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 at Saints: Sweet Revenge

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints

Chuck Cook/USA Today Sports

The 49ers did enough right on Sunday to take down the New Orleans Saints, moving to 5-4 on the season. It was by far the most entertaining game of the season; only the win in Dallas in week one comes close in terms of entertainment value. It was also a deeply satisfying win for 49ers fans, who saw a very similar game slip away in 2013 thanks to some very poor officiating. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Coaching

Specifically, defensive coaching. The 49ers have lost three of their four most productive defensive starters. Of this defensive ‘core’, only Justin Smith remains. The 49ers have thrown out rookies and castoffs, and inexplicably are fielding the 8th ranked defense in the NFL. If there is one silver lining to this season, it’s that Vic Fangio and Trent Baalke are proving themselves to be the most potent defense-building and coaching duo in the NFL. The emergence of Aaron Lynch and Chris Borland has been incredible to watch, but perhaps more striking is the production of what many were happy to call the most tenuous secondary in the NFC. Despite an inconsistent pass rush and constant turnover at the cornerback position, the 49ers rank 6th in defensive efficiency against the pass (which is 8 ranks higher than Seattle’s vaunted pass defense).

Colin Kaepernick

He did not rise to the occasion as dramatically as I had hoped, but Kaep had a good day, and provided what I hope will be a major turning point in the season with his unbelievable 4th down game saving strike to Michael Crabtree. Kaep has yet to play a full four quarters, but he has been remarkably productive behind the league’s 31st ranked pass protecting unit. His line for the season: 179-289, 61.94 comp%, 2166 yds, 13 Tds, 5 int, 92.7 rating. Given the incredible amount of drops from 49ers receivers, his numbers show that he may in fact be coming along as a passer. His completion percentage dipped to 43.75% in New Orleans, but this was due to the 49ers receivers’ 8 droped passes (without which his comp% would have been an excellent 68.75%). He still makes mistakes, sometimes hesitating to throw the ball away or failing to check down when the situation calls for it, but things are looking up for Kaep.

The Bad Things

Drops

One of the most fascinating and disturbing things about this season is how poor the 49ers have been at football fundamentals. A lot is made of quarterback play, of injuries, of strategy, but all of that is irrelevant when professional athletes aren’t doing their job. Dropped passes have stung the 49ers a few times this season, and they nearly became the story of this game. Crabtree has had an uninspiring season, but Anquan Boldin’s sudden inability to secure good passes is worrisome. Hopefully, like the abundance of penalties and the ‘can’t-score-in-the-second-half’ nonsense early in the season, this will pass.

The Other Thing

Injuries
I realize it’s a little odd to put this in the ‘other’ column, but bear with me. The 49ers keep getting injured, and with each injury they lose strategic options and talent. The latest blow is the biggest of the season, leaving the most critical part of the 49ers’ defense in the hands of a rookie and a skilled but unremarkable player.

However, the 49ers have done a miraculous job of following the ‘next man up’ philosophy. Despite losing some tremendous talent, they’ve been able to exceed what was expected of them, particularly on defense. That is not to say injuries are in any way a good thing, just that giving the 49ers’ rookie class reps could prove beneficial in the long run.

49ers at Saints: Picking Up the Pieces

saints

Dave Martin, AP Photo

The 49ers drop their second straight game, moving to a 6-4 tie with the Arizona Cardinals. Games like this are difficult to write about. It is my job to parse the many factors of each game in order to come to some understanding of the outcome. Vastly different amounts of strategy, talent, skill and luck go into each win or loss, which is what makes analysis fun. It is difficult when factors which neither team can control influence the game at crucial points; when the outcome of the game is out of the hands of each team, analysis reaches a dead end. The 49ers did not play well, but they played well enough to win. The officiating demands discussion, but that will come later. Here is what I saw:

Good Things:

Defense

I can’t think of a game this season where the defense didn’t play well. Despite an inconsistent pass rush, the 49ers managed to make big stops through the whole game. They managed to hold the Saints under 100 yards rushing, and mitigated the damage done by Drew Brees’ arm. Most importantly, they kept the game within reach of the offense, and made some great adjustments in the second half. It wasn’t the harrying, sack happy defense I was hoping for, but it did its job. Vic Fangio has done a great job integrating young players into the 49ers system; this will be an exciting defensive unit to watch for years to come.

Red Zone Execution

The sole high point of the 49ers’ offense was their red zone play calling. Scoring points off of turnovers has been the 49ers bread and butter so far, and the 17 points they scored after an interception, a touchback after a Saints interception and a muffed punt were the result of some bold play calling. The third red zone appearance nearly resulted in a touchdown, but a missed holding call held the 49ers to three points (more on that later).

Bad Things:

Offense

The 49ers offense wasn’t totally awful, but it wasn’t nearly good enough. Facing down a stacked box, Greg Roman shelved Frank Gore in favor of a shaky passing attack. Rather than wearing down the Saints’ mediocre front seven, Colin Kaepernick played another confusing, stop-and-go game. For the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era, it looks as if the coaching staff is out of synch with the talent on the roster. The 49ers put together a five game winning streak by shoving the best rushing attack in opponents’ faces, only to give up on it against better teams. The best example is a much-maligned play call in the 2nd quarter; on 3rd and 2, Roman called for speedy halfback LaMichael James to run up the gut. Rather than calling for marquee power back Gore or even Bruce Miller to grind the ball for two yards, James got the handoff and was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage.

For two years, the 49ers’ coaches have been excellent at identifying the talents of their players and using them effectively. This year has been a struggle; many players are seeing limited use, like Gore, while others are being tasked with things that they are not ready for, like Kaepernick. The source of this confusion isn’t clear, but the answer is obvious. The 49ers are a running team, and, until Kaep has some healthy receivers and builds some confidence in the pocket, they will remain a running team.

Special Teams

Despite starting the year strong, the 49ers special teams has shown some weaknesses. A week after struggling to contain Ted Ginn Jr., the 49ers gave up an 82 yard return to 2nd string return man Travaris Cadet. This resulted in an easy touchdown for the Saints, keeping them in the game, and erasing the 49ers’ chance to hold the lead until halftime. Given their recent success, I would chalk this up more to bad luck than anything. Look for the special teams to return to form against Washington.

The 4th Quarter

For the third time in two weeks, the 49ers had an opportunity to win the game with a scoring drive in the 4th quarter. In both cases, the 49ers simply had to get into field goal range. In both cases, the 49ers failed to cross the 50 yard line. The play calling the 4th quarter has been horrible; rather than dialing up a clock-eating drive, Roman has watched the offense fall flat. In these drives, Kaep was sacked three times, due to both coverage and hesitation in the pocket. The defense has done a great job of keeping the lead within reach, but this has been squandered by an offense that seems to shrink at the biggest moments.

Other Things:

Eric Mangini

After two head-scratching challenges in the first half, Harbaugh was asked about his lack of restraint. He acknowledged that newly-appointed offensive advisor Mangini had told him to challenge, which is the first time Mangini has been mentioned since the offseason. For those who don’t remember, or actually had important things to worry about during the offseason, Eric Mangini was given a job as an offensive consultant before the season began. His role in the challenge gaffe is interesting; many people are wondering what caused the 49ers offense to change so drastically since last season, and Mangini may provide an answer. There is no way to explicitly see Mangini’s influence, and his addition is less significant to the offense than, say, the loss of Michael Crabtree, but it is worth considering. Nobody can say whether or not Mangini has a direct hand in the 49ers’ offensive ineptitude, but simply having another voice in the room may have contributed to the confused spectacle that is the offense.

Officiating

Check out my full writeup of the poor effort by the referees here.