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.

49ers at Cardinals: What Did You Expect?

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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. 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.

2014 NFL Season Predictions

In typical West Bay Sports fashion, my predictions come in just a bit late. It feels like every year that goes by we get closer to some kind of massive tectonic shift in the NFL, where the typically dominant become horrible, and the horrible finally crawl their way out of whatever front office, coaching or quarterback oblivion they once lived in. Yet, every year it doesn’t happen. The Patriots stay good, the Bills stay terrible and the Chargers stay mediocre.

Unfortunately this year will probably be quite a bit more of the same. Here are my predictions:

AFC West:0127_Moreno_insideUSATSI

Broncos- There isn’t anyone in this division strong enough to step to the Broncos. I don’t think their free agency additions are going to push them past where they were last year, but that still leaves them in a really good spot.

Chargers- I see San Diego’s defense sliding this year. Brandon Flowers was a nice addition, but the core of this defense overachieved last year. The offense should be able to make up for it enough to give the Broncos some problems, but I’m not sold on them making the playoffs again.

Chiefs- I’m on board with the idea that this team is going to take a step back, but I don’t think they’re going to be bad for long. Re-signing Alex Smith was big, and they’ve been drafting really well; they should be back next year.

Raiders- Amazingly, the Raiders have shown they at least have some desire to one day not be among the worst teams in the NFL. I thought they made some smart moves picking up some veterans like Tarrell Brown and Maurice Jones-Drew, but they still aren’t talented enough to get anything of significance done this season.

AFC South:Mark-J.-Rebilas-Indianapolis-Colts-Trent-Richardson-Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Indianapolis Colts- I don’t dislike Andrew Luck. I don’t. But I’m already sick of the way he’s talked about. He hasn’t shown enough to merit half of the praise he gets from pundits. That said, this team should be a little healthier this year, and thus a little more dangerous, if only just.

Jacksonville Jaguars- Blake Bortles has the most Jacksonville name ever. I don’t have confidence in Marquise Lee to stay healthy, but I do think that Gus Bradley will end up being a pretty damn good coach.

Houston Texans- Ryan Fitzpatrick is probably going to be unbad enough to keep the Texan’s offense semi-watchable, but not relevant. All the fun stuff will be happening on the other side of the ball.

Tennessee Titans- Man, is this division bad. What am I even supposed to say about this team? I guess if Jake Locker can stay healthy they can go, what, 6-10? Maybe Bishop Sankey can show a little something… Nah.

AFC North:007Getty Images

Baltimore Ravens- It always makes me sad to predict success for Joe Flacco, who remains one of my least favorite players in the league, but the defense is still great and they will have a marginally more consistent offense. Also, Harbaugh.

Cincinatti Bengals- I gotta love the commitment to mediocrity here. Andy Dalton’s contract will keep this team floating around the top of the middling NFL teams, sometimes squeaking into the playoffs, but more often not.

Pittsburgh Steelers- I really liked the first two picks in Pittsburgh’s draft—the defense picked up two studs in Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt. However, that doesn’t make the offensive line any less sieve-like.

Cleveland Browns- I can’t wait to see Johnny Football get destroyed by Terrell Suggs.

AFC East:hi-res-7996946_crop_northRobert Mayer/USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots- This team is still good and well rounded and well coached and good. Next.

Miami Dolphins- I have a nasty feeling that Ryan Tannehill could have a breakout season in 2014. However, even if he plays lights out and Knowshon Moreno gets the run game going, the defense is way too iffy for Miami to compete.

New York Jets- I don’t hate what the Jets have done. This defense is good, possibly great, and Geno Smith could end up benefitting from Michael Vick’s guidance. But it all go belly up really quick, like it always does for the Jets.

Buffalo Bills- Too much is riding on E.J. Manuel’s play and on Sammy Watkins being the second coming of Jerry Rice for me to have confidence in Buffalo.

NFC West:

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Seattle Seahawks- Was it not for the recent string of losses along the 49ers’ defensive front, the Seahawks would be second. This team is deep, and has a winning formula of tough defense and power running. I don’t think that nearly as many balls will bounce their way this season, but that won’t keep them from eking out a division crown.

San Francisco 49ers- This division looked a lot tougher at the end of last season. The 49ers have a lot of unknowns, but they have great coaches and a core of talented players that will keep them alive until Navorro Bowman and Aldon Smith get back.

Arizona Cardinals- This team is going to fight tooth and nail for third place. They were good enough to merit a playoff berth last year, but their defense had to work overtime to make up for Carson Palmer’s inconsistency. Without crucial defensive players like Darnell Dockett they won’t be able to keep up.

St. Louis Rams- I actually had the Rams making a push for second place in the NFC West until Sam Bradford’s injury. Their defense will be something to watch, but a mystery running game and an ancient and ineffective quarterback isn’t a winning ticket.

NFC South:Cincinnati Bengals v Atlanta FalconsKevin C. Cox

Atlanta Falcons- Dumb, I know. This is more an indictment of the Saints’ overpreforming 2013 defense than of anything the Falcons can do. However, this offense is going to make a big comeback and dominate one of the NFL’s tougher divisions.

New Orleans Saints- Yeah, I’m bitter about this team. I also don’t think Rob Ryan is the defensive mastermind he’s made out to be. Drew Brees is going to Drew Brees, but this defense is going to underwhelm.

Carolina Panthers- Much like the Chiefs, this team had some outsized parts that covered up a pretty mediocre offense. The defensive line is beastly, and Kelvin Benjamin will be good, but that isn’t nearly enough to help a team that lost so many offensive role players.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers- This franchise is taking some steps in the right direction, but the overhyped arrival of Lovie Smith isn’t going to pull them out of the cellar in one season. Josh McCown isn’t going to outplay anyone in this division.

NFC North:234591-packers-ota-may-29-f3d3eWLUK/Mary Weider

Green Bay Packers- I’m so glad the 49ers won’t be seeing the Packers this season. This pick feels weird, as I just watched Green Bay look totally outmatched in Seattle. Their defense is overrated, as always, with coaching being the main concern. Aaron Rodgers is going to keep them in the hunt, but they won’t go far in the playoffs.

Minnesota Vikings- The Vikings got a steal in Teddy Bridgewater, who will take over starting duties by week six. They’ve been racking up interesting pieces in the draft, and are due to break out. They are still in transition, but we’ll see flashes this year.

Chicago Bears- I seriously don’t know what this team is trying to do. I can understand looking at Jay Cutler as a possible stop-gap to help them transition, but he isn’t the man to get this team to a Super Bowl. It’s sad to see Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery go to waste.

Detroit Lions- Signing Golden Tate is unforgivable. The football gods will be merciless.

NFC East:4296eagles-v-new-england-patriots-9b5453b2fee23a28Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Philadelphia Eagles- Is it a ‘revolutionary offense’ if it only feasts horrible teams? There is no way that Nick Foles is going to play at the level he did last year, and we’ll see just how well the Eagles can make up for his diminished performance.

Washington – If their offensive line can keep it together, I could see RGIII bringing back some of that 2012 magic. The real question is the defense—can they get enough done to keep Washington in the playoff hunt? I say no.

Dallas Cowboys- Old school rivals or no, it’s hard to be too gleeful about Dallas’ fortunes. Losing basically every relevant defensive player to free agency or injury is more sad than funny. The offense will be just good enough to keep them in the wild card conversation by midseason.

New York Giants- Eli Manning is not going to be as bad as he was last year, but it would be really awesome if he was.

Sizing Up the NFC West Part 1: Arizona Cardinals

Carson+Palmer+Arizona+Cardinals+v+San+Francisco+AbUKUcEtEXelEzra Shaw/Getty Images

The 49ers’ division has become something of a meat grinder, boasting four truly impressive defenses and two of the most talked-about quarterbacks in the game. The 49ers- Seahawks rivalry is well known, and many look at Seattle as the number one obstacle to the 49ers’ success, but the Arizona Cardinals have crept into the picture as well. Their defense was nothing short of incredible last year, making up for some of their big weaknesses on offense. Although it would shock me, I have a nasty feeling that Arizona could supplant Seattle or San Francisco as an NFC powerhouse.

All that said, the Cardinals have some glaring issues. The biggest knock against the team was the offensive line, which struggled to keep up with the NFC West’s elite pass rushers in the first half of 2013. Their line improved as the season wore on, but it remains to be seen whether youngsters Paul Fanaika and Lyle Sendlein can produce in 2014. The front office added some depth in Jared Veldheer and Ted Larsen, but did not address the offensive line in the draft.

It should be noted however, that the offensive line isn’t their only weakness. The Cardinals signed veteran quarterback Carson Palmer in 2013, hoping to use his arm to open up their aggressive aerial offense. He performed reasonably well, and showed some great chemistry with Arizona’s potent receiver group. He also threw 22 interceptions, putting Arizona’s defense in plenty of tough spots. Some blame this on the offensive line, but the numbers show otherwise. Football Outsiders ranks the Cardinals’ line 13th in pass protection, the highest in the NFC West, hardly an alarming weakness.

I wanted to take a look at Palmer’s career and see whether his interceptions had anything to do with his offensive line. Palmer has actually enjoyed decent pass protection for most of his career. His only offensive line ranked above 20 in pass protection was with the 2008 Bengals. However, he only started 4 games of the 2008 season thanks to an elbow injury.

Palmer boasts a lousy 3.2 interception percentage in his career, meaning he throws a pick in 3.2% of his passes. Of the 29 qualifying active quarterbacks on Pro Football Reference, he ranks 21st in interception percentage. His peers include some notable quarterbacks like Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford, Matt Hasselbeck and Jay Cutler, all quarterbacks fitting the ‘gunslinger’ mold.

I charted the ranks of all of Palmer’s pass protectors since he started, hoping to find some correlation between his interceptions and the quality of the offensive line.

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As it turns out, there isn’t much of a correlation. In terms of interceptions, Palmer had his best year in 2005, when he threw a reasonable 12 interceptions behind the 3rd ranked offensive line in the NFL. Two years later, he would once again play behind the 3rd ranked line, only to throw 20 interceptions and boost his interception percentage to 3.5%.

Although that percentage seems small, the numbers make a huge difference. Of all the quarterbacks in the 2013 playoffs, only one (Andy Dalton) had an interception percentage higher than 3 during the regular season.

Palmer has started 137 games in his career, and is far removed from the developmental stage of quarterbacking. It is clear that the Cardinals, and whoever he plays for next, will have to account for an inordinate amount of interceptions being thrown. The Cardinals defense was actually able to weather them rather well, most notably beating Seattle on the road despite three Palmer interceptions. It is possible to construct a defense good enough to carry the team to the postseason despite a pick-happy quarterback (the 2007 Giants and the 2012 Ravens come to mind) but succeeding in the postseason is predicated on a lack of turnovers. Some quarterbacks, like Manning and Joe Flacco, can go on streaks of interception-free football, but this is a rare and volatile trait. Only twice in his career has Palmer gone more than three games without throwing an interception: 2 four-week streaks in 2005 and 2006.

No matter how good the offensive line gets, the Cardinals are going to be hard pressed to succeed if they have to constantly make up for Palmer’s poor decision-making.

The 49ers will play the Cardinals in weeks 3 and 17.

Check out previews of the Rams and Seahawks.

49ers vs. Cardinals: What to Watch For

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The 49ers face the Arizona Cardinals this Sunday, looking to improve to 4-2 and 2-1 against the NFC West. Although the Cardinals are not considered contenders, they will be a tough team to beat. They match up well with the 49ers; a stingy run defense and a playmaking secondary means the 49ers will have to move the ball carefully. The Cardinals also have a lot of talented receivers, led by the prodigious Larry Fitzgerald. The 49ers secondary has done pretty well thus far, but hasn’t faced a team with great receiving depth since week 1 against Green Bay. This game will be a great test; it is time to prove that the momentum the Niners built against the Rams and Texans can keep them rolling. Here is what I will be paying attention to:

The Turnover Battle:

The 49ers need to have a game similar to last week’s if they want to win. Carson Palmer has been turning over the ball a lot, and the 49ers need to take advantage of his hesitation in the pocket. If they can keep the pressure on Palmer and cause him to make mistakes, the secondary can step up force turnovers. Conversely, the 49ers have to keep the ball secure against the Cardinals’ ballhawking secondary. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu have been tormenting offenses with their ability to force fumbles and pick off passes, and the 49ers will need to play conservatively if they want to win.

Run Defense:

One of the keys to this game will be smothering Rashard Mendenhall and Arizona’s ground attack. Arizona has great receivers, but forcing Palmer to throw constantly will give the 49ers plenty of opportunities to exploit his mistakes and stop drives. The 49ers front seven is beat up, with injuries limiting Ray McDonald, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, but they will need to step up and attack the ball if they want to succeed.

Moving the Ball through the Air:

The 49ers have been limiting Colin Kapernick’s arm, for good reason, but this may be a good game to return to a more balanced offense. The Cardinals have been good against the run, but they haven’t faced a smashmouth running team like the 49ers yet. If the 49ers can get some big plays out of Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, that will help Frank Gore take over on the ground. I will be watching rookie tight end Vance McDonald; he is big, strong and fast, and could be great against the Cardinals’ physical secondary.

The Run Game:

As I mentioned above, the Cardinals have had some success against the run. They held Doug Martin and Reggie Bush to 45 and 25 yards, respectively. That said, the Bucs and Lions aren’t built for the run in the same way as the 49ers. If San Francisco can win the battle in the trenches and keep feeding Gore, it will help them wear down Arizona’s defense and open up the passing game. The 49ers don’t need a monster effort from their running backs, but a strong showing from the ‘three headed monster’ of Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James is crucial.