The National Football League will humble you. It will bite you, chew you up, and spit you out before you even realize what is happening. After two horrible contests the 49ers seem to be imploding on multiple levels. Welcome to the current state of confusion that is the San Francisco 49ers.
The silver lining? Everything can be fixed. This team is two seasons removed from a 13-3 campaign and made the Super Bowl last year. It has only been two years since the NFL was introduced to Har-ball . Play turnover free football, win the field position contest, run over your opponent with a power running game, and out think your foe. If this sounds familiar it should. It is exactly how the 49er's last two opponents have mauled them. This same recipe was used last year in losses to Minnesota, Seattle, and St. Louis. The 49ers are being out-49ered.
I am no football expert. I don't analyze games with the All 22 film. I don't attend the 49er pressers or get paid to write stories or blogs about the team. (By the way, how in the hell does Grant Cohn have a job?) I do pay attention though, and I am objective and real about the team's problems. I see some troubling things within the 49ers right now. Here are some issues that I see going wrong at the moment.
The read-option fantasy. This was the perfect gimmick when introduced on an unsuspecting NFL. The league had not seen this "college" style offense with any regularity. Teams were caught completely off guard by it, and the 49ers used it perfectly to utilize one of their most talented players. Colin Kaepernick was a magician and ran it with great success in a few games before he assumed the starting QB role mid season, and after he took the reigns.
So what has happened? Watching college games on Saturdays and other NFL teams that used it heavily last year has proved that coaches have caught on. Defenses are loading the box, even asking ends to totally forget about the running back and shadow and punish the QB if he keeps the ball. They are daring the offense to throw the ball. We witnessed the passing game work well against Green Bay's young and banged up zone. Unfortunately we also saw the it disappear against the stellar press secondary of Seattle and mysteriously against a middle of the pack Colt's secondary yesterday. Live by the read option, die by the read option. As we have seen, the offense is dying by it right now. Don't be mislead by Kap's running yards......most are coming on broken down pass plays, not the read option.
Where O where has the running game gone? I am not going to regurgitate a bunch of easily attained stats, but the 49ers have been dominate under Harbaugh's Bo Schembechler inspired power running game. In fact, I think it is commonly agreed that the offensive line is the best run blocking line in football. Line up with two tight ends, or three even and run it right at them. Traps, pulls, extra lineman, powerful north-south running that wears down and demoralizes a defense. Starting RB Frank Gore is perfect for this attack. A one cut, low center of gravity guy who has amazing vision and can utilize his blockers better than most backs in the NFL. Bruce Miller is fast and strong and very effective at leading a RB through the hole. Harbaugh has about 600 different formations and shifts to keep defenses guessing. So I ask again, what happened to the running game?
Just like a kid at Christmas, Harbaugh got a new toy. A shiny, tall, tattooed toy that though a little rough, showed just enough brilliance to banish all the other "old" toys to the back of the toy box. The Chicago game was a coming out party for Kaepernick and the new offense. The deep pass perfectly dropped into the hands of a sprinting Kyle Williams was amazing. The third read throw to Crabtree for a TD was superb. Inexperience at recognizing coverages was covered up by laser dart throws that maybe two or three other Qbs in this league can make. Harbaugh was mesmerized. The OC was enraptured with his new toy. The power run game slowly was forgotten. Frank Gore had an amazing season while defenses were still confused about the read option. Touchdowns by him and LaMichael James against the Falcons were scored out of a read option look where the defense over played the QB.
Thus far in 2013 the power run game is gone. There was a glimmer of hope against the Colt's very suspect run defense. Everybody in America knew the 49ers were going to line up and get the run game back on track. Frank Gore had 60 yards in the first quarter. Hunter broke a great sweep (was that finally an outside run?) for a TD. The run game was back. Right? Wrong. After falling behind, though still completely in the game because of a strong effort by the defense, they started down the slippery slope that is the 49er playbook. OC Roman and Harbaugh seem to lose focus and perhaps replay all the down field throws that Kap has and can make. "Hey coach, do you remember that throw to Randy Moss against New England? How about that 13 catch game Boldin had against Green Bay! Let's scrap the run and just chuck it like Mike Martz!"
What is with all the penalties? The 49ers either lead or are near the top of the league in penalties. You want to make your job harder? Try giving the opposition free yards and new downs with shocking regularity. That is a sure way to make your defense work harder. Even stellar defensive units look pedestrian when they can't get off the field. This brings me to my next point...
Why are the players losing their cool so easily and getting stupid personal fouls? Lately the 49ers are making all the dumb "second shove" penalties that referees always seem to notice. These have a tendency to be magnified when the team is losing or behind. Getting pushed around is not what these guys are used to. After a decade of getting sand kicked in their faces, they are the bullies now. Or were. They do not do well when it is them getting pushed around. "We can do whatever we want. We are the SF 49ers." Though Harbaugh may have been kidding, I tend to believe that this was the team's feeling after all the success recently. Just like every other big ego that lets their brain believe the hype, this team is now being shown exactly who they are. Over inflated egos and a sense of entitlement have never worked in the NFL. When you are winning and can back up these claims, everything is fine. When the armor is chinked though, you see who you really are.
Is the window closing? Absolutely it is. Super Bowls are extremely hard to win. They are even more difficult to return to. Tougher schedules, aging players, free agency, and lots of extra film for opposing defenses to plan with. You are now the hunted, and this is always worse than being the hunter.
The X-factor of injuries. The 49ers have been exceedingly lucky on the injury front the last two seasons. This year started off bad with the loss of Crabtree and the slow return of key contributors from last season. Couple this with the double edged sword of depth that allowed them to draft lots of injured talent and you have the recipe for disaster. Key positions that are exposed by injury are showing up already this year. Vernon Davis was greatly missed yesterday. Patrick Willis will be greatly missed Thursday night. How about the WR position or the impact that LaMichael James has on special teams? Chris Culliver was huge for the secondary last year.
As you can see, there isn't ONE thing that is wrong with the team right now. The combination of all the above listed items is contributing to the current state of the franchise. The light at the end of the tunnel is that it can be fixed. I keep hearing how great this coaching staff is. They should be able to objectively view the situation.
IF Harbaugh can keep his ego in check and admit to the mirror that changes have to be made, I have no doubt the team can turn this thing around. Most likely they are not going to win the division. That's okay. Just getting in the playoff picture will be great. As the Ravens and Giants have shown recently, it is not how you start a season, but how you finish one.