Things have gotten ugly.
No, I'm not selling the season down-river, I'm not calling things over, and I won't make long-term predictions...but things have gotten ugly.
In the last two games the 49ers have been embarrassed. They've been sufficiently outscored, which is the most blatantly obvious part, but more so they seem to have been exposed. Maybe not exposed in the way that this is who they are, will always be, and just call off the dogs...but certain things are becoming more and more clear.
First, there's Colin Kaepernick. He doesn't, well, look like Colin Kaepernick, at least not the Kap that we thought we knew: the gun-slinging, big-armed, tight-window-throwing, streaking-down-the-field-on-running-plays superstar who seemed unstoppable at times. Nope, that guy hasn't shown up lately.
Instead we have what I can only describe as a more athletic, stronger-armed version of Alex Smith, circa 2009. The guy who not only was hesitant to make throws and was uncomfortable in the pocket, but when he did let it loose, it often resulted in an interception. Yep. That's who we have right now in Colin Kaepernick.
It's not a slight to him. I don't think this is who he really is, will always be, etc. But it's how he's playing, and it's damned frustrating.
He drops back to pass, looks, then seems to immediately get ants in his pants. He's running around like a chicken with his head cut off, often getting sacked anyway or running out of bounds for no gain, or a loss. He's having passes tipped, some times for INTs. Receivers are dropping the ball, when he throws it to them, anyway. This is bad deja-vu, man.
Then there's the complete absence of his legs. Yeah, he's had a 20 yard run here or there, but it's been few and far between. It's also been surrounded by unsuccessful attempts out of some sort of faux read-option plays that really look like designed runs.
His killer instinct with the ball in his hands seems to have been mitigated by a "protect yourself and don't make mistakes" mentality. Whether that was/is being whispered into his ear by coaches or is his own way of trying to prove that he's a complete QB, a pocket-passer...we don't really know.
What we do know is that he's not the same right now.
Speaking of play-calling (yeah, I know it was three paragraphs ago)...
What's up with abandoning the run-game? The 49ers were down by six points, that's two field goals or a touchdown and blocked extra point, yet they abandoned the run almost completely in the second half. Frank Gore had been ripping off runs of 10+, even a 20+ yard run, and yet Greg Roman decides the 49ers need to sling the ball all over the yard...cause that's been working well lately.
It appears that the 49ers are bound and determined to prove they are and can be a passing team, one that belongs with the "new NFL", you know, throwing it 57 times and scoring 40+ points a game. Yeah, since when did we stock the cupboard with players who fit that mold?
The offensive line is made up of huge mauling run blockers who tend to struggle with quick pass rushers at times. There are always three tight ends active for every game, and they're on the field at the same time frequently, at least two at a time. Their best receiver is a guy who'd run a close race with a defensive lineman, and their quarterback has started about a dozen games in the NFL.
Doesn't exactly sound like the 2007 Patriots to me.
On defense the 49ers are not stopping the run, and teams are committing to it. Look back at the losses, even in 2012. The Vikings and Giants both ran roughshod over the 49ers. In fact, in nearly every loss the team has had in the last few years the opposition almost always ran the ball 30+ times. It's as though the 49ers bank on stopping the run early, then the other team giving up on it.
That ain't working out so well.
Oh, and where's the pass-rush? I can't be the only person watching the game who sees a clean pocket form, one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three...still nobody has gotten to the QB...
Forget the sack numbers. The eye test and the passing stats the opposition is putting up will tell you all you need to know: The pass rush isn't cutting it.
Oh yeah, and the guy believed to be the best of the bunch in that department? He's checking into the Betty Ford (or is it White?) clinic...
Then there's the secondary. When they're not missing tackles they're getting flagged for illegal contact, holding, or defensive pass interference. Maybe they're relying on the pass-rush to bail them out. Maybe that always was the case. It sure seems like the 49ers haven't put much thought or money into upgrading their secondary, besides drafting Eric Reid.
Think about it: They got Carlos Rogers for a song, gave him a modest three-year deal, and he's underwhelmed, but they've held on to him. Chris Culliver was a third-round pick, Tramaine Brock was undrafted, and Nnamdi Asomugha was a guy nobody wanted to sign when Philadelphia cut him.
Tarell Brown was widely considered to be the best corner on the team, a guy who's contract is up at the end of 2013, yet it's all-quiet on that front. The 49ers seem content with a scrap-heap secondary who depends on a heavy pass-rush to force errant throws or no throw at all.
How many years were we certain they'd draft a first-round corner, only to watch them sift through the bin at Goodwill and find some discarded has-been or never-was, then turn him into a decent player for one year and one year only?
As if all of this wasn't enough, then there's injuries.
For a team that mostly avoided the biggest injuries from piling up over the past few years, well, they've received their injury-karma in full thus-far in 2013. First it was Michael Crabtree, then Mario Manningham wasn't ready, yet. LaMichael James was out the first three games, Ian Williams breaks his ankle, Vernon Davis could miss two games with a hammy and Patrick Willis and Nnamdi are both question-marks for Thursday's games vs. the Rams.
"And a partridge in a pear treeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"
This team has issues. Are they doomed? Hell no. Much of it can be fixed, but it will take more than what has appeared to be un-inspired play, un-creative defense, and mind-boggling play-calling on offense. Here's my recipe to turn it around:
- Let Kap be Kap - Jim Harbaugh always talks about "athletic instincts" when he evaluates players. Kap has these in spades. He was at his best when he let the game come to him, played in the moment, and made quick decisions, trusting his abilities. He's not playing with that fire any more. I get it, he's valuable, he's the franchise QB, etc. What good does any of that do if the team is losing games and keeping their defense (which is aging) on the field the entire game? Let Kap play his game. Let him run, let him run a REAL read-option, where he makes the decision, and he runs the ball like his hair is on fire. He's playing scared right now, and that get's you killed, figuratively.
- Run the damn ball - Frank Gore is doing his part, and the offensive line was doing it's job, for the most part, in the first half of the Colts game. I don't care if you're averaging two yards per carry, never abandon the run. You're one dimensional, defenses know it, now you can't throw it, either. Get numbers in your favor, send more blockers than they can defend, execute your assignments, and stuff it down their fricking throats. That's who the 49ers are, that's how their built, and the defense is sucking wind over there on the sideline. Let's work together, here.
- Get guys open with scheme - The 49ers supposedly simplified the offense for Kap last season, giving him easy reads that were most-often open. Yeah, we saw him go through progressions a few times, but think back: there were plenty of quick throws, too. Get guys open with scheme, and get Kap going through his reads quickly. Give him "guaranteed" throws vs. man coverage. And if there's a lane to run through, for God's sake, tell him to run like he's being chased by hornets and there's a pond in the end zone.
- Get creative with the pass rush - This defense obviously needs to get pressure. The secondary is largely made up of guys who might not be playing for anyone next year. Hell, they should probably just be playing zone, in dime, so there are just so many guys out there that chances are one of them can get in the way of a throw. So use all your crazy stunts, zone blitz, move them around, stand them up, send them from everywhere...just keep the safeties deep. Thank God for Eric Reid.
- Clean up the penalties - Maybe easier said than done. I know the illegal contact and DPI's are subjective, and it sucks that sometimes teams get away with piggy-back rides in the secondary while other refs expect defenders to give receivers some sort of bubble until ten minutes after they've run down the field, around the field, into the locker room, and got on the plane to go home...But the other stuff, false-starts, stupid personal fouls, crashing into trees...that crap has to stop. Might as well just line up 10 yards back from the line of scrimmage a dozen times per game and concede first downs that way...there'd be less yellow at least.
I know this was a "duh" post. This isn't rocket science and I'm no Einstein, but I needed to get it off my chest. Maybe some of you felt the same way, though, and this helped you to vent, to grieve, too. I'm not qualified to pick up the jock-straps in the locker-room, let alone give coaching advice, but it sure's hell looks this easy to me, and part of me wants to believe that it is, too.
I'll be at the game in St. Louis this Thursday, so let's hope I don't have to do the walk of shame out of the Edward Jones Dome, please.
I have faith in you, 49ers. Please watch Rudy or Remember the Titans or Braveheart or whatever you need to do. At this point my psyche is going to need several blowout wins in order to make up for what my eyes have seen the past few weeks.
Speaking of my eyes, I've been wondering why they've been so red lately...and I didn't even take any of Aldon's pills.