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.

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.

Washington at 49ers: Getting It Done, Sorta…

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The 49ers won a slow, frustrating game against an inferior Washington team on Sunday, the latest in a series of defense-first, nail-biting comeback wins. They survived numerous mistakes and failed to build on a strong start to the game. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Pass Defense

Once again, the 49ers won because of their pass defense, which held Washington to just 77 yards through the air. Credit goes to the pass rush, which swallowed up Robert Griffin III, and the secondary, which blanketed star wideout DeSean Jackson all day. Rookie cornerback Dontae Johnson had an excellent day, adding his name to the growing list of rookies shoring up the 49ers’ battered defense.

Anquan Boldin

Q had one of his best games as a 49er, picking up 137 yards on 9 receptions and a touchdown. He manhandled Washington’s secondary; his only mistake coming in the 3rd quarter when his route was jostled by Baushaud Breland, leading to a pick. Q has been one of the most entertaining 49ers for two years running. His reliability in 3rd and long situations has saved so many drives, it’s frankly amazing he isn’t doubled or tripled every time.

The Bad Things

Offense

It was a horrible day for the offense, who barely managed 17 points against one of the worst defensive units in the league. They only picked up 66 yards on the ground, their second lowest total of the year. There were numerous drops, a botched snap and other mistakes, making it like basically every other 49ers game this season.

Counterpoint: The 49ers had to contend with horrible field position all game, thanks to Washington’s punter and Perrish Cox’s mediocrity as a return man. They also turned over the ball three times, two of which were fumbles, and managed to survive. They lost their other two multiple turnover games of the season, the 49ers (The Bears in week two and the Rams in week nine), so credit to this team for overcoming their mistakes. That said, it would be nice to see them get in some kind of rhythm.

Vernon Davis

Davis continues to play well below our expectations, depriving the team of their favorite home run hitter. He had an ugly drop and twice ran a too-short route on 3rd down. Whether it be age, focus or just an unfortunate string of bad luck, Davis has been mostly useless in the pass game. As the 49ers gear up for a playoff push, his speed will be sorely missed.

Run Defense

The 49ers’ run defense has regressed since losing Ian Williams, and even Chris Borland playing out of his mind hasn’t stopped teams from running over the 49ers. They gave up 136 yards on Sunday, the same amount they gave up to the Saints two weeks ago. They won both contests, but given that neither team is necessarily great at running the ball, this is a worrying trend. Hopefully Glenn Dorsey can help them plug the gaps, but until he returns, they will have to rely on Quinton Dial and Tony Jerrod-Eddie at nose tackle.

The Other Thing

Colin Kaepernick

It was another so-so day for Kaep, who did an excellent job handling Washington’s blitz packages but also had some ugly overthrows. His pass to Boldin at the end of the 4th quarter was incredible, but was eclipsed by Boldin’s tough yards after the catch. I’m beginning to wonder whether or not Kaep will ever truly ‘take over’ a game like he did last season. With the offense sputtering and failing as frequently as it does, Kaep has done a good job of making plays when they count. However, his play has been more ‘proficient’ than ‘spectacular’. Here’s to hoping he puts on a show for the home crowd on Thanksgiving.

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

Colin+Kaepernick+San+Francisco+49ers+v+New+n9ZIR6sSo6UlChris Graythen/Getty Images

Sunday’s game is the most important of the season. I’ve said that before, but it actually means something now. The 49ers have dug themselves into a hole over the last three weeks, and they need to start crawling out now, or not at all. Just like every other game on their schedule, this game is winnable, but they will need to do something that escaped them for the first half of the season: establish an offensive identity. The offense is at full strength, or as close to it as they will be this season, and the onus is on Greg Roman, Colin Kaepernick and the offensive line to show that they aren’t done. Here is what I’ll be watching for:

Offensive Line

Last season, the 49ers lost an ugly game in New Orleans, the result of some horrible offensive play (the offense only gained 196 yards and 12 first downs) and some equally horrible officiating from Tony Corrente. This year, the 49ers’ offense, despite being replete with playmakers, looks even worse, easily among the worst in the league. A big reason for this is the offensive line, which has seen lots of turnover. The o-line doesn’t need to have an incredible game, but they need to stop making mistakes. The stupid penalties, whiffed blocks and lack of push in the run game that have limited the 49ers’ o-line need to end, now.

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep hasn’t been excoriated quite the same way he was last year, but he has yet to truly play up to his contract. He will have a great chance to prove his worth in New Orleans. After some unsustainably good defensive play in 2013, Rob Ryan’s unit has fallen part, falling from 10th to 29th in defensive efficiency according to Football Outsiders. If Kaep can get Stevie Johnson and Vernon Davis involved, he can feast on New Orleans’ banged-up secondary and take control of the offense.

Aaron Lynch, Jimmie Ward, Chris Borland, Marcus Martin

Due to some unfortunate injuries, the 49ers’ future has been rushed onto the field earlier than expected. Results have been mixed, but overall much better than can be reasonably expected of rookies. If the 49ers can’t get it together and the season is indeed lost, rookies like Lynch and Ward will be one of the only things worth paying attention to (other than the Seahawks games). The 49ers’ rookies are being run through a meat grinder – Borland, in particular, will have faced off against two of the NFL’s greatest passers in Peyton Manning and Drew Brees in his first three games. After this week, the 49ers’ missing defensive core will start to return, starting with the suspended Aldon Smith. We know Vic Fangio doesn’t like to overuse untested talent, so the rookies will need to show out in the limited chances they get.

49ers at Rams: Kaepernick Steps Up

boldinnnAP Photo/Scott Kane

The 49ers won a wild game against the St. Louis Rams on Monday Night Football, moving to 4-2 and 1-1 against NFC West opponents. There was a lot to take away from this game; the 49ers looked totally helpless for most of the first quarter, but pulled things together in a hurry. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Colin Kaepernick

This was Kaep’s best game of the season, hands down. Until Monday, it was hard to tell whether or not Kaep was ever going to take control of the offense. We had seen him make some incredible throws, but he hadn’t looked dominant in a game like he did against the Rams. His stat line (22-36, 3 TD 0 INT, good for a 120.5 rating) doesn’t tell the full story, as Vernon Davis had numerous drops and broke up an easy touchdown pass to Vance McDonald in the 4th quarter. Kaepernick was a delight to watch, showing poise in the pocket and looking like a player wholly deserving of a long-term contract. Also worth noting: Kaep spread the ball around really well, involving everyone from Bruce Miller to Anquan Boldin. The 49ers’ receiving corp as a whole had 16 receptions for 270 yards and 3 touchdowns, good for a yds/rec. of 16.875.

Pass Rush

So, so glad to finally put this one in the good column. The 49ers were all over Austin Davis, picking up 5 sacks and getting all kinds of pressure. Ahmad Brooks had a huge game, redeeming himself after a stupid hands-to-the-face penalty that extended the Ram’s opening drive (his 3rd of the season by my count). Dan Skuta and Aaron Lynch were also consistently in the Rams’ backfield, and even Antoine Bethea picked up a sack on a safety blitz in the 4th quarter. The Rams’ offensive line isn’t great, but any production from this unit is a good sign.

This Pass

Whatta pass

The Bad Things

Run Game

The Rams committed to stopping the run from the outset, a strategy that has burned the 49ers’ opponents in the past. The 49ers were only able to gain 89 yards on the ground, averaging 3 yards per carry, by far their lowest Y/C this season. Although they have struggled to rush the passer, the Rams defensive front has been strong against the run, and it isn’t surprising they opted to take away the 49ers’ ground game.

Injuries

The 49ers lost a lot of talent on Monday, including Patrick Willis, Jimmie Ward, Stevie Johnson and Mike Iupati. This team has found ways to win without some of its key players, but they can’t really afford to lose anyone else at this point. There isn’t a ton of info on the other injuries, but Willis is expected to be out until after the 49ers’ bye. His replacement, rookie Chris Borland, filled in well, but will be hard pressed to replace the 49ers’ leading tackler.

The Other Things

Coaching

The 49ers’ coaches had a good day overall, out-scheming the Rams after a slow start and making some astoundingly effective adjustments at halftime. However, the decision to go for it not once, but twice on 4th down late in the came nearly burned the 49ers. Given how well they shut the Rams down in the second half, I can understand Jim Harbaugh’s willingness to go for it on 4th and goal, but the second attempt baffled me. All that said, none of this would matter if Vernon Davis hadn’t prevented Vance McDonald from scoring a touchdown.

Offensive Line

The o-line had a great day in pass protection, giving Kaep time to do what he does best and keeping the Rams sackless. However, the lack of push in the run game was frustrating, particularly on the two 4th down runs. It’s hard to get too upset given the quality of the defensive line they were facing, but it was uncharacteristic for a unit that so often overpowers opponents on the ground.

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

 

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The 49ers take the national stage tomorrow, facing the St. Louis Rams on Monday Night Football. After two straight wins at home, the 49ers are hoping to keep their momentum going on the road against the Rams and Denver Broncos.

The Rams are a strange matchup; a lot has gone wrong for them, but they’ve gotten unexpected production from backup quarterback Austin Davis, who has accumulated a 96.8 quarterback rating in four starts. They are also the first “struggling” team the 49ers have played. The first five games of the season were surprisingly tough: the 49ers’ opponents cumulative record stands at 15-9, a total bolstered by the surging 4-1 Dallas Cowboys. The Rams have lots of dangerous pieces, but they’ve been ravaged by injuries. Here is what I will be watching for:

Pass Rush

Much like Drew Stanton, Davis is overproducing as a quarterback, but is still dangerous. The 49ers have been able to get a little going against quarterbacks in the last two games, thanks mostly to Aaron Lynch and Justin Smith, but the pass rush needs to be on its game tomorrow. The Rams’ offensive line isn’t very good, but the onus is on the 49ers to generate pressure and force Davis to make hasty decisions.

Run Game

St. Louis has been inconsistent against the run. Opposing rushers are averaging 4.9 YPC against the Rams thanks to a mediocre secondary, which struggles to stop backs when they reach the second level. Given the recent resurgence of the 49ers’ ground game, this will be an excellent opportunity to keep things going. Hopefully Greg Roman understands this, and will use a balanced gameplan.

Offensive Line

Last season, the Rams boasted the most productive defensive line in the NFL, and bolstered it in the offseason by adding defensive tackle Aaron Donald in the draft. This season, they’ve struggled to generate pressure, which is a big reason for the Rams 1-3 record. The 49ers o-line has been horrible in pass protection, and I believe the Rams’ defensive front is just too talented to struggle for long. This will be a great test for the 49ers, who should get things rolling on the ground before working in playmakers like Stevie Johnson and Vernon Davis.

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.

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 Offseason Overview

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We are just now dipping our toes into the wet cement of the offseason. The 49ers front office is currently under siege by reporters, who are determined to guess at the inner workings of one of the NFL’s most successful front offices, cite suspect evidence and claim that the 49ers’ 36-11-1 record is far less important than how unnamed members of the team feel about Jim Harbaugh’s enthusiasm. Despite this, the front office is facing an incredibly important offseason, and must make good choices to ensure that the 49ers’ run can continue.

Most experts have asserted that cornerback is the 49ers’ number one concern, but I am not convinced. The secondary played pretty well last year, even after losing Chris Culliver and Nnamdi Asomugha to injury. This has a lot to do with the 49ers’ pass rush, which seemed to improve as the season went on. The 49ers didn’t really go after a top flight corner in 2012; they drafted Marcus Cooper, who ended up having a great season… in Kansas City. Cornerback will be a priority in the draft, but with Culliver set to return and Tarell Brown likely to continue his career in San Francisco, they will have decent depth at the position no matter what they do.

I am not partial to megadeals or over-aggressiveness in free agency, but there is a small part of me that would love to see some creativity at the wideout position. If we learned anything last season, it is that Colin Kaepernick needs targets. The loss of Delaine Walker, Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss took its toll early in the season. I would love to see the 49ers front office focus on turning the receiving corp into a place of strength. This means spending a first round pick not on Justin Gilbert or Jason Verrett, but on Odel Beckham Jr., Mike Evans or even trading up to get Sammy Watkins. The 49ers have been linked to Oregon State speedster Brandin Cooks, but I just don’t have confidence in Greg Roman to utilize a speedy player effectively. I would personally prefer a big-bodied pass catcher like Kelvin Benjamin, who can help the 49ers overcome their red zone troubles.

I doubt this will happen; the 49ers do need depth in the secondary, and the draft holds some great prospects. However, it would be nice if the front office made some moves and helped the offense take a step forward. A healthy corp of Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Quinton Patton and Vernon Davis was difficult to handle at the end of last season. Just imagine what a talented rookie receiving threat could add.

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.