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.

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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.

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.

Texans at 49ers: Red and Gold Domination

texans2Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

I find myself in a similar position to the one I was in last week. The 49ers won big, but that fact is refracted through Matt Schaub’s three interceptions. Depending on who you ask, the 49ers dominated or the Texans handed them the game. I do agree that the Texans offense, other than Arian Foster, was off on Sunday, but that doesn’t mean the 49ers had no hand in this one-sided game. Even if Schaub had been solid, this was still a winnable game for San Francisco. They were playing with a ferocity we haven’t seen yet and executing on both sides of the ball. There is a lot of good and a little bad worth mentioning, so without further ado:

The Good Things:

Depth: Depth is important (see: San Francisco Giants 2013 season), and with three defensive starters out of the game, it is important that somebody steps up. Patrick Willis and Nmandi Asomugha were sidelined with injuries, and Tramaine Brock and Michael Wilhoite stepped in. Both were excellent replacements; Brock’s two interceptions were back breakers, and Wilhoite was a beast against the Texans’ powerful run game. After Ray McDonald left the game with a biceps injury, backup defensive tackle Tony Jerrod-Eddie came in and picked off Shaub. We saw flashes of the 49ers’ depth in the preseason; the 49ers defense only allowed two touchdowns in two preseason games. It is good to see that the defense can still function at a high level even after losing a leader like Patrick Willis.

Turnovers: Matt Shaub has been struggling with interceptions lately, but you cannot discount the 49ers’ efforts. Both of Brock’s picks were the result of an excellent read. The 49ers out-schemed the Texans, putting their cornerbacks in position to make plays on the ball. Schaub’s poor decisions helped the 49ers a lot, but Donte (w)Hitner’s strip of Ben Tate in the 4th quarter was the result of a hungry defense trying to keep up the pressure.

Pass Defense: The 49ers did a great job covering the Texans’ big, physical receiving corp. Only Owen Daniels had any marked success against a secondary that looked leaps and bounds ahead of where it left off last year. The pass rush helped to pressure Schaub into overthrowing his receivers, but it was some excellent coverage that kept the Texans from building any momentum in the passing game.

Penalties: The 49ers had their least penalized game of the season, only losing 17 yards on three penalties. The first penalty was a questionable pass interference call on Tarell Brown, and the last was a meaningless 4th quarter delay of game call on Andy Lee. This was great to see; the Niners cleaning up their play after so many disheartening injuries is a sign that they are still working hard to improve.

The Run Game: Although Frank Gore led the charge, the 49ers rolled out all five backs and even gave Kyle Williams a few running yards with a nicely executed trick play on the first drive. The 49ers garnered a total of 177 yards rushing, punching through a defensive line that Gore described as the best he has ever faced. It was logical, given the early lead, that the 49ers control the clock and run the ball. It is nice to see how well the ground attack can work when the team commits. We have already heard a lot about how the Texans gave this game away, but the success of San Francisco’s run game played a huge role in the win as well. The 49ers were able to run all over the Texans #1 ranked defense, keeping them off balance the whole game.

Bad Thing:

Run Defense: The 49ers run defense gave up 131 yards to the Texans, coughing up 100+ yards for the third time this season. It didn’t help the Texans win, but it wasn’t good to see either. The 49ers D-line struggled against Foster; he was able to cut past them and into the secondary eight times, gaining five yards or more with each run. The defensive line has taken some hits, and Foster is a remarkably good back, but the 49ers will need to improve against the run if they want to be able to shut down offenses like they have the past few years.

Other Things:

Confidence: This game may not have been the best example of everything the Niners can do, but it was great for the team’s confidence. As Gore said after the game, this was a team effort, and it was nice to see some offensive and defensive synergy after three weeks of confusion. The 49ers haven’t been themselves lately, and this game was a good wake up call. They have weathered one of the toughest early schedules in the league, facing four playoff teams, and came out a game up. The coming weeks will be a little less brutal, but it is important that the team get some confidence back.

Colin Kaepernick: Kaep’s journey this year has been an interesting one, despite his struggles, and the 49ers are doing the right thing by simplifying things for him. I saw a lot of good signs on Sunday; he looked more calm and sure of himself, facing the Texans’ nasty pass rush with poise and making the plays that needed to be made. He didn’t have a great passing game, but many incompletions were the result of good coverage by the Texans’ secondary. He looked great on the first 49ers drive, leading a balanced attack to the Texans’ 1 yard line before giving the ball to Gore to seal the deal. Kaep isn’t ready to take over the offense yet; he is playing the role of ‘game manager’, but the 49ers are winning games. Once he gets some more solid experience under his belt and the 49ers get some of their injured receivers back, we may see some more Kaepernick fastballs. Until then, what’s the hurry?