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Spreading the blame for the 49ers' offensive problems

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The 49ers offense has been wildly disappointing this season, and there's no single person to blame. Their problems run much deeper than that.

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We couldn’t get even a single week of reprieve. Traveling across the bay to face an Oakland Raiders defense that is one of the league’s worst was supposed to make the Niners’ offense look competent, if only for 60 minutes. Maybe, if we were lucky, we’d get a week off from all of ‘blow it up’ talk currently surrounding the team. Instead, the 49ers gave us their single-worst performance of the season.

San Francisco’s offense is an absolute dumpster fire right now. Actually, dumpster fire probably isn’t strong enough… San Francisco’s offense is an Olympic-sized pool of sadness and despair. It’s seriously depressing. There are so many things wrong with this unit, it’s difficult to know where to begin.

Most will go straight to the highest-profile pieces: Colin Kaepernick and Jim Harbaugh (you can insert Greg Roman here if it makes you feel better, but it’s the same complaint). Last week’s disaster against the Raiders brought plenty of those takes from the national media. As with most things, it’s not quite that simple, but thankfully there were a couple of more worthwhile dissections of San Francisco’s issues.

Grantland’s Bill Barnwell addressed the Niners’ offensive problems in his Monday column, and Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar offered some similar thoughts on Twitter this morning (follow-up article). If you haven’t yet checked them out, I encourage you to do so. The general gist from both writers was the same… no one is pulling their weight on the 49ers’ offense.

With that in mind, let’s construct an argument against each element of San Francisco’s offense to highlight just how easy it is to blame whoever you want.

The Backfield

Frank Gore is no longer the same player, having clearly lost a step in his age-31 season. Barring a miraculous three-game stretch to close the season, Gore will finish the year with the lowest yards per carry (4.0) and yards per game (59.6) figures of his career. Gore’s surprisingly high success rate is a testament to his tremendous vision and balance, which still allows him to squeeze out yardage between the tackles when it appears there’s none to be had. But any shred of speed that Gore once had has left him.

Explosive runs have been completely absent from San Francisco’s running game this year. Just 19 of Gore’s 193 carries (9.8%) have gone for 10 or more yards; only two of those runs have topped 20 yards. Last season, Gore finished with 31 runs (11.9%) that produced double digit yardage, and in 2012 he had 42 such runs (16.2%).

Rookie Carlos Hyde has shown flashes, but has rarely been able to translate those flashes into actual production. Hyde’s yards per carry (3.6) is nearly half a yard less than Gore’s, and he’s had more than twice as many carries get stopped for a loss or no gain (16) than have gone for 10 yards or more (7).

After leading the league in runs of 20 or more yards in 2013 — and finishing tied for second in 2012 — only the Giants, Raiders, and Bears have produced fewer such runs than the 49ers this season. What was supposed to be one of the deepest and most talented backfields in football entering the season has been below average at best, and that’s probably being generous.

The Receivers

San Francisco’s skill position players have received little attention when it comes to the 49ers’ inability to put points on the board. In fact, most use this group as part of the argument for why Kaepernick or the coaching staff has been so terrible. How can a team with this much talent at the skill positions struggle to move the ball so much? In reality, not a single player in this group has approached expectations.

The 49ers are throwing more frequently this season, giving their receivers more opportunities, and yet the production from this group has been just as abysmal as before. The combination of Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, and Stevie Johnson are undoubtedly the most talented group of pass catchers the 49ers have had in over a decade. The problem is they’re all roughly the same player, fitting the same possession receiver archetype — and they’ve all been underwhelming in that role.

Boldin, Crabtree, and Johnson are all much better working the short and intermediate areas of the defense. None of them have the speed to stretch the defense vertically, and all of them struggle to consistently separate from man coverage. As a result, secondaries can cheat up. Safeties move closer to the line of scrimmage, making it easier to help against the run, as well as jump underneath throwing lanes. Cornerbacks don’t need to provide any cushion, allowing them to overplay shorter routes because they’re unafraid of getting beat over the top.

Vernon Davis and Brandon Lloyd were supposed to be the guys who opened things up underneath, but that simply hasn’t happened. Lloyd has been a worse version of what Randy Moss was for the 49ers’ offense in 2012. Lloyd has made a couple of big plays, notably his acrobatic catch along the sideline against the Chiefs in Week 5 and his 80-yard touchdown at the end of the first half against the Rams in Week 6, but has done little else.

That happens to be two more notable plays than Vernon Davis has managed to produce this season. Davis struggled with ankle and back injuries early in the year, and whether it’s due to those injuries or a loss of athleticism after hitting the wrong side of 30, he just hasn’t looked like the same player when he’s been in the lineup. Davis is averaging under 10 yards per reception for the first time since his sophomore campaign in 2007 and his only catch of 20-plus yards came in the first quarter of San Francisco’s season opener in Dallas.

To make matters worse, drops have plagued this unit when any of them manage to get open. According to Pro Football Focus, the only quarterback that’s seen more of his passes dropped than Colin Kaepernick (30) this season is Andrew Luck (36), and Luck has attempted 135 more passes. Davis, Crabtree, and Boldin have all dropped at least 10 percent of passes thrown their direction. Since Kaepernick took over as the starter, the only other Niners’ receiver with 20-plus targets to have a drop rate of at least 10 percent was Delanie Walker, which should tell you all you need to know about the struggles this group has had hanging on to the ball.

The Offensive Line

Once the unquestioned strength of this football team, the 49ers offensive line has been one of the league’s worst this season. I looked at the line’s struggles more in-depth about a month ago and little has changed since then.

Continuity has been a huge problem up front. As Barnwell noted on Monday, if Marcus Martin is unable to go against the Seahawks this week, the 49ers will run out their seventh different line rotation of the year. This was a unit that started only seven players total from 2011–13, and even that was the result of an intentional move at right guard from the combination of Adam Snyder and Chilo Rachal to Alex Boone. Once Boone took over the starting gig prior to the 2012 season, the 49ers started the same group of five in all but four games over the next two seasons.

As San Francisco has learned firsthand this year, that sort of continuity up front is incredibly difficult to maintain. Anthony Davis’s injury has been the most significant. Davis has played in just three games this season, forcing Jonathan Martin to see far more action than anyone would like. With Daniel Kilgore on IR and Marcus Martin’s status uncertain, the 49ers could be moving on to their third starting center this week. Toss in a few missed games from Joe Staley and Mike Iupati on the left side, and things have been an absolute mess for this unit.

Success on offense begins with the offensive line. It doesn’t matter how good your running backs are if they’re getting hit in the backfield and it doesn’t matter how talented your receivers are if the quarterback doesn’t have time to throw. Injuries and poor performance from San Francisco’s line has brought down the play of the entire offense.

Colin Kaepernick

More of the blame in recent weeks has shifted towards Kaepernick. He had quite possibly the worst game of his career on Thanksgiving against the Seahawks and followed it up with a performance that wasn’t much better against the Raiders. When judging the entirety of the season, I don’t think Kaepernick has been quite as bad as some have made it out to be, but there’s no question 2014 has been his worst season has a starter.

There are a lot of reasons you can point to for Kaepernick’s drop in production, but perhaps the two biggest reasons are an increase in turnovers and a lack of success on deep passes.

While no one would call San Francisco’s passing offense under Harbaugh prolific, it’s been very efficient with Kaepernick under center. The 49ers produced the fourth-best passing offense by DVOA a season ago and the fifth-best in 2012. They’ve fallen all the way to 22nd in the same metric this year. That previous level of efficiency stemmed in large part from Kaepernick’s ability to take care of the football and produce big plays in the passing game.

Barnwell touched on Kaepernick’s increase in turnovers — his 17 combined interceptions and fumbles have already topped last year’s combined total of 14 — and that’s caused the 49ers to drop from one of the league’s most turnover-adverse teams on a per-drive basis down to roughly league average.

The absence of a deep passing game has made that increase in turnovers difficult to overcome. Kaepernick is still throwing deep at basically an identical rate to previous seasons, per Pro Football Focus’s data. His average depth of target had held at just about 10 yards in each of his three seasons, while the percentage of throws that have traveled 20 or more yards in the air has been between 13–16 percent. It’s Kaepernick’s accuracy on these throws that has taken a dive.

Kaepernick has always been inconsistent with his accuracy and touch on underneath throws, but that was never a problem when throwing down the field. While he was never going to keep up the absurd completion rate he posted on deep throws during his half-season as a starter in 2012, it was reasonable to expect him to remain among the league’s best in this area. That hasn’t been the case this season.

Kaepernick is completing just a shade over 30 percent of his deep passes this season, a rate nearly half that of his 2012 season. He’s thrown more interceptions on deep passes (5) than he did in the two previous years combined (3).

When you struggle in two of your biggest areas of strength, it makes all the other inconsistencies in your play that much more apparent, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen from Kaepernick this season.

The Coaching Staff

When every aspect of your offense is struggling, the natural inclination is to point the finger at the coaching staff, and the combination of Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman have certainly taken the brunt of the blame.

Many of the criticisms of Harbaugh and Roman — game-planning, play-calling, etc. — are difficult to discuss with any level of certainty. NFL Films’ Greg Cosell has a habit of saying that unless you’re in the meeting rooms and apart of that group that builds those game plans each week, you really have no idea what goes into it. This is a theory that I certainly subscribe to.

Criticism of coaching staffs are almost entirely results-oriented, ex post facto arguments. If a call doesn’t work or the team has a bad game, it’s a poor playcall or a poor game plan, and vice versa. But if you don’t know the process that went into those decisions, how can you reasonably assess the outcome? If plays are there to be made, and the players don’t execute, is it still the coaching staff’s problem?

Rather than waste anymore time on that argument, there’s something else I find a bit more interesting as it relates to the coaching staff that has gotten more attention recently and that’s the utilization of Kaepernick. Cosell touched on that this week:

I think you have to decide ultimately what the goal is going to be. What do you think Colin Kaepernick can be? Do you think that at the end of the day he’s a quarterback that will rely on his movement? He’ll make some spectacular plays, and he’ll never quite be consistent, but you’ll want him to make those spectacular plays that his legs can allow him to make at times. Or are you trying to make him into a pocket quarterback, which a lot of people might say that defeats the purpose of what Colin Kaepernick is. And I get all these arguments, but right now you’re caught in between because he’s not improving as a pocket player.

It’s a fantastic question and your answer really depends on your priorities. If your primary goal is winning right now, then there’s no question the 49ers should be looking to take advantage of Kaepernick’s legs more frequently, both with designed runs and the types of passes they are calling. On the other hand, if your primary goal is the development of Kaepernick into a long-term option at quarterback, he clearly needs to continue to work on the subtleties of playing from within the pocket.

How players are used tells you what the coaches think of them. That’s another Cosell-ism that I’m very fond of. If we apply that thinking to the 49ers and Colin Kaepernick, it’s clear Harbaugh and Roman believe that Kaepernick is capable of running a high-level passing game. San Francisco is throwing the ball more frequently (partially by design, partially because they’ve been trailing more frequently this year). They’re using play action less often. They’re putting multiple receivers on the field more often. Simply, they’re putting the offense on Kaepernick’s back and asking him to do more from the pocket than he was ever asked to do previously.

Again, whether or not that’s good coaching depends on your perspective. The results for this season are obvious. But if in a few years, we’re able to look back on this season as the growing pains that ultimately led to Kaepernick’s improved ability as a pocket passer, then one down season seems well worth it. But if Kaepernick never develops into the player that San Francisco’s coaching staff is telling us that they believe he can be, then 2014 goes down as a lost year in which perhaps the final useful season of a number of veteran players was wasted.

Unfortunately, we might never get the chance to find out. Rumors regarding Harbaugh’s future with the team have run so rampant that it’s difficult to maintain any belief that he’ll return to San Francisco for a fifth season and beyond. And it’s a damn shame. Harbaugh put together one of the best runs in recent NFL history and he did it immediately.

You’ve likely seen this stat several times at this point, but it bears repeating. In the eight seasons leading up to Harbaugh’s arrival, the 49ers won just 46 games, good for a .359 winning percentage. They made zero trips to the playoffs and posted zero winning seasons. In only 61 games, Harbaugh has nearly matched that win total (43) and his .713 winning percentage is the fourth-highest in that time frame.

One poor year — as tumultuous as it’s been — does not undo everything Harbaugh was able to accomplish in the three previous seasons. No single person is responsible for San Francisco’s offensive struggles. Considering other, more subtle aspects such as special teams and field position have also had an impact on this offense, you have issues that are truly a team problem. Harbaugh remains one of the league’s best coaches and if the organization thinks moving on from him will solve all of the 49ers problems, they are sorely mistaken.