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. 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 Raiders: The Black Hole

San Francisco 49ers v Oakland Raiders

Getty Images

The 49ers effectively ended their season on Sunday, failing in all three aspects of the game and struggling to look competent against one of the league’s worst teams. Anyone paying attention to this team saw this coming, just not necessarily against the Raiders. There isn’t much to say. The rest of the season has a new meaning. It’s on Jim Harbaugh to salvage what the 49ers have left and either prove his worth to Jed York or give his resume a little more oomph. Past that, the 49ers will be playing for pride and spite. The playoffs are still technically in reach, but after the last few weeks, I’m not going to torment myself with the idea of them playing in January.

The Good Thing

Bruce Ellington

Sunday’s sole bright spot was in the return game. The 2014 49ers have been horrible on special teams, consistently putting the offense in terrible position and sticking the defense in tricky spots. They are ranked 28th in the league, but, like every other position group, have had their share of injuries. Ellington was absolutely electric in college, and I was really excited when the 49ers drafted him. After years of placing my hopes in Kyle Williams and LaMichael James, it was nice to finally see the 49ers get SOMETHING together in the return game. Ellington was great on Sunday, averaging 30.7 yards per kickoff return and showing exactly why he will be a big factor in the 49ers’ long-term plans.

The Bad Things

Pass Rush

For the first time in a while, the pass rush failed to get anything done. Rookie quarterback Derek Carr was lauded throughout the game for his calm in the pocket, but it was the Raiders’ offensive line stonewalling Aaron Lynch, Aldon Smith and Justin Smith that allowed their offense to flow.

Gameplan

The 49ers averaged 5.3 yards per rush against the Raiders, but only rushed 18 times. For whatever reason, the coaching staff decided that this distinct advantage was not worth exploiting. This is a team that averages 28 rushing attempts per game, but on a day that Frank Gore was able to pick up chunks of yardage, did not rely on this obvious strength. I would love to say that this was an isolated incident, but this has strung the 49ers numerous times during Greg Roman’s reign, most notably against the Seahawks.

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep was the polar opposite of Carr: jerky, indecisive and utterly ineffective. He threw an ugly, useless interception on the first play and never got it together after that. He’s had ugly stretches before, but he’s also had a strong run game to rely on. In a season like this, where everything seems to be going wrong, Kaep has failed to rally the team consistently. He is one of the many reasons the 49ers will be missing the playoffs, but nobody can honestly cite him as the primary driver of the offense’s ineffectiveness. Whatever is going on with Kaep, I hope he is learning. No quarterback has a flawless career, but the truly good ones learn from their failures and never let the problems of the present drag them down and hinder their development.

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

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Jason Grow/ The San Jose Mercury News

In week six of the 2013 season the 49ers flew to London to take on the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars. Despite all signs pointing to a sure win, I had some reservations. How would the trip impact the team? Would the distraction of being in another country or the jetlag slow the 49ers down on the practice field and in the game? The 49ers were 5-2, but were still recovering from those ugly back to back losses to the Seahawks and Colts. Their success against Jacksonville wasn’t a sure thing.

This year, the 49ers are 7-5, yet things feel a lot more shaky. Their matchup with Oakland is a ‘road’ game, but it is the easiest possible road game they could play. Oakland is a statistically inferior team that has only managed to win one game. They are ostensibly recovering from years of horrible drafts, management and coaching, but whether they can legitimately improve isn’t clear.

Their defense is currently ranked 22nd in efficiency, their offense is 30th. They have enjoyed some production from rookie quarterback Derek Carr and halfback Latavius Murray, but they haven’t had any consistency from any position group. The Raiders have two goals in this game: get the younger players reps, and ruin the 49ers’ playoff chances.

There is only one thing I will be looking for tomorrow: dominance. The 49ers are in the best possible position to control this game; they just need to execute. What happened against Seattle felt inevitable. Against the Giants and Washington, the 49ers defense forced six turnovers, but the offense only managed to outscore the other teams by ten points. That vapid production was not going to work against the Seahawks.

This Oakland game represents the 49ers’ best chance to get things right on offense. You can call me ridiculous, but a win by anything less than two scores will be a disappointment. Another weak, inconsistent, penalty-filled effort by the offense resulting in a win will simply delay the inevitable: yet another loss in Seattle.

At this point, it doesn’t matter how they do it. Whether it’s Frank Gore running roughshod over the Raiders, or Colin Kaepernick finally getting Stevie Johnson and Vernon Davis involved in the passing game, they need to get some confidence and make it more difficult for their remaining opponents to draw up a defensive game plan. The lack of rushing success has left their offense one (or none) dimensional.

To put it in simpler terms: they need to get their mojo back.

C’mon Niners. Just destroy this stupid team like you should.

Seahawks At 49ers: More of the Same

dt.common.streams.StreamServerAP Photo/Tony Avelar

The 49ers lost a game in an incredibly predictable fashion on Thursday, falling apart offensively and wasting yet another good defensive day. The ‘rivalry’, the state of the NFC and the lack of any signs of life from the offense made this loss feel like a big one, but it was yet another game thrown away by a 49ers team that refuses to try anything new against the Seahawks.

The Good Thing

Defense

Once again, the defense did a great job of keeping this game winnable. Despite three 49ers turnovers, they managed to get stops and pressure Russell Wilson. The Seahawks offense, itself pedestrian, did manage to take advantage of the 49ers’ linebacker’s notable lack of speed. Other than that, it was a solid day for the defense.

The Bad Things

Gameplan

Greg Roman, the favored target of frustrated 49ers fans (and Trent Baalke’s daughter) once again failed to draw up a comprehensible game plan. For the ninth time since 2011, Frank Gore was given the ball less than ten times (their record in those games is 2-7). For the fifth time since Colin Kaepernick took over as starter, Roman decided to try a pass-heavy attack against what remains the best secondary in the NFL (the pass totals for games against Seattle: 36, 28, 29, 29, 24, record: 1-4). This was a Seahawks team lacking some of its best run-stoppers in Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane. Obviously an all-out rushing attack wasn’t going to work, but a little balance would have taken pressure off of Kaep and given the 49ers’ receivers more chances to get open. I don’t know that firing Roman will fix the 49ers, but I have no faith in him to concoct even a marginally successful gameplan against Seattle. He just doesn’t seem to get it.

Turnovers

For the reasons cited above, the 49ers exposed themselves to turnovers in this game, and paid the price. They were able to survive against Washington despite three turnovers, but had no such luck against an offense with a competent quarterback. Hopefully the turnovers in the last few games are not a trend. The 49ers will not survive in Seattle if they continue to cough up the ball.

The Other Thing

Colin Kaepernick

I realize he should be in the ‘bad’ column, but hear me out. Kaep had his second truly bad game of the season. The other, against Chicago, was an ugly late-game collapse. In both games, he was put in a position where his only choice was to throw. You could make the argument that this was correct call, as the 49ers were losing, but it was a two score game until the 4th quarter. Since 2012, the 49ers have averaged 31 rushing attempts per game. They only had 18 on Thursday.

Colin Kaepernick is not BradyPeytonBreesLuckRodgers. For three years, he has made things happen on offense with the help of a great run game. He might get better as a passer, or he might not, but that is no reason to test him out against one of the best defenses in the NFL with the season potentially on the line. This is a transitional year for the 49ers’ run game; their o-line has been all over the place and neither Gore nor Carlos Hyde have been able to keep the run game consistent. This is why I am not taking the talk about Kaep’s regression seriously. He is the most sacked quarterback in the NFL suddenly lacking a run game that has been excellent for most of his young career. Despite this, the 49ers still have a winning record.

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 vs. Broncos: What I’ll Be Watching For

hi-res-1d3bb589be4d85706157e4833eb0ab16_crop_northMarcio Jose Sanchez/AP

The 49ers continue their road trip to Denver, where they will take on arguably the best team in the NFL. Everything about this game screams danger. The 49ers are coming off a short week, and will be without the services of Pro Bowlers Patrick Willis and Mike Iupati. Denver has been pretty much perfect this season; their lone loss came in overtime on the road in Seattle. I firmly believe that this 49ers team can win this game, but it will take some incredible execution and a lot of luck. Here’s what I will be looking for:

Run Game

This is easily the most critical element of this game. The run game not only needs to be consistent, but it also needs to chew up the clock and keep the ball away from Peyton Manning. Football Outsiders ranks the Broncos second in defensive DVOA, but I would rank them a shade lower. Other than the Chiefs and Seahawks, they haven’t faced many teams that boast a quality ground game. They gave up 262 yards to Kansas City and Seattle, showing that they can be beat on the ground, but the 49ers will be working with a banged up offensive line.

Mental Preparedness

Every game is, to some extent, won on the practice field and in the classroom. The 49ers are playing one of the most prolific passers in the league, someone who has been doing the same thing really, really well for 17 seasons. After the Seattle Seahawks shut down Denver’s offense in the Super Bowl, they credited their success to preparation, studying what had worked against the Broncos in 2013. Even shorthanded, the 49ers are talented and physical enough to do something similar, but that talent needs to be backed up by a week of perfect study and practice.

Rookies

The 49ers are starting a lot of rookies on defense, including Chris Borland, Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson. Manning will no doubt work to exploit their inexperience, making this a huge game for the 49ers class of 2014. If Borland, Ward and Johnson are able to step up and keep the ball in front of them, the defense should be able to hold. However, expecting too much of these rookies could prove to be a costly mistake.

2014 NFL Season Predictions

In typical West Bay Sports fashion, my predictions come in just a bit late. It feels like every year that goes by we get closer to some kind of massive tectonic shift in the NFL, where the typically dominant become horrible, and the horrible finally crawl their way out of whatever front office, coaching or quarterback oblivion they once lived in. Yet, every year it doesn’t happen. The Patriots stay good, the Bills stay terrible and the Chargers stay mediocre.

Unfortunately this year will probably be quite a bit more of the same. Here are my predictions:

AFC West:0127_Moreno_insideUSATSI

Broncos- There isn’t anyone in this division strong enough to step to the Broncos. I don’t think their free agency additions are going to push them past where they were last year, but that still leaves them in a really good spot.

Chargers- I see San Diego’s defense sliding this year. Brandon Flowers was a nice addition, but the core of this defense overachieved last year. The offense should be able to make up for it enough to give the Broncos some problems, but I’m not sold on them making the playoffs again.

Chiefs- I’m on board with the idea that this team is going to take a step back, but I don’t think they’re going to be bad for long. Re-signing Alex Smith was big, and they’ve been drafting really well; they should be back next year.

Raiders- Amazingly, the Raiders have shown they at least have some desire to one day not be among the worst teams in the NFL. I thought they made some smart moves picking up some veterans like Tarrell Brown and Maurice Jones-Drew, but they still aren’t talented enough to get anything of significance done this season.

AFC South:Mark-J.-Rebilas-Indianapolis-Colts-Trent-Richardson-Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Indianapolis Colts- I don’t dislike Andrew Luck. I don’t. But I’m already sick of the way he’s talked about. He hasn’t shown enough to merit half of the praise he gets from pundits. That said, this team should be a little healthier this year, and thus a little more dangerous, if only just.

Jacksonville Jaguars- Blake Bortles has the most Jacksonville name ever. I don’t have confidence in Marquise Lee to stay healthy, but I do think that Gus Bradley will end up being a pretty damn good coach.

Houston Texans- Ryan Fitzpatrick is probably going to be unbad enough to keep the Texan’s offense semi-watchable, but not relevant. All the fun stuff will be happening on the other side of the ball.

Tennessee Titans- Man, is this division bad. What am I even supposed to say about this team? I guess if Jake Locker can stay healthy they can go, what, 6-10? Maybe Bishop Sankey can show a little something… Nah.

AFC North:007Getty Images

Baltimore Ravens- It always makes me sad to predict success for Joe Flacco, who remains one of my least favorite players in the league, but the defense is still great and they will have a marginally more consistent offense. Also, Harbaugh.

Cincinatti Bengals- I gotta love the commitment to mediocrity here. Andy Dalton’s contract will keep this team floating around the top of the middling NFL teams, sometimes squeaking into the playoffs, but more often not.

Pittsburgh Steelers- I really liked the first two picks in Pittsburgh’s draft—the defense picked up two studs in Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt. However, that doesn’t make the offensive line any less sieve-like.

Cleveland Browns- I can’t wait to see Johnny Football get destroyed by Terrell Suggs.

AFC East:hi-res-7996946_crop_northRobert Mayer/USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots- This team is still good and well rounded and well coached and good. Next.

Miami Dolphins- I have a nasty feeling that Ryan Tannehill could have a breakout season in 2014. However, even if he plays lights out and Knowshon Moreno gets the run game going, the defense is way too iffy for Miami to compete.

New York Jets- I don’t hate what the Jets have done. This defense is good, possibly great, and Geno Smith could end up benefitting from Michael Vick’s guidance. But it all go belly up really quick, like it always does for the Jets.

Buffalo Bills- Too much is riding on E.J. Manuel’s play and on Sammy Watkins being the second coming of Jerry Rice for me to have confidence in Buffalo.

NFC West:

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Seattle Seahawks- Was it not for the recent string of losses along the 49ers’ defensive front, the Seahawks would be second. This team is deep, and has a winning formula of tough defense and power running. I don’t think that nearly as many balls will bounce their way this season, but that won’t keep them from eking out a division crown.

San Francisco 49ers- This division looked a lot tougher at the end of last season. The 49ers have a lot of unknowns, but they have great coaches and a core of talented players that will keep them alive until Navorro Bowman and Aldon Smith get back.

Arizona Cardinals- This team is going to fight tooth and nail for third place. They were good enough to merit a playoff berth last year, but their defense had to work overtime to make up for Carson Palmer’s inconsistency. Without crucial defensive players like Darnell Dockett they won’t be able to keep up.

St. Louis Rams- I actually had the Rams making a push for second place in the NFC West until Sam Bradford’s injury. Their defense will be something to watch, but a mystery running game and an ancient and ineffective quarterback isn’t a winning ticket.

NFC South:Cincinnati Bengals v Atlanta FalconsKevin C. Cox

Atlanta Falcons- Dumb, I know. This is more an indictment of the Saints’ overpreforming 2013 defense than of anything the Falcons can do. However, this offense is going to make a big comeback and dominate one of the NFL’s tougher divisions.

New Orleans Saints- Yeah, I’m bitter about this team. I also don’t think Rob Ryan is the defensive mastermind he’s made out to be. Drew Brees is going to Drew Brees, but this defense is going to underwhelm.

Carolina Panthers- Much like the Chiefs, this team had some outsized parts that covered up a pretty mediocre offense. The defensive line is beastly, and Kelvin Benjamin will be good, but that isn’t nearly enough to help a team that lost so many offensive role players.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers- This franchise is taking some steps in the right direction, but the overhyped arrival of Lovie Smith isn’t going to pull them out of the cellar in one season. Josh McCown isn’t going to outplay anyone in this division.

NFC North:234591-packers-ota-may-29-f3d3eWLUK/Mary Weider

Green Bay Packers- I’m so glad the 49ers won’t be seeing the Packers this season. This pick feels weird, as I just watched Green Bay look totally outmatched in Seattle. Their defense is overrated, as always, with coaching being the main concern. Aaron Rodgers is going to keep them in the hunt, but they won’t go far in the playoffs.

Minnesota Vikings- The Vikings got a steal in Teddy Bridgewater, who will take over starting duties by week six. They’ve been racking up interesting pieces in the draft, and are due to break out. They are still in transition, but we’ll see flashes this year.

Chicago Bears- I seriously don’t know what this team is trying to do. I can understand looking at Jay Cutler as a possible stop-gap to help them transition, but he isn’t the man to get this team to a Super Bowl. It’s sad to see Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery go to waste.

Detroit Lions- Signing Golden Tate is unforgivable. The football gods will be merciless.

NFC East:4296eagles-v-new-england-patriots-9b5453b2fee23a28Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Philadelphia Eagles- Is it a ‘revolutionary offense’ if it only feasts horrible teams? There is no way that Nick Foles is going to play at the level he did last year, and we’ll see just how well the Eagles can make up for his diminished performance.

Washington – If their offensive line can keep it together, I could see RGIII bringing back some of that 2012 magic. The real question is the defense—can they get enough done to keep Washington in the playoff hunt? I say no.

Dallas Cowboys- Old school rivals or no, it’s hard to be too gleeful about Dallas’ fortunes. Losing basically every relevant defensive player to free agency or injury is more sad than funny. The offense will be just good enough to keep them in the wild card conversation by midseason.

New York Giants- Eli Manning is not going to be as bad as he was last year, but it would be really awesome if he was.

Sizing Up the NFC West Part 2: Seattle Seahawks

msmithseahawksChris O’Meara, AP

We continue our preview of the 49ers’ opponents in the NFC West with the defending champion Seattle Seahawks. Unlike the Cardinals, Seattle doesn’t have many weaknesses, even after losing several free agents. Golden Tate departed from their underrated wide receiving corp while defensive linemen Clinton McDonald and Red Bryant moved on to more lucrative contracts, but the Seahawks are still a fundamentally strong team. The real question relates to what was a huge part of Seattle’s success last year: turnovers.

A year ago, the Seahawks made waves by trading for Minnesota wideout Percy Harvin. Somewhat less heralded were the additions of defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Seattle’s secondary is often hailed as the best in the NFL, but it was the added pass rush from free agency that established their defense as the league’s toughest.

This added depth was felt by every team Seattle faced, and it helped them snatch a league-leading 39 turnovers in the regular season. These turnovers were the result of a very talented secondary that had the physical tools to make the most of Dan Quinn’s defensive scheme.

I am curious whether this trend will continue. Things as simple as how a deflected ball spins through the air or how a fumble bounces can determine who recovers it, making it hard to depend on turnovers to always go one team’s way. Likewise, turnovers are the result of the opposing team making a major mistake, making consistently positive turnovers even more improbable. For an example, check out Richard Sherman’s pick six in week 4 against the Texans*.

In the 4th quarter, the Texans led the Seahawks 20-13. Houston’s gameplan was simple: run the clock out. They committed to running the ball, squeezing Arian Foster through Seattle’s defensive line for some solid gains. However, with just 2:51 on the clock, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub made a horrible decision. A well-timed blitz from Seattle got to Schaub, but rather than take the sack and let the clock keep running, he chucked the ball to a tightly covered Owen Daniels. Sherman read the play and used his length to reach around Daniels for the interception, running 58 yards for a touchdown. Seattle would go on to win in overtime.

Turnovers are a confluence of luck, skill, and sometimes, poor decision-making by the other team. While reviewing Seattle’s season, I took a look at the stability of the turnover differential statistic. Turnover differential is an interesting stat that combines the amount of times a team’s defense or special teams caused a turnover with the amount of times the offense or special teams turned the ball over. A negative turnover differential means that a team turned over the ball more than their defense was able to force turnovers.

Turnover differential is a measurement of both the offense and defense, and it can act as a crude but effective barometer of a team’s success. I tabulated the top ten teams in turnover differential in each season since 2002. Of the 125 top ten teams examined, only 16 (12.8%) had seasons below .500. The top five teams in each year since 2002 averaged a .713 regular season winning percentage (about 11 games in a 16 game season). 10 of the last 12 Super Bowl winning teams had a differential in the top ten, with the 2007 Giants and the 2008 Steelers being the only exceptions.

In 2013, the Seahawks led the league with a differential of +22, the result of an talented and at times fortunate defense and a quarterback who threw very, very few interceptions. I took a look at how often teams are able to maintain a great differential over multiple seasons. Since 2002, the top five teams in each season fell and average 11.47 places in rank in the following season, and their differential took an average hit of 12.55. If the Seahawks stayed with this trend, they would become the 12th ranked team, with a still respectable differential of +10 in 2014.

Only 25% of teams in the top five made it back in the next season, and only 40% stayed in the top 10. In fact, only four top five teams in the last 12 years managed to improve their differential in the next season. The last team to lead the league in differential and win the Super Bowl was the 2000 Ravens with a regular season differential of 23. They would fall to 23rd in the league in 2001 with a differential of -8.

I do not look at Seattle as a team primed to fall. I would be seriously surprised if they do not make it to the playoffs in 2014. However, it will be the offense taking a step forward that gets them there. A healthy Percy Harvin and an improved offensive line should be enough to overcome a highly probable reduction in turnover differential. As the numbers show, nobody can count on the ball bouncing their way forever.

*In a fit of slavering excitement, Chris Myers shouts “It’s intercepted by Richard Sherman! He’s goin’ down the sideline… He’s got followers, AND NOT JUST ON TWITTER!” It’s been almost a year and I still can’t believe how awful this call is. There are two possible explanations:

  1. Myers had spent most of the offseason thinking about this line, and had waited for the perfect moment to unleash his creation.
  2. Myers was so inspired by Sherman’s heads up play that the idiot’s muse poured into him this most terrible of exclamations.

No matter what the explanation, he should have been fired immediately.

The 49ers will play the Seahawks in weeks 13 and 15.

Check out previews of the Rams and Cardinals.

Sizing Up the NFC West Part 1: Arizona Cardinals

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The 49ers’ division has become something of a meat grinder, boasting four truly impressive defenses and two of the most talked-about quarterbacks in the game. The 49ers- Seahawks rivalry is well known, and many look at Seattle as the number one obstacle to the 49ers’ success, but the Arizona Cardinals have crept into the picture as well. Their defense was nothing short of incredible last year, making up for some of their big weaknesses on offense. Although it would shock me, I have a nasty feeling that Arizona could supplant Seattle or San Francisco as an NFC powerhouse.

All that said, the Cardinals have some glaring issues. The biggest knock against the team was the offensive line, which struggled to keep up with the NFC West’s elite pass rushers in the first half of 2013. Their line improved as the season wore on, but it remains to be seen whether youngsters Paul Fanaika and Lyle Sendlein can produce in 2014. The front office added some depth in Jared Veldheer and Ted Larsen, but did not address the offensive line in the draft.

It should be noted however, that the offensive line isn’t their only weakness. The Cardinals signed veteran quarterback Carson Palmer in 2013, hoping to use his arm to open up their aggressive aerial offense. He performed reasonably well, and showed some great chemistry with Arizona’s potent receiver group. He also threw 22 interceptions, putting Arizona’s defense in plenty of tough spots. Some blame this on the offensive line, but the numbers show otherwise. Football Outsiders ranks the Cardinals’ line 13th in pass protection, the highest in the NFC West, hardly an alarming weakness.

I wanted to take a look at Palmer’s career and see whether his interceptions had anything to do with his offensive line. Palmer has actually enjoyed decent pass protection for most of his career. His only offensive line ranked above 20 in pass protection was with the 2008 Bengals. However, he only started 4 games of the 2008 season thanks to an elbow injury.

Palmer boasts a lousy 3.2 interception percentage in his career, meaning he throws a pick in 3.2% of his passes. Of the 29 qualifying active quarterbacks on Pro Football Reference, he ranks 21st in interception percentage. His peers include some notable quarterbacks like Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford, Matt Hasselbeck and Jay Cutler, all quarterbacks fitting the ‘gunslinger’ mold.

I charted the ranks of all of Palmer’s pass protectors since he started, hoping to find some correlation between his interceptions and the quality of the offensive line.

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As it turns out, there isn’t much of a correlation. In terms of interceptions, Palmer had his best year in 2005, when he threw a reasonable 12 interceptions behind the 3rd ranked offensive line in the NFL. Two years later, he would once again play behind the 3rd ranked line, only to throw 20 interceptions and boost his interception percentage to 3.5%.

Although that percentage seems small, the numbers make a huge difference. Of all the quarterbacks in the 2013 playoffs, only one (Andy Dalton) had an interception percentage higher than 3 during the regular season.

Palmer has started 137 games in his career, and is far removed from the developmental stage of quarterbacking. It is clear that the Cardinals, and whoever he plays for next, will have to account for an inordinate amount of interceptions being thrown. The Cardinals defense was actually able to weather them rather well, most notably beating Seattle on the road despite three Palmer interceptions. It is possible to construct a defense good enough to carry the team to the postseason despite a pick-happy quarterback (the 2007 Giants and the 2012 Ravens come to mind) but succeeding in the postseason is predicated on a lack of turnovers. Some quarterbacks, like Manning and Joe Flacco, can go on streaks of interception-free football, but this is a rare and volatile trait. Only twice in his career has Palmer gone more than three games without throwing an interception: 2 four-week streaks in 2005 and 2006.

No matter how good the offensive line gets, the Cardinals are going to be hard pressed to succeed if they have to constantly make up for Palmer’s poor decision-making.

The 49ers will play the Cardinals in weeks 3 and 17.

Check out previews of the Rams and Seahawks.