Bullshit

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During last Sunday’s game, my roommate, a Broncos fan, asked me why the 49ers were moving on from Jim Harbaugh. I thought about his question for most of the game, and realized I didn’t have a good answer. There were reasons, to be sure, but none of them made any sense.

“There were philosophical differences.”

“Harbaugh and Trent Baalke butted heads.”

“Jim Harbaugh’s attitude was an issue.”

The reasons came readily, but I couldn’t say them. I wouldn’t. I wasn’t going to borrow the woefully insufficient language that the 49ers organization tossed to a ravenous and frustrated fanbase. No matter how insignificant the question, I wasn’t going to add to their bullshit.

2014 was a year of problems, and of blame. For the first (and last) time in the Harbaugh Era, the 49ers struggled. In truth, the problems started almost a year ago in Seattle, when Navorro Bowman saw his knee destroyed while recovering a Seahawks fumble in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship. The problems kept on; the roster was worn down to a stump, but still managed to stay productive. Through all of this, there was talk about Harbaugh being difficult to work with, Harbaugh losing the locker room, and Harbaugh being too expensive for Jed York’s taste.

It was as if the ownership could not stomach anything less than total success. Despite the fact that Harbaugh was one of the surest bets in football, the team’s immediate failures outweighed a history filled with winning. Perhaps they bought into the perpetual myth that Harbaugh is only good at rebuilding programs. Perhaps the front office and ownership were convinced he was no longer necessary.

The only rational explanation is that Harbaugh was unwilling to shake up the offensive staff. Once again, I think ALL of the 2014 49ers’ problems start with injuries, but anyone that reads my blog or any other outlet that covers the 49ers knows that Greg Roman was a very unpopular offensive coach. Harbaugh could have refused to get rid of Roman, but this theory has no actual basis.

Until we know more, we have to go with the answer that makes the most ‘sense’, even if it isn’t sensical. After a year of problems, another one has cropped up: the 49ers aren’t a well-run organization. You can point to the drafts and the recent playoff berths, but I can just as easily point to the unpopular mess that is Levis Stadium, or York’s insistence on venting his frustrations on Twitter and elsewhere. Perhaps as a corporation interested in making the largest amount of money possible, the 49ers are succeeding. However, as an organization hoping to pay back a fanbase that remained mostly loyal through ten years of futility, York and the 49ers just made their debt much harder to repay.

For a million or so a year, the 49ers have transformed from a juggernaut to a league laughingstock. Some have contended that this is simply a short-sighted attempt to reap the benefits of a new stadium without the cost of a premium coach, but no matter what the case, it is clear that York, and perhaps Baalke, have goals distinct from those of the fans, and of the team.

If I were not a huge fan of Harbaugh, I might try to look at this more empirically. Even from a hyper-rational standpoint, this move makes little sense. Harbaugh was the fifth-winningest coach in NFL history, and there are no obvious replacements on the market. Harbaugh was simply too good, and the head coach market too lacking in viable options.

So there you have it. The 49ers have made a move that has no logical basis. They continually backed down from defending Harbaugh, and from acknowledging the actual circumstances of a lost season. York has shown the fans and the team that his ego and profit margins are vastly more important to him than winning, and that he considers his negligible football and business experience more estimable than Harbaugh’s actual, tangible, record-setting accomplishments.

I wish there were some positive to take away from this, but there isn’t. Maybe in a year I will look back on this post and laugh at my own lack of foresight, but from where I sit now, there is no one in the world of football capable of filling Harbaugh’s shoes.

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

Colin+Kaepernick+Bobby+Wagner+San+Francisco+urFR3N2lCTxlOtto Greule Jr./Getty Images

The 49ers are playing out what is likely the final installment of the San Francisco-Seattle rivalry in 2014. As I’ve stated before, the 49ers’ loss to the Raiders effectively ended their season, altering their outlook and motivation going forward. I don’t expect the 49ers to throw this game away, but I’m honestly not sure how they’re going to respond tomorrow. It’s the first time since 2010 that this team stands a chance of missing the playoffs. I am genuinely interested to see how they respond.

Rather than discussing what I’ll be watching for, I figured I’d sum up what will or will not motivate this team to win tomorrow. The things they need to do — rely on the run game, get a consistent pass rush, avoid turnovers — are the same they have been all season. Here’s what’s on the line for this team tomorrow:

Pride

This is the strongest motivator, in my opinion. Whether or not they say it, this team knows how dire things are. That can increase their anxiety and desperation, or it can motivate them. This team has struggled against Seattle for two seasons now, and they are in a unique position to both play spoiler and win their first game in Seattle since 2011. The fact that the playoffs are unlikely means they can throw everything they have into this game. At this point, a win in Seattle would feel as major for the 49ers as last week’s game felt for the Raiders.

Jim Harbaugh

Harbaugh has been a mystery this season. I don’t put a lot of stock in interviews, but his recent appearance on KNBR sounded like a different coach than we’re used to. He hasn’t dealt with this kind of collapse since his playing days, and there is more on the line in this game than simply winning. He is playing for his job, and an ever-elusive win in Seattle would make him much harder to fire, or at the very least would make him look even better in the eyes of the Raiders/Michigan/Google or whoever Adam Schefter says wants to hire him.

Playoff Hopes

There is still a slim chance that the 49ers reach the playoffs this year. As I’ve said all year, this team is more than capable of winning out, if they really want to. Colin Kaepernick doesn’t have to be tremendous tomorrow, the defense doesn’t have to be perfect, but they need to get a little mojo working and try to take the crowd out of the game. However, if they want to be taken seriously as a contender, they need to win on the practice field. They were able to beat Seattle last season in San Francisco and nearly beat them in the NFC Championship thanks to an improved gameplan and a lights-out defense. Navorro Bowman spoke to the press about the lack of physicality and leadership in the locker room, but emphasized that the physical play that defined the 2011-2013 49ers isn’t gone. If the 49ers can put in extra work preparing, it will show on Sunday. If they don’t, they don’t deserve a playoff berth.

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 at Cowboys: Opening the Season in Style

628x471Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The 49ers move to 1-0 after defeating a decidedly inferior team on Sunday afternoon. Just as I wrote in my pregame post, a hefty percentage of this game is semi-irrelevant; the 49ers we watched probably aren’t the 49ers we will be watching for the bulk of the season. We can be thankful for the macro results of the game, but there was too much downright weird stuff for us to look at this as anything but a typically aberrant season opener. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things:

Turnovers

It was great to see the 49ers out there ballhawking. Whatever glaring weaknesses the defense had, they more than made up for them by taking advantage of each and every mistake the Cowboys’ offense made. Tony Romo threw three picks, but it was nearly five, and the 49ers started the game on the highest possible note with Chris Culliver recovering a fumble for a touchdown on the second play of the game. As I’ve written before, turnovers are erratic and cannot be counted on, but the sheer volume of turnovers is at least partially the result of a sound defensive scheme and the 49ers’ talent.

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep was more crisp and composed than I ever remember him looking. He was facing down one of the league’s worst defenses, but was impressive nonetheless, posting a career-best 125.5 QBR and throwing some incredible passes. It was a small sample size, as the game was basically over at the half, but I saw a lot of good and very little bad from Kaep. My favorite thing was the ball distribution: Anquan Boldin was Kaep’s favorite target, but he managed to give everyone some touches, including newcomer Stevie Johnson. This game was not enough to dispel the lingering doubts about Kaep’s ability to go through progressions, but it was a big step forward.

Run Game

Amazingly, the 49ers did not run the ball once until the 2nd quarter . Again, this was more due to the turnovers than anything, but even without actually looking it up I feel confident saying that this was the first time Frank Gore did not get a touch in the first quarter in the Jim Harbaugh era. That weirdness aside, the run game looked great, with Gore showcasing his prodigious vision (and surpassing the 10,000 yard mark) and Carlos Hyde showing some incredible burst off the line. What was particularly striking was how well balanced they were; Greg Roman struggled to fully incorporate LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter in recent years, but I love that he was willing to give Hyde plenty of chances.

The Bad Things

Defensive Line

The d-line was inconsistent on Sunday, never really pressuring Tony Romo and struggling to stop the run through the first half. It seemed like the 49ers were more committed to preventing big plays through the air than short yards on the ground, but Navorro Bowman and Aldon Smith’s absences loomed large. As I have said repeatedly before, this was the season opener, and I know that Jim Tomsula and Vic Fangio are going to be working overtime to get the d-line back in working order this week. The 49ers are facing one of the league’s most prolific rushers next week in Matt Forte, and they will need to generate more pressure if they want to beat the Bears.

Penalties

Stupid officiating aside, the 49ers looked out of synch, giving up 80 total yards on 11 penalties. We saw the same thing week one last year with the 49ers losing 85 yards on 11 penalties, and generally lacking discipline. Hopefully this goes away quickly like it did in 2013.

The Other Things

Offensive Line

The O-line was less than impressive on Sunday, a fact that is easily ignored given how well Kaep performed under pressure. They are missing two starters in Alex Boone and Anthony Davis, so some struggles can be expected. Jonathan Martin and Joe Looney actually did quite well; it was veteran Mike Iuapati that failed to impress. Boone and Davis should be back soon, which, apart from newbie Daniel Kilgore at center, would round out the same group the 49ers had in 2012 and 2013.

Secondary

The secondary was a bit of everything, providing tight coverage but also showing some of rawness. Rookies Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson had great starts, while Tramaine Brock and Culliver were solid, if not impressive. Brock, Culliver and Ward were all injured, but none of the injuries proved serious other than Culliver’s concussion. The secondary was also not thoroughly tested, but they will be tried a bit more thoroughly next week by Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.

2014 Expectations and Ray McDonald

Aaron Lynch, Cornellius CarradineAP/Patrick Semansky

The 49ers begin another long road tomorrow, taking on the Dallas Cowboys with a battered defense and a potentially resurgent offense. The timeline of this season is fascinating; we will know exactly how this year will go within the first eight games. The defense is missing two of its most talented players in Aldon Smith and Navorro Bowman, who will be back mid-late season. It will be on the offense to keep the 49ers above .500 for the first leg of the season.

Every season is ‘major’, in some way, but 2014 feels a bit more so. Colin Kaepernick signed a massive contract in the offseason, and it will be on him to prove that he was worth the money. The offense looks a lot better than it did in the 49ers’ first game last year, when the wide receiver depth chart consisted of Anquan Boldin and almost nothing else. Kaepernick has weapons; he has a reliable run game and a good offensive line. The only thing left is for him to produce.

If the offseason wasn’t such a mess for the 49ers, I would look at this year more hopefully. As it stands, I’m looking at this as a pseudo-rebuilding year. The 49ers should make the playoffs, and should give us plenty to cheer for, but I don’t think the defense is going to be up to the standards of the last three seasons, at least for a little while. That’s okay, though. The 49ers have drafted really heavily in the last few years, and this year we’ll see the fruits of Baalke’s labor. Redshirt players like Tank Carradine are going to get their first chance to play in a while, and rookies like Aaron Lynch and Bruce Ellington are going to fight for a role.

It is worth noting that my expectations were low last year too. Michael Crabtree’s injury was huge, and the 49ers still managed to weather it. We’ll see.

I also wanted to address what is the biggest storyline going into this game: Ray McDonald. The response to McDonald’s arrest and the 49ers’ stance has been simultaneously intriguing and nauseating. Tim Kawakami and Ann Killion both weighed in on the issue of McDonald playing while the police decide whether or not to take legal action. They did not like that the 49ers are going to wait and see what the police want to do, as that approach essentially shelters a man who in all likelihood abused a pregnant woman.

Many fans have fallen in lock step with Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers, saying waiting it out is the right thing to do, as it shows that the organization has some measure of faith in McDonald’s character (McDonald maintains that he did nothing wrong). I don’t feel pulled one way or the other. I would prefer that McDonald sit, but I can also understand the 49ers’ thinking. Nobody disagrees on the point that McDonald should be cut if he is found guilty; it’s just a matter of how they treat him until then.

Even though I think Kawakami and Killion have the right to believe what they believe, that does not hide the fact that both of them, for a long time, have gone out of their way to attack the 49ers and Harbaugh. Kawakami has done little to hide his dislike of Harbaugh since he arrived, and has been making his bones alternating between speculation about Harbaugh’s future and towering moral screeds against the organization it is his job to cover.

The fact that I understand and respect their viewpoints in this instance does not take away from the opinion I and many others hold about them and some other Bay Area sports writers. This is a complex problem, but writers like Kawakami and Killion consistently fail to write informative stories about the 49ers. What makes them truly deplorable is that they continue to hide behind a veneer of journalistic integrity. Were they to admit that the combination of some personal animus and the pervasive reality that sensationalism gets clicks is what drives them, I would look at them more favorably.

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.

Robbed, Again

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Kirby Lee

I felt surprisingly emotionless after last night’s game. It was upsetting, but in a way that was different from the Super Bowl. Maybe I learned last February that playing “what if” after a tough loss is unwise, or I was better braced for a loss. After months of buildup and a week filled with internet trash-talking, I was totally prepared to embrace the rivalry and come away from the game hating the Seahawks. That didn’t happen. Their fan base is obnoxious and doesn’t deserve the win, but any anger I felt last night was directed at the referees. If you look at last night’s game as a series of semi-connected events, the 49ers were given multiple opportunities to take the lead and failed to do exactly that. The three turnovers in the 4th quarter are the 49ers’ fault, no question. However, that entire series of events came after the game pivoted on a crucial point. After being behind for most of the game, a mishandled penalty by the referees gave Seattle a possession they never should have had. The Seahawks used that possession to score a touchdown and take a lead they would never surrender. Despite barely keeping up with the 49ers for much of the game, the Seahawks were suddenly in the ideal position: ahead of the 49ers and only a couple of defensive stands away from a trip to the Super Bowl.

It was a day of baffling officiating. The Seahawks were given generous spots numerous times, providing first downs that were not earned and keeping drives alive. Donte Whiter was penalized for a tackle which he had no control over, while the Seahawks administered numerous helmet to helmet hits (with LaMichael James and Vernon Davis on the receiving end) that were never flagged. The referees also seemed unwilling to penalize Russell Wilson for intentional grounding; it took Wilson committing the penalty twice and Coach Harbaugh hassling the referees to get a flag thrown. Navorro Bowman sacrificed his leg to hold on to a fumble and give the 49ers possession at the 1 yard line, only to have the referees give possession to the Seahawks once Marshawn Lynch snatched the ball away from him.

The worst penalty came in the 4th quarter. With the score 17-13 in the 49ers’ favor, Andy Lee punted the ball away from San Francisco’s 20 yard line. He was tackled in the leg by Chris Maragos. A review of the play held that the tackle should have resulted in 15 yards and a fresh set of downs for the 49ers. Instead, the referees called it a 5 yard penalty and allowed the Seahawks to take possession. The Seahawks managed to put together a drive and score, putting them 3 points ahead of the 49ers. When they were ahead, the 49ers played conservatively and challenged Seattle’s defense to make plays. When they fell behind, Kaep was forced to throw more, and Seattle was primed to force turnovers.I cannot say that the 49ers would have won had the officials done their job properly, but I can say there is simply no excuse for these failures. Given what happened, no one can honestly say that the better team won yesterday.

As I watched the 49ers squander their final opportunities, it felt meaningless. If the rules are not enforced as they are written, the game loses legitimacy in my mind. The stats from each team are remarkably similar; the same yardage, penalties, passes and almost everything else. However, when a team loses a possession and the other gains one and it allows them to put the other team behind, it makes everything that occurs after suspect. It is becoming more and more difficult to accept this kind of error. The NFL has done the bare minimum to address problems with officiating, and we can only hope that games like this put more pressure on them.

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

boldinMichael Thomas/Getty Images

The 49ers are in the playoffs for the third year in a row. The team has been through a lot this year. They have survived a slew of injuries, epic Greg Roman cuteness, inept officiating and “adversity” (meaning they had a stretch where anyone writing anything about the 49ers would use the word “adversity” constantly). They enter the playoffs hoping to extend a six game win streak into February. Before that happens, it is important that we recognize the players who have gone above and beyond the call this year: introducing the first annual We Don’t Deserve You Awards!

Offensive WDDYA:

Anquan Boldin

2013 Stats: 85 Rec, 1179 Yds.*, 13.87 Yds/Rec, 73.7 Yds./GM* 7 TD

(*=Leads Team)

Boldin has been simultaneously the most likeable, consistent and entertaining offensive player this season, but that isn’t what gets him the award. Let’s review the facts. Boldin was traded to the 49ers by the Ravens, a team he had all but carried to a Super Bowl victory. He was in Senegal when he heard the news, working with Oxfam on a farmland restoration initiative. He was initially shocked by the move, but put that aside and started ingratiating himself with the 49ers. He opened his career in red and gold with a ridiculous 208 yard day against Green Bay. He went on to become Colin Kaepernick’s most reliable receiver, all the while working for charitable causes in the Bay Area and cultivating a healthy dislike of Richard Sherman. He hasn’t just done his job, he has been a revelation. Boldin has been a consummate team player, which is why he wins. Congratulations, Anquan Boldin. We don’t deserve you.

Honorable Mentions

Frank Gore

It has been an up and down year for Gore, but that is more the fault of the coaching staff than Gore himself. He saw limited use in some games and lit up others, but at no point was he anything but selfless, hard working and capable. Despite his waning speed, he has been able to remain highly functional within the 49ers’ offense. He also had the best run of the year; a 51 yard burst that kept the Seattle Seahawks from winning at Candlestick for the fifth year in a row.

Vernon Davis

Davis also had an inconsistent season, but never failed to impact every game he played in. Despite numerous injuries, he proved almost uncoverable, working overtime as the 49ers’ only legitimate speedster. He took a lot of punishment this season, enduring painful tackles by defensive backs and stadium walls, but still kept himself largely productive.

Defensive WDDYA:

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ersStephen Dunn/Getty Images

Navorro Bowman

2013 Stats: 5 Sk., 2 Int, 1 TD, 9 PD, 4 FF*, 2 FR, 118 Tckls*. 25 Assts.*

(*=Leads Team)

Could it be anyone else? His stat line, so far ahead of almost everyone else on the team, says a lot. The eye test says even more, however. He more than made up for Patrick Willis’ brief absence, leading the 49ers to a crushing 35-11 win over the St. Louis Rams. Bowman has dominated almost every game, both in terms of numbers and perceptible impact. In that sense, he is the 49ers’ most complete player. He has been totally consistent, active on every play and is usually involved when a big play gets made. He also made what may be the greatest defensive play in 49ers history, picking off Matt Ryan and scoring what might be the last touchdown at Candlestick Park. The play came immediately after, in a rare display of mortality, Bowman whiffed on an onside kick and allowed the Falcons to regain possession of the ball. For being the heart, soul, hands, body, mind, beard and legs of the defense, Bowman wins the award. Congratulations, Navorro Bowman. We don’t deserve you.

Honorable Mentions

Eric Reid

Dashon Goldson’s heir has performed very well under the pressure of replacing a Pro Bowl Safety. He made an immediate impact in the secondary, showing ball-hawking skills and a willingness to lay the wood. He has quietly become one of the better players on the defense, and is a big part of the 49ers’ revitalized secondary.

Tramaine Brock

Brock has one of the coolest stories I have ever read. After years of being counted out, Brock worked hard and played up to the level of his peers. His first big play, a pick six that set the tone for the 49ers’ game against the Texans, was just one of many aggressive, momentum-shifting grabs this season. He has worked hard to earn a starting spot, and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.

49ers at Cardinals: Just Man Enough

cardsRick Scuteri/AP

The 49ers close out the regular season with a road victory, extending their win streak to 6 after a close defensive battle against the Arizona Cardinals. For the second week in a row, the 49ers looked out of synch. A great first half gave way to some of the most porous defense the 49ers have played all year, made worse by an offense that couldn’t convert a single 3rd in the second half. Once again, certain players stepped up at the right moment to seal the game, but the 49ers didn’t heartily earn this win. Anquan Boldin, no doubt hoping to end the season on a high note, had a huge day, but some conservative play calling and less than impressive pass rush gave the Cardinals a chance they should never have gotten. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things:

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep had another great game against an excellent defense. He still isn’t taking over the game and dominating in all four quarters, but he has proven extremely efficient. Even if he doesn’t throw a ton, his propensity for ball security has helped the 49ers stay out ahead of their opponents. The Cardinals’ defense took the run away early, putting the offense on Kaep’s shoulders, but he was able to step up and lead scoring drives in the 49ers’ first three possessions.

Anquan Boldin

Whether it was his desire to show off in front of his former team or simply stay hot heading into the playoffs, Anquan Boldin lit up the Cardinals, picking up 149 yards on 9 receptions and a touchdown. He was able to outmuscle a very good Cardinals secondary and give the 49ers an early lead. He also did a little coaching on the sideline, telling rookie wideout Quinton Patton to rise to the occasion.

Quinton Patton

Patton might be the most hyped inactive player in league history. After winning the hearts of 49ers fans everywhere by flying to San Francisco right after the draft out of sheer excitement, Patton spent most of the season on the sideline. He saw his first real action on Sunday, picking up 60 total yards with 1 rush and 2 receptions. His second catch was an athletic grab over the head of Antoine Cason that allowed Phil Dawson to kick the go-ahead field goal. I was pretty skeptical of Patton’s ability amid all the hype, but he proved me and any other doubters wrong on Sunday. If you were one of his many fans, congratulations: you knew it all along.

quintonpattonedit

The Bad Things:

Defense

After a solid first half, the defense struggled to get anything right, surrendering 482 total yards and allowing Arizona to move the ball effortlessly. The defense had a tough time against Palmer earlier in the season, but looked even worse than they did in week 6. Yet again, it came down to turnovers; Navorro Bowman’s early pick kept the pressure on the Cardinals, and they were never able to take a lead. The pass rush was nonexistent, giving Palmer all the time in the world to throw to Arizona’s dangerous receivers. I am hoping this is the last time we see such an inconsistent effort; playing this poorly won’t fly in the playoffs.

Offensive Play Calling

The 49ers’ biggest failure of the day was their inability to extend the early lead. They were never able to make a transition to the run, which the Cardinals stubbornly defended, and looked totally lost in the second half. A lack of creativity on 3rd-and-short situations doomed them early in the 3rd quarter; they failed to gain a single first down rushing, including a 4th-and-1 give to Anthony Dixon that saw him stuffed at the line of scrimmage. After an incendiary first quarter, Greg Roman stayed basic and conservative. I have a feeling this is more an attempt to keep some plays hidden from other playoff teams than just lackadaisical planning. We will find out soon.

The Other Thing:

Run Game

The Cardinals held the 49ers to 83 yards on the ground, their second lowest total of the year. Frank Gore only got 14 yards on 13 attempts, which limited what the 49ers could to to eat the clock. Normally I would put these stats in the “Bad” column, but the 49ers’ ability to move the ball without the run was actually really nice to see. Taking away the run has been a common strategy against the 49ers, but Kaep has been tough to stop with a full complement of receivers. With Patton emerging as a viable receiving option, stacking the box to stop Gore may not be a successful approach any longer.