Why the 49ers Are Missing the Playoffs

hi-res-015d79ac08d4b0ac08f6e329ffd4dfbb_crop_north 2Ben Margot/AP

The 49ers ended a three-season playoff streak on Sunday, falling to the Seattle Seahawks for the second time this year. They sit at 7-7, and have very little to play for other than self-respect. The ever-eager local media has pounced on the 49ers and the fans have followed suit, calling for some kind of retribution against a team that has fallen far short of preseason expectations.

Watching the anger and the subsequent blamefest unfold has been equal parts fascinating and depressing. As with any subject debated in the public forum, most fans’ conclusions were hopelessly reductive, excoriating Colin Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman or the bad karma brought on by the much-maligned move to Santa Clara. As with any subject worth discussing, the ‘reason’ that 49ers fans are looking for is far more complicated than any single player or coach; blame should be spread in varying layers across all parts of the 49ers franchise.

However, the most under-discussed factor is, in my opinion, the most obvious reason the 49ers failed to return to the playoffs, or even come close. Last season, I wrote a short piece summing up what I thought was holding the 2013 49ers from dominating: injuries. By the 13th week of the 2013 season, the 49ers had ruled individual players out of games a collective 68 times, an average of 5.6 per game, hampering their ability to produce on offense. This year is even more dramatic.

I put together an edited 2014 roster, eliminating injured players that were never meant to play this season (Brandon Thomas, Marcus Lattimore) and other players buried in the depth chart (Kaleb Ramsey, Keith Reaser). I also omitted Aldon Smith from the list, given the circumstances of his absence. Of this pared-down roster of 43 ‘impact players’, the 49ers have missed a collective total of 135 games, an average of 9.6 players per game. The offense had 58 absences, while the defense struggled with 77. Of those 135 games, Pro Bowlers missed 27. Only 18 players on my roster have gone the whole season without missing a game. Some of those 18, like Chris Borland, Carlos Hyde and possibly Frank Gore, could miss Sunday’s game against the Chargers.

There isn’t any explanation for this, there isn’t any blame to go around. The very simple reality is that this team was missing many, many pieces. They lost team stalwarts like Patrick Willis, and quality backups like Michael Wilhoite and Derek Carrier. They lost players from every corner of the roster, and still managed to stay in the playoff hunt through 13 games. The fact that a team this battered still has a shot at a winning season is, quite frankly, remarkable, and stands in my mind as the best argument for giving Harbaugh another chance in San Francisco.

People spent a lot the 2014 season (and every other season, if we’re being honest) deriding Roman for his predictable and mostly ineffective game plans, but it is crucial that we examine his choices, along with everything else, with these injuries mind. It is easy for me to say that he isn’t dialing up enough run plays, but in so doing I am willfully ignoring the tremendous turnover on the offensive line and at the tight end position. Vance McDonald has failed to impress as a passer but has become one of the better blocking tight ends in the league. He missed 7 games. Losing any player, even a role-player like McDonald, limits what the coach can do.

There are also the lingering injuries, the ones that the 49ers were forced to play through. It’s no secret that Vernon Davis has been a major disappointment this season, but very little consideration is given to how injuries to his ankle and back have limited him. It is so easy to blame his ego, his work ethic or his preseason holdout, but the most obvious reason has been present almost all season. His lack of speed and execution might be the number one reason the 49ers’ passing game struggled so mightily, and his injuries are the only tangible reason I see for his rapid decline.

The poor health of the team is not an excuse as much as a deflating reality. The 49ers could have been coached better. Kaepernick could have worked on his patience and accuracy. Special teams could have un-trainwrecked itself. Roman STILL could have called more run plays. But none of that is really as compelling to me as the numbers listed above. To ask why the 49ers are missing the playoffs and fail to consider the effect injuries have had is simply foolish.

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.