman’s replacement.

Ball distribution: Colin Kaepernick will be playing with a loaded offense, and I’m excited to see what he’s able to do with it. Will he rely on Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, or will he show some trust in newcomer Stevie Johnson? Will he have the same willingness he had in the preseason to use checkdowns? Obviously, this all comes with the caveat I mentioned above, but this offense, unlike the defense, is pretty much in the shape it will be hopefully in at the end of the year, give or take a lineman.

The 49ers Draft Jimmie Ward

Jimmie-Ward-448x328

Andrew Weber/US PressWire

With a resounding ‘huh?’, 49ers fans welcomed the newest addition to the team, Northern Illinois strong safety Jimmie Ward. After 29 rounds of grindingly slow draft coverage, injected with noxious speculation about Johnny Manziel’s destination, the 49ers made a classic Harbaalke pick. At that point in the first round, much of the talent most associated with the 49ers was gone, with Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Justin Gilbert and Odell Beckham Jr. all drafted within the first 15 rounds.

Many expected the 49ers to be more aggressive, but they forestalled any trades up in favor of what I can only call a cautious pick. Although I hadn’t expected them to trade up near the first 10 rounds, I was surprised they did not try to move into the 16-20 range. Jason Verrett, Darqueze Dennard, Dee Ford and Kelvin Benjamin were all available in the middle of the round. I will defer to Harbaalke’s methods, but I can’t help but feel that they missed out on some great players.

Ward is not a high profile pick, but many have praised the 49ers’ choice. Ward has a unique set of skills, with the speed and hitting ability to play multiple positions in the secondary. Jim Harbaugh spoke to this after the draft, saying that Ward will compete to replace Carlos Rogers as a nickel corner, and could eventually replace Antoine Bethea at strong safety. I must admit, Ward wasn’t on my radar, but after watching some film I can see what the 49ers liked. Harbaalke tends to favor athleticism and versatility, both of which Ward possesses, and they are not afraid to go after small school players.

All in all, I am content with the pick. Admittedly, I would be happier if they had picked up Dennard, Evans or Benjamin, but I can’t complain about Ward or the message it sends. It is clear that Harbaalke is happy with the shape of the team, and will draft accordingly. Ward may not be a major pick now, but he possesses the skills to be an excellent piece of the secondary in the future.

 

49ers Free Agency So Far

Earl Thomas, Anquan BoldinTed S. Warren/AP

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.