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.

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

628x4712Rob Carr/Getty Images

The 49ers season continues with a home game against the Philadelphia Eagles, who have been, for all intents and purposes, the inverse of the 49ers. The Eagles are undefeated, thanks to three second-half comebacks and some breaks going their way. Much like the 49ers’ second half issues, these comebacks are unsustainable. In fact, it is worth mentioning that a lot of what has worked for the Eagles in the Chip Kelly era is unsustainable. Like any game, the 49ers have the talent and coaching to win, as long as they execute. We will see which unsustainable trend lasts, and which ends. Here is what I’ll be watching for:

Run Game

The 49ers need to run the damn ball. This is sort of counter-intuitive, as Philadelphia has a rotten secondary, but keeping the ball away from Nick Foles will be essential. Thankfully, both Anthony and Vernon Davis will be back, giving the 49ers offense a major boost. The Eagles haven’t faced any great rushing teams, but they managed to give up 169 yards on the ground to the Colts, which is baffling. The 49ers will have an advantage in the trenches, but it won’t mean anything unless Greg Roman calls a smart game.

For an extreme example of what the 49ers need to do, check out Stanford’s game against Oregon in 2013. Stanford was able to hold on to the ball for most of the game, thanks largely to some heroics from halfback Tyler Gaffney. The game was coached by Jim Harbaugh and Kelly’s predecessors, David Shaw and Mark Helfrich, who run comparable schemes to the 49ers and Eagles. Like Stanford, the 49ers must ‘impose their will’ and use the run to control the ball.

Pass Rush

Another broken record category, but damn do the 49ers need to turn up the pressure. After boasting the very best offensive line in 2013, the 2014 Eagles have been rolling out a hodgepodge unit of backups. The 49ers secondary is simply not good enough to contain Foles without a little help. I know the 49ers have the talent to do it; Corey Lemonier, Ahmad Brooks and Dan Skuta have all been underperfoming, and this game will be a great chance to set things right.

Penalties

I still firmly believe that the flood of penalties against the 49ers was partially a fluke, and it will slow down as time goes on. That said, however well or poorly Ed Hochuli and co. call this game, the 49ers need to stop the dumb mistakes; the Anquan Boldin headbutt mistakes, the Jonathan Martin needless cut block mistakes. It was those mistakes that compounded some bad luck penalties and turned them into a major are of concern.