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Evaluating the 49ers offense through the first quarter of the 2015 season

With the first quarter of the 2015 season in the books, it's time to take a step back and see where the 49ers stand in the big picture, starting with the offense.

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With the NFL schedule splitting into convenient four-week chunks, the time between Week 4 and Week 5 represents our first real opportunity to take a quick step back from the week-to-week grind and see where things stand on a larger scale.

Football is full of small sample sizes. The entire 16-game regular season isn’t always enough for teams to exhibit their true performance level, so we can certainly see some strange things over one-quarter of that. But with four games in the books, we have a decent idea of how things are coming together for each team. We have enough information to identify where teams are good or bad, and can start to make some evaluations as to whether those things will stick around for the long haul.

So that’s what we’ll be doing over the next couple of days with the San Francisco 49ers, starting with the offense today before checking in on the defense tomorrow.

This is the first time you will have read this anywhere on the Internet. Ready? Colin Kaepernick & Co. are off to a rough start. OK, maybe that wasn’t the first time… But just how bad as it been? New-offensive-coordinator-with-a-rookie-quarterback-level bad; only Jameis Winston and the Bucs have been worse on offense this season, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. San Francisco’s 48 points scored is the lowest total in football by two full touchdowns. No one else is below the 62 points scored by Blake Bortles and the Jaguars. Pull up just about any other measure of offensive output and the results will be similar. That’s where we’re at with this offense — comparing them to team’s from Florida. Excuse me while I go shower.

No one would have confused previous Kaepernick-led offenses with a point-scoring juggernaut, but as you can imagine, the 2015 version of this offense is performing well below what we’ve seen from this team in previous seasons.

Year Points/Game Points/Drive Yards/Drive Yards/Play
2013–14 22.3 1.86 29.2 5.3
2015 12.0 1.15 26.7 4.7

That fall takes the 49ers from roughly league-average production on a per-drive basis (think Chiefs and Bengals from 2014) to one of the worst offenses in football (only the Raiders and Jaguars put up similar numbers last year). If you’re an optimist, you might be saying to yourself that it’s only four games and the 49ers have bounced back from rough starts in the past. And you wouldn’t be totally wrong. Most notably, ugly efforts in losses to the Seahawks and Colts early in 2013 didn’t keep San Francisco’s offense in the gutter all season. We’ll get to reasons why 2015 has been different shortly, but let’s begin with the fact that 2015’s rough start has been markedly worse.

Year DVOA After 4 Weeks Rank Final DVOA Rank
2013 0.6% 17 9.1% 5
2014 1.1% 17 –0.4% 16
2015 –25.8% 31 ? ?

The bad has been really bad and there has been hardly any good to offset it. In fact, when you start drilling deeper into the 49ers’ performance on offense, it’s hard to find areas where they’ve been any good at all. Even the run game, which currently ranks eighth by DVOA, is propped up entirely by the Vikings game. San Francisco has posted a negative run offense DVOA in each of the past three games as they’ve watched defenses load up on the run early before large deficits eventually force a heavy reliance on the passing game later.

So where have things gone wrong? There are a lot of fingers to point, but let’s examine the three most notable in ascending order of importance.

3. Offensive Line

Following the retirement of Anthony Davis, we knew this unit was going to struggle. But if it’s possible for San Francisco’s offensive line to fall short of even basement-level expectations, they’ve done so.

Whatever they’re doing on pass plays hardly qualifies as "protection." San Francisco’s adjusted sack rate of 10 percent is the fourth-worst mark in football. Marcus Martin, considered the most promising center prospect in the 2014 draft class, has been even worse during his sophomore campaign than in a roller-coaster rookie season. There seems to be a handful of plays per game where the right side of Jordan Devey and Erik Pears does something so egregious you think Trent Baalke might have grabbed the two biggest dudes he could find at a local food-eating contest an hour before kickoff. Even Joe Staley has been playing below his established level of performance, having allowed a sack in three consecutive games for the first time since the start of the 2008 season, per Pro Football Focus. The offensive line hasn’t been solely to blame for the gaudy pressure numbers we’ve seen this season, but their role is undeniable.

Staley & Co. have been equally ineffective in the ground game. San Francisco’s aforementioned eighth-ranked rushing attack is helped tremendously by an incredible performance from Carlos Hyde in Week 1, and some relatively efficient running from Colin Kaepernick in the read-option game. Isolating only carries by running backs, the 49ers are averaging 3.84 yards per carry, falling below the league average of 4.01. According to data provided by Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, San Francisco’s running backs are averaging just 1.0 yards per carry before contact. To put that number in context, only 11 of the 53 backs with at least 20 carries fall below that figure. Whatever yards the 49ers are getting on the ground is almost entirely on the shoulders of Hyde and his backfield mates.

Continuity plays a major role in offensive line performance, so shuffling parts around isn’t typically an advised course of action. Part of the reason things have been so bad up front is because the coaching staff waited so long in the process to determine a starting five. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine things getting much worse than the current situation.

The logical moves would appear to be moving Alex Boone out to right tackle, kicking Pears inside, and inserting Brandon Thomas at the other guard spot. Daniel Kilgore is eligible to return from the PUP list in Week 7, and would be an upgrade at center provided he can return to his previous level of play. His return to the lineup would allow the 49ers to put out a starting five of Staley-Thomas-Kilgore-Martin-Boone. That would be San Francisco’s most talented five-man group. Whether they would be able to gel quickly enough to see notable improvements is difficult to say, but it certainly appears more enticing than the alternative of doing nothing.

Not long ago, the 49ers were a team built from the inside out, with one of the best lines in football powering a brutally efficient, albeit deliberate, offense. That feels like decades ago after watching this team through four weeks. But if the 49ers have any hopes of improving offensively, it starts with getting better play up front.

2. Coaching

So you’re telling me that promoting a quarterbacks coach with zero track record of coordinating anything successfully and filling his position with a radio host isn’t going so well, huh? Color me shocked.

Geep Chryst and his offensive staff have taken a playbook that wasn’t overly complex to begin with and stripped it to the point where opposing defenders are actually making public comments about how simple it is. That’s a point that’s probably been taken a little far — most coaches and players watch so much film that they have a solid idea of what’s coming on a given play based on personnel, formations, etc. — but it’s hard to turn on the film and find examples of Chryst doing San Francisco’s offense any favors.

First-down play calling has been predictable. When the score is within 14 points (i.e., situations where the play calling isn’t being overly influenced by the game situation), the 49ers are running the ball on over two-thirds of first down plays (67.7 percent), the second-highest rate in football. And it’s not difficult to see that defenses know it’s coming — San Francisco’s 4.54 yards per play in the same situations ranks 29th. These issues on first down put the 49ers in more difficult third-down situations, making it difficult to sustain drives and put points on the board.

In rare instances when the 49ers do find themselves in striking distance, play calling becomes problematic there too. Following the Steelers game, I discussed Chryst’s unimaginative series of play calls down at the goal line, and those problems have hardly been an outlier. Chryst becomes overly reliant on boot action throws to the flat or other throws short of the goal line that bank on yards after the catch in an area of the field that’s a little light on space. When the 49ers do throw into the end zone, it’s often on touch throws to the corner of the end zone that Kaepernick has never been good at. Everything is reliant upon players winning individual battles with little to no help from the play design. So it won’t surprise you that the 49ers’ 3.33 points per red zone trip is the league’s worst figure.

There have been a number of other curious decisions from this staff — handing the ball off to Reggie Bush on third-and–11 while only down four points, calling for numerous passes well short of the sticks on third down, and punting on fourth-and-short while trailing by multiple scores all come to mind. But perhaps the most inexplicable failure of this coaching staff has been their inability to get Torrey Smith involved in the passing game.

Smith, of course, was the most expensive free agent Trent Baalke has ever signed. While the rolling guarantees that have become standard practice for the 49ers are included in Smith’s deal, taking some of the sting out of his $40 million figure, his signing still represents the most significant investment Baalke has made at the position. And yet, he’s practically been an afterthought in this offense.

Smith has been on the field for just 65 percent of San Francisco’s offensive snaps, and has been targeted on just 17 of those snaps. Only six of those targets have come in the first half, with just one by way of the deep ball. One. That’s absurd. Smith has been one of the best deep threats in football for practically his entire career. There’s simply no excuse for not building in four or five deep shots down the field to Smith in every game, particularly early on. You can’t pin this failure on the offensive line either. These deep sideline shots can be taken off three-step drops, you don’t need all day in the pocket to make it happen.

Some of these issues are relatively easy to correct. Mixing things up on first down a bit more, remembering that Torrey Smith is on the roster, and not doing stupid things like handing the ball off to Reggie Bush on third-and-long are relatively straightforward adjustments. You don’t need to change the core of your offense to make those things happen. Other adjustments aren’t as simple. You can’t fundamentally change your offense in the middle of a season. But making some of these smaller changes, and not calling the game like you’re desperately trying not to lose it, would be a good start.

1. Colin Kaepernick

Of course, you can make all of the adjustments you want and it won’t really matter when you have a quarterback playing as poorly as Kaepernick has over the past couple weeks. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can skim through my Twitter timeline for examples of Kaepernick’s many failings during last week’s game against the Packers, but it’s been painful to watch.

Let’s start with the basics. Kaepernick has now taken a step back in nearly every relevant passing metric in every season since he became San Francisco’s starting quarterback midway through the 2012 season.

Year Starts Comp% Y/A TD% INT% ANY/A QBR DVOA DYAR
2012 7 62.4% 8.32 4.59% 1.38% 7.55 72.2 25.8% 555
2013 16 58.4% 7.69 5.05% 1.92% 6.65 68.6 16.6% 791
2014 16 60.5% 7.05 3.97% 2.09% 5.58 55.9 –8.4% 91
2015 4 62.1% 6.27 1.72% 4.31% 3.46 38.6 –37.5% –222

That’s a steady decline from Romo/Roethlisberger/Ryan-level production on a per-play basis to rookie-QB-on-a-bad-team-level bad. And just in case you’re having that same "bad start" thought from earlier, here’s how Kaepernick’s first four games compares to his opening four games from the past two seasons.

Year Comp% Y/A TD% INT%
2013 58.1% 7.32 4.27% 3.42%
2014 66.9% 7.35 4.84% 3.23%
2015 62.1% 6.27 1.72% 4.31%

(Note: I don’t have access to these four-game splits for the metics in the final four columns of the first table, which is why they’re absent here. Take my word for it, the point remains.)

The most discouraging thing about Kaepernick’s performance to start this season was that he started to show some actual signs of development in the first two games, albeit in limited doses. Awful performances against the Cardinals and Packers have completely washed those signs away, and Kaepernick has reverted to the same bad habits that have plagued him for much of his career.

Nearly every issue we’ve discussed so far has either been made worse by Kaepernick’s performance or can be traced directly to his failures. Pass protection problems? Kaepernick’s striking lack of pocket presence makes it worse than it seems and few quarterbacks take longer to get rid of the ball. First down issues? Kaepernick has the NFL’s worst completion percentage (45.0%) and yards per attempt (3.5) figures on first downs when the score is still within 14 points. Red zone woes? Kaepernick is 4-of–11 for 16 yards (1.5 Y/A), zero touchdowns, zero interceptions, and four sacks on red-zone drop backs in the same 14-point split, good for the league’s worst passer rating in those situations. We could keep going, but I think you get the point. Whenever the game has been within reach, Kaepernick has been awful.

Kaepernick’s problems are twofold: accuracy and performance under pressure. From deep sideline throws that land 10 yards out of bounds to short, routine throws that one-hop to the intended target’s feet, Kaepernick hasn’t even been close on a lot of these throws and too often fails to even give his receivers a chance to make a play on the ball.

When under pressure, Kaepernick completely falls apart. He has an insatiable desire to operate from space, so when the first signs of pressure shows, he’s immediately looking to get out of there when subtle movement within the pocket would be more than enough to get the ball out to an open receiver. Watch this play:

All Kaepernick has to do is hitch up in the pocket once to help out Staley and he has one of the easiest touchdown throws he’ll ever have to Garrett Celek in the back of the end zone. It’s a play literally every single NFL quarterback should be capable of making.

For those of you thinking this is all a gross overreaction to two bad games, that’s simply not the case. Kaepernick has been on this path for well over a season now, and these issues have been around for his entire career, the circumstances around him just made them less prevalent in past seasons. It’s easier to overlook those issues for a promising young quarterback who you expect to develop as he gets more playing time. But after 43 career starts we’re rapidly approaching the point, if we’re not there already, where expecting development is no longer reasonable.

Kaepernick might be coming off the worst two-game stretch of his career, though last year’s back-to-back against the Seahawks and Raiders is right up there. He won’t be that bad for the rest of the season and his numbers will rebound some, but I don’t see anyway he improves enough to overcome the myriad other issues facing this offense. Even if the offensive line improves some, it’s still going to be bad, and Kaepernick will still be forced to deal with frequent pressure. There’s nothing to suggest this coaching staff is capable of masking his deficiencies the way that Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman were able to for so long. And if Kaepernick’s career trajectory doesn’t suddenly do a 180, it’s difficult to envision San Francisco’s offense performing much better than it has through the first four games.