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.

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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.

49ers vs. Seahawks: What To Watch For

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Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group

When Cam Newton threw the game-ending interception to Donte Whitner last Sunday, it felt like the culmination of something that has been developing since the offseason. The two most touted teams in the NFC will be facing off in one of the most talked-about environments in sports. It is remarkable what a difference a few regular season plays can make in the playoffs: if Ahmad Brooks wasn’t flagged for strip-sacking Drew Brees, if Luke Kuechly didn’t break up a perfect pass to Vance McDonald, if the Rams had called a run play from the 1 yard line in the last second of their game against the Seahawks, the NFC Championship would be taking place at Candlestick. Instead, as if the script were written before the 2013 season began, the 49ers will head to Seattle with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

I wouldn’t say my attitude about this game is overbearingly confident. I know the 49ers can win, and I know how they can win, but the pressure is certainly on them to execute. Their last two trips to Seattle were blowouts, ugly, boring and not really characteristic of the 49ers we had grown accustomed to. Most cite the crowd noise as a deciding factor, but there were plenty of things the 49ers did wrong. The 49ers seemed to lack a cohesive game plan, or at least an effective one. The offense looked confused in all four quarters, and the Seahawks took advantage. More importantly, a lot went right for the Seahawks, including a slew of turnovers and some bizarre play calling from Greg Roman. Here is what I will be watching for:

Run Game

The strangest aspect of the 49ers last two games in Seattle was the run game. For whatever reason, Frank Gore saw season-low use twice at Century Link. In 2012, he was given the ball 6 times for a respectable 28 yards. In 2013, he got 9 carries for an abysmal 16 yards. When the 49ers faced Seattle at home this year, Gore was given the ball 17 times for 110 yards, including a monster run in the 4th quarter that effectively ended Seattle’s chances. In most of the 49ers’ wins over the last two seasons, Gore was given the ball more than 15 times, more than his total carries in his last two games in Seattle combined. Whatever happens tomorrow, the 49ers need to commit to the run. Even if Gore gets stuffed more often than he breaks through, it is essential that the 49ers attack the Seahawks on the ground.

Run Defense

Stopping Marshawn Lynch early and often will be essential. The 49ers have to focus on fundamentals; sound tackling, speed and aggression are the only way to slow Lynch down. Russell Wilson’s drop in production has been well-documented, but he doesn’t have to have a big game for the Seahawks to win. If Lynch can get going against the 49ers, the Seahawks can control the clock and wear the defense down. This was what happened in week 2, when Lynch rushed for 98 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Penalties

Week 2 saw the 49ers penalized a season high 12 times for 121 yards. Many of these penalties killed drives or gave Seattle’s offense a fresh set of downs. The 49ers did a great job staying controlled last week against an overly-aggressive Carolina team, and the same must happen on Sunday. The Seahawks are the most penalized team in the league, but this is a symptom of their defensive strategy. This strategy is only effective if the other team lacks discipline; the 49ers can turn the Seahawks’ flagrant disregard for the rules into an advantage if they stay calm and collected.

Let Colin Kaepernick Run

Kaep rushed 9 times in week 2 for a massive 87 yards. He was held more in check in week 13, but was still able to convert on a huge 3rd down during the 49ers final drive. He has been held mostly in check this season, and for good reason, but in a game like this the 49ers will need to use every weapon available. Designed runs and improvised scrambles were the key to the 49ers beating Green Bay, and they could be a huge difference maker on Sunday.

Turnovers

The 49ers turned over the ball a season-high 5 times in week 2. They haven’t turned the ball over more than 2 times since. Of all the things that went right for Seattle in that game, this was the biggest. It had a lot to do with the pass-heavy attack the 49ers employed, as well as the aggression of the Seahawks’ secondary. The 49ers have to win the turnover battle if they want to go to the Super Bowl. Kaep needs to be accurate and controlled, and understand that Seattle’s coverage is designed to force turnovers. The 49ers have done a great job with ball security since week 2, and that trend needs to continue.

49ers vs. Saints: What to Watch For

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Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

 

Tomorrow the 49ers take the field against the Saints in what feels like the biggest game of the season. The 49ers are still on track to make it to the playoffs, but whether or not they can hang with the better teams in the NFC remains in doubt. The team needs to come into this game with a flawless game plan and execute perfectly. This is a game the 49ers can win, especially if they play to their strengths. Keeping the ball out of Drew Brees’ hands will be crucial, which means a disruptive defense and the same relentless ground attack the Niners used against the Rams and Cardinals. There will be no room for cuteness in this game, and Greg Roman knows it. Here is what to watch for:

Pass Rush

The 49ers pass rushers looked great last week, harrying Cam Newton and doing their part in limiting the Panthers to 10 points. The Saints’ offensive line isn’t great, and the pass rush arsenal of Aldon Smith, Corey Lemonier, Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks will be in a great position to wreck the Saints’ aerial attack. It is important that the Saints struggle to get into any kind of an offensive rhythm; an offense as high-powered as New Orleans’ can run away with the game if given the chance.

Play Calling

The 49ers will need to control the ball through all four quarters, which means a robust ground game. The Saints are mediocre against the run, a weakness that was highlighted when they struggled to stop the Jets’ Chris Ivory. Roman needs to dial up strong running plays to keep the Saints’ defense on its heels, using the 49ers’ running back depth to move the ball consistently. This will prevent the game from becoming a shoot out, which the 49ers simply do not have the offensive firepower to win. The Saints will be ready for the ground game, but if the offensive line can bounce back and power Frank Gore through some tough runs, the Niners should be able to dictate the course of the game.

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep played a career-worst game last week, and will need to bounce back with a vengeance to keep his team in the game. He will need to show a lot more composure than he did against the Panthers and make plays while facing down the Saints’ front seven. Kaep will need to take control of the game early on and quiet down the crowd, making the plays that have to be made without forcing throws or dancing around outside the pocket. It is clear that Mario Manningham’s return isn’t enough to make the 49ers’ passing offense relevant; a strong, efficient game from Kaep will be enough to keep the 49ers rolling.

Vernon Davis

Davis has played out of his mind this season, and will need to be his usual, incredible self tomorrow. His skills in blocking and receiving were sorely missed last week, and he will be key to driving the offense. His ability to stretch the field, not to mention his value as a red zone threat, will be essential against an excellent Saints secondary. Whether or not the Saints are able to contain Davis will be a huge factor tomorrow.

Donte Whitner

Look at this tackle!

 

 

Wait, Why Am I Worried About The Jaguars?

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The 49ers are facing the worst team in football this weekend, and I am worried. How can this be? The Niners are on a hot streak, every aspect of the team is improving and the supposed injuries to Eric Reid and Donte Whitner turned out to be nothing. Yet I keep considering the possibility of a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and how that would feel. I have a bad habit of torturing myself with hypotheticals, but that doesn’t mean this concern is totally illegitimate. Ugh.

The Jaguars have almost nothing that should worry me. They have the worst run defense in the league, and will be going up against the NFL’s 3rd best rushing team. Their points scored/points allowed over the last few games are almost perfect opposites of the 49ers’ (SF: 33/12.75 JAX: 12/32.5). The Jaguars have had a really tough schedule, but haven’t really shown any signs of life. However, it isn’t really the Jaguars that concern me.

Sunday’s game will be played in London, which levels the playing field to some extent. The 49ers will be preparing for the game far from home, dealing with jet lag and all the distractions of being in another country. The Jaguars are in the same position, but that isn’t reassuring. The 49ers are also coming into this game knowing the Jaguars’ reputation and record. My stupid brain is convincing me that these factors will come into effect as the week goes on, and the 49ers will be way less prepared for this game than any other game this season.

Harbaugh and Co. will also be facing an old nemesis. Jacksonville’s coach, Gus Bradley, was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator from 2009-2012. His record against the 49ers while in Seattle was 3-5, but he had a major hand in crafting the defense that shut down the Niners last year in week 16 and this year in week 2. The Jags do not have the defensive talent Bradley commanded in Seattle, but he knows the Niners. The Jaguars are a team of professional football players, and with the right game plan and mindset they can cause problems for San Francisco.

My real problem with this game is how little fun it will be. When the 49ers played the Jets and Bills back to back last year, they outscored them 79-3. It was fun because both the Jets and the Bills had decently talented players, and no one was expecting Alex Smith to destroy those defenses like he did. This Sunday, dominance isn’t just expected, it’s necessary. Anything short of an overpowering effort from the 49ers will be a disappointment. This means the two possible outcomes of the game are the total destruction of the Jaguars or an unwatchable implosion by the 49ers. Neither sounds particularly entertaining.

Fortunately, the 49ers have been training with the same mindset. Hopefully, Frank Gore is way, way too much for the Jags, and the 49ers turn Kendall Hunter loose on them. Hopefully, Vance McDonald has a big day and bowls his way through Jacksonville’s secondary. Hopefully, all that Chad Henne remembers of his trip to England is Justin Smith and Corey Lemonier running directly at him. Until then, I worry like an idiot.

49ers vs. Texans

Candlestick-Park-Upper-Deck-near-the-Players-Entrance-49ers-vs-Giants-San-Francisco-California-2011-11-13

After a long rest, the 49ers return to Candlestick to play the Texans. This will be an interesting matchup; the teams are very similar, with elite defenses and running backs along with quarterbacks who have disappointed as of late. Everyone knows what happened to the Texans last week, but anyone saying Matt Schaub gave that game up isn’t looking at the bigger picture. As much as 49ers fans may hate to admit it, the Seattle Seahawks defense did a great job in the second half, stopping six Texans drives and forcing two turnovers. Schaub made a terrible decision, no doubt, but the whole offense was struggling late in the game. What does that mean for the 49ers? Taking away the run game and forcing Schaub to pass will be crucial. This will be no easy feat; Arian Foster and Ben Tate aren’t pushovers, and it will be a big test for the 49ers depleted D-line. Here is what I will be watching for:

Colin Kaepernick: A lot has been made of Kaep’s ‘regression’ in the last three games. Many claim that this is due to the flukiness of the read option, and that opposing defenses have figured Kaep out. I have not enjoyed Kaep’s work thus far, but I do think it is way too soon to be making any kind of judgement. He has a lot to learn, and needs to calm down in the pocket, but that isn’t surprising considering his lack of experience. The coaching staff has realized that they need to slow things down. Forcing Kaep to throw a lot hasn’t done the team any good. He hasn’t been the only young quarterback struggling; Russel Wilson and Robert Griffin III have also been underwhelming. I am hoping Kaep takes the opportunities the Texans give him. The Texans’ defense struggled to catch Russel Wilson, giving up 77 yards to the diminutive quarterback and allowing him to extend drives, and it would be great to see Kaep do the same.

Penalties: Flags continue to be a problem for the 49ers. They are averaging 85 yards lost per game. It goes without saying that this cannot continue if they want to keep adding to the win column. There has been a lot of noise about Donte (W)hitner’s hit on Chris Givens, but this issue goes beyond the new rules. The 49ers play physical football, and this means penalties will remain an issue to some extent. However, if the 49ers continue to kill drives (or keep their opponents rolling) with penalties, they will be in bad shape when they take on elite teams like the Saints.

Special Teams: Special teams has been much improved this year, and it is important that this continues. The return game is certainly lacking, and Phil Dawson hasn’t been perfect, but the 49ers aren’t giving up great field position to opposing teams. It is crucial that they keep the Texans’ return game under control.