Every single team has to deal with injuries, but in 2014 -- no NFL team had it quite as bad as the San Francisco 49ers. After the season was well and done, the 49ers had the most games missed due to injury than any other team in the NFL.
Injuries and one big suspension made them a shell of themselves and unable to compete with the NFL's best. It's not just the number of players who missed games, but more importantly, it's who missed games.
Out of the 15 names on the injured reserve list to end the season (above), three names stand out: Patrick Willis, Daniel Kilgore and NaVorro Bowman. Outside of Colin Kaepernick, these three are responsible for their respective units' communication.
Add Glenn Dorsey, Aldon Smith, Anthony Davis, Joe Staley, Tramaine Brock, Stevie Johnson and Mike Iupati (just to name a few) as players who were barely on the field in 2014, or when on the field not very effective. It's hard not to see how injuries adversely affected the 49ers terrible season.
The 49ers struggled on offense, but in the trenches they started with a new line almost every week. The biggest loss on the offensive side was center Daniel Kilgore. Not only did San Francisco lose the play caller of the offensive line, but the replacement was a rookie coming off a preseason injury. Marcus Martin played well, and there are two sides to a quarterback center exchange, but the team lost at least one game due to the unfamiliarity between Kaepernick and his center when a late goal line fumble handed the team a loss to the St. Louis Rams.
And we can't forget the problems that resulted from Anthony Davis's multiple absences. In the final two games, 49ers running backs averaged over eight yards per carry when they ran off right tackle. Davis was inactive for nine games, and it dramatically impacted the run game. Jonathan Martin did what he could, but he was brought in to be a reserve, not an every week starter.
The quarterback has everything to do with an offense's successes or failures. Kaepernick struggled this season, but it is premature to say he has regressed with the line in front of him and the aerial game plan he was expected to execute. Give any quarterback a flawed system and a flawed protection scheme and he will struggle. Take away the injuries to the offensive line and Kaepernick has a much better season.
The bad performances started to pile up toward the second half of the season, as the injuries continued to pile up. Initially, the defense was expected to have Willis, Bowman and Aldon Smith on the field for a second half push, but the only one playing was a rusty Aldon Smith. Both Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite played better than expected filling in for Bowman and Willis, but both replacements are not Pro Bowl caliber players, and were both exposed in passing situations.
The injuries really manifested itself during the second loss to Seattle. Chris Borland was forced to leave due to an ankle injury and was replaced by Nick Moody, the lone backup at the position. When their other starter, Michael Wilhoite, was shaken up on a punt return, the 49ers turned to outside linebacker Dan Skuta (who also serves as their emergency inside linebacker). Unfortunately, Skuta was dealing with an ankle injury.
"It was pretty unique in that you're down to one inside linebacker," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said, "and most everything we do on defense we have to have two of them."
Bethea, a nine-year veteran: "I haven't been in a situation like that before."
From last year's NFC Championship Game, 49ers returned 9 of the 11 defensive starters. Yet, those nine players had a combined missed 56 games (47 due to injury and 9 because of suspension). According to SFGate, in Fangio's first three seasons with the 49ers, defensive starters combined to miss 41 games from 2011 to 2013. This season, the 49ers put six defensive players on injured reserve during the season, five more than in 2013.
In the eight losses this year, half of them were just as much on the defense as the offense. Against the Bears, the defense allowed 21 4th quarter points, and against the Cardinals offense, the 49ers allowed 21 second half points. The defense allowed 24 points to the Raiders, blew a 21 point halftime lead to the Chargers, and allowed 316 passing yards to Ryan Lindley.
As a team, the San Francisco 49ers struggled in 2014. But, when healthy, this is a roster that can can compete with any team in the league. There were only a few teams to dominate them this season. It's not just about the x's and o's. The injuries took their toll this season on the 49ers and they never had the personnel on the field to compete for a Lombardi Trophy.
While some will argue the next man up theory and point to the Seahawks, consider that Seattle was floundering earlier this season, and they turned it around when they got back their two defensive rock stars, Earl Thomas and Bobby Wagner. Any team is one or two injuries away from what the 49ers suffered from in 2014. Injuries derailed their season and it's hard to blame a team whose roster is missing key figures and the guys on the field are playing through pain and injury.
The good news for San Francisco can hope to progress back to the injury mean. The early part of the Jim Harbaugh era saw the team remain quite healthy. That changed quickly, and the last couple seasons saw injury after injury. If the 49ers can benefit from improved health in 2015, they are still among the NFC's top teams. They will be back to compete for a playoff berth in 2015.