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Jim Tomsula's 49ers are awful and we should have seen it coming

The 49ers have been embarrassed in back-to-back weeks and their season is going south in a hurry, but none of it should come as a surprise.

Sunday’s 40-point loss to the Arizona Cardinals was the culmination of everything that has happened to the San Francisco 49ers over the past nine-plus months. The 49ers have been on a non-stop flight to this point since December 28, 2014, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we’ve finally arrived.

Wait and see is no longer a justifiable stance with this team. We might not yet be out of the first month of the season, but the 49ers have already put themselves in some historically unflattering company with humiliating losses in back-to-back weeks, losses that effectively kill any hope this team had of returning to the postseason.

San Francisco has lost each of its last two games by at least 25 points, allowing over 40 points in each contest. Since 1990, there have been only eight other teams to get blown out in that fashion in consecutive games, according to the invaluable Pro-Football-Reference team streak finder. Eight teams is hardly a large enough sample to provide us with meaningful data, but if we split that feat into its two craptastic parts, we can get something more useful to work with.

There have been 36 teams to lose consecutive games by at least 25 points since 1990, when the NFL expanded the playoff field to 12 teams, including 2015’s 49ers and Bears. We obviously don’t know how San Francisco and Chicago will finish out the year, but the other 34 teams averaged 5.1 wins in the year they put up back-to-back bombs. Only two teams would persevere and find a way to reach the playoffs, the 2010 Seahawks and the 2002 Jets. That was the Seahawks team that won a terrible NFC West with a 7–9 record, while the Jets came out of a mediocre AFC East in which all four teams finished with eight or nine wins.

Allowing over 40 points in two straight weeks happens less frequently, with only 23 other teams matching the feat, but is potentially even more damning. Our average win total drops to 4.8 games with this group, and only the Tim Tebow-led Broncos in 2011 would wind up in the postseason. More than half of those teams (13) would finish as one of the five worst teams in football, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

Number of Teams Avg. Wins Avg. DVOA Rank Playoff Teams
Lose by 25+ points 34 5.1 25.9 2
Allow 40+ points 23 4.8 27.2 1

Losing two of your first three games doesn’t spell the end of your season; losing them in embarrassing fashion does.

There’s little reason to expect this 49ers team to be one of the outliers and somehow get things turned around. You didn’t need hindsight to see that this was the most likely outcome for San Francisco in 2015. I wrote that the 49ers had entered a full-on rebuild back in March, and that preceded three retirements, a free agency exodus, a drafted punter, Aldon Smith’s release, and a trio of dubious trades involving undrafted offensive lineman and a punter. There was so much uncertainty at nearly every corner of this roster by the time September rolled around that it became unreasonable to expect all, or even most, of those questions to be answered positively.

With a four-interception performance from Colin Kaepernick as the glaring exception, the exact same issues have plagued this team in each of its losses (and were there in the win if you looked close enough). Porous defense, an even worse offensive line, and head-scratching coaching decisions have been problem spots that don’t figure to go away in 2015. And we should have seen it coming all along.

Defense

While Carson Palmer was busy shredding the 49ers’ secondary on Sunday, a number of people were asking me the same general question: Why is the defense so bad? There are several ways to answer to that question, and I’ll be looking more in-depth into the 49ers’ pass defense issues tomorrow, but sometimes the simplest answer is the most apt. San Francisco’s defense is terrible because all of the players left.

OK, poor NaVorro Bowman is still hanging around trying to carry this unit on his back. Everyone else that made this defense go, however, is gone. You know the names, no reason to list them again here. But those missing names accounted for over 50 percent of San Francisco’s defensive production in the two previous seasons.

2013–14 Total Lost %Lost
Snaps 23,219 12,572 54.2%
Plays 1,813 936 51.6%
Stops 993 498 50.2%
Defeats 360 190 52.8%
Sacks 73.5 39 53.1%
Interceptions 41 18 43.9%
Forced Fumbles 25 14 56.0%

(Note: I’m including players who have left in each of the last two offseasons because injuries and Aldon Smith’s suspension undersells just how much production this defense has lost since 2014 ended. However, even if you only include 2014 numbers, the 49ers lost at least 40 percent of their defensive production in every stat below, except snaps. Explanation for plays, stops, and defeats can be found in the Football Outsiders’ glossary.)

Not only is that production gone, but by losing so many top players, everyone left behind is a worse version of themselves. Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea would likely be the first two names mentioned (after Bowman) when searching for quality players on this side of the ball, but both players have struggled in pass coverage without a dominant front seven in front of them. Aaron Lynch looked like one of the league’s most promising young pass rushers over the second half of 2014, but is having trouble bothering quarterbacks without The Smiths and Ray McDonald drawing the bulk of the attention.

Those expecting San Francisco’s defense to remain among the league’s best were banking on big steps forward from a number of recent draftees, and wound up overestimating the talent level of many of these players. Reports during "Everything is Awesome" season only added fuel to the optimism fire, but nearly every one of these players has disappointed so far.

After sitting out his entire rookie season due to injury and struggling to get on the field in year two, Tank Carradine had given no reason to believe he was capable of replacing the lion’s share of Justin Smith’s, or even Ray McDonald’s, production, yet there were some who pegged him as a Pro Bowler.

The top of the cornerback depth chart was filled with unproven day-three picks and another player, Tramaine Brock, who put together one quality campaign in five career seasons. Yet, somehow, many considered this a position of strength entering the season.

Needless to say, none of that has worked out. Carradine has continued to do exactly what he’s done for his entire career to this point: nothing of note. Brock, Kenneth Acker, and the bunch have been busy leading the second-worst pass defense in football through three weeks. And a draft class that saw defensive players selected with San Francisco’s first three picks has been unable to provide the sort of immediate impact that this unit desperately needed.

In a vacuum, many of these defenders might be talented players. Hell, some of them might still develop into quality players for the 49ers at some point in the future. And if they had been inserted into a defense that still featured its dominant core from the past four seasons, maybe things would’ve been different. But counting on that many unproven players to develop into key pieces all at once, that quickly, was never a realistic expectation.

Offensive Line

Losing Mike Iupati in free agency is one thing, and was likely an expected departure. But the retirement of Anthony Davis turned the right side of San Francisco’s offensive line into the worst in football, and has severely limited what the 49ers can do offensively.

There was no way the 49ers could properly prepare for Davis’s retirement, given that he made his decision well after free agency and the draft had come and gone, but the subsequent roster moves and shuffling up front made it very clear this unit was going to be a problem spot.

Continuity is eminently important on the offensive line. So it was disconcerting when the 49ers waited until the last possible minute to decide on a starting five, and selected a group that had barely played together during the preseason. Oh, and there was another minor detail: The players they selected weren’t any good.

Erik Pears was added to the roster with the intent of using him as guard depth, yet he ended up as the starting right tackle. Jordan Devey’s most notable characteristics prior to the 49ers inexplicably trading for the former Patriots guard less than a month before the start of the season include "highly recruited tuba player" and "may get Tom Brady killed." Seriously.

Marcus Martin has a stronger pedigree than Pears or Devey, as many draftniks considered him to be the best center prospect in the 2014 draft class. He’s yet to deliver on that praise and has been a massive disappointment to start his sophomore campaign. Martin plays high on far too many snaps, and as a result he often looks completely overmatched as defenders routinely drive him several yards into the backfield.

Also concerning is a player who has yet to make his way on to the field despite little resistance ahead of him on the depth chart. Many considered Brandon Thomas to be a first-round talent when the 49ers added him to their All-ACL team in the third round of the 2014 draft. Though most had him kicking inside to guard in the NFL, some believed he was athletic enough to stick at tackle. But if the coaching staff considers Devey to be a superior option at guard, how bad is Thomas? We obviously don’t have all of the information here, but it doesn’t look good for his chances of developing into a quality piece up front.

The results through three weeks have been as predictable as you’d expect from a unit that currently trots out a Bills castoff and a former tuba standout. Kaepernick has been pressured on 41.4 percent of drop backs, per Pro Football Focus, the third-highest rate in football. And rushing lanes for Carlos Hyde & Co. are dwindling with each passing week.

I would say that it’s shocking this coaching staff hasn’t attempted to shuffle some parts around — say moving Boone to right tackle or giving Thomas an opportunity or holding an open tryout at Levi’s for the starting right guard job — but that would be a lie.

Coaching Staff

"Sorry, Jim Tomsula. Being a head coach just might not be your thing."

I wrote that back in January when researching the profile of a successful head coach, before the 49ers had concluded their coaching search. While the data showed the NFL’s best frontmen come from a variety of different backgrounds, there were some clear red flags teams should avoid. And as you might guess, Tomsula checked all the wrong boxes.

Of the 145 coaching tenures I examined since 1994, the year the salary cap was instituted, internal hires and positional coaches making the leap to the top rung of the coaching ladder were the biggest no-nos. Coaches fitting into one of those categories went on to record Pythagorean win percentages of .451 and .421, respectively, the lowest splits I looked at by an appreciable margin. Tomsula, obviously, fits into both groups, putting his name alongside immortal coaches such as Mike Tice (Vikings), Mike White (Raiders), Mike Munchak (Titans), Mike Singletary (49ers) — also, don’t hire guys named Mike apparently — Tom Cable (Raiders), and Raheem Morris (Bucs).

The lack of success from previous coaches who fit Tomsula’s profile speaks to the substantial hurdles he faced making the jump from the defensive line meeting room to calling the shots for an entire organization. It was unrealistic to expect that transition to go smoothly in one offseason, and that’s not a slight against Tomsula. Trent Baalke and Jed York set him up to fail, and the 49ers are left trying to make do with a head coach who is clearly overmatched.

In-game decision making has been questionable at best. There’s been no better example than Tomsula’s decision to punt on fourth-and-1 near midfield early in the second quarter against the Cardinals. Tomsula was playing not to lose even though his team was already trailing by 21 points. And even when the Cardinals scored another touchdown on the ensuing drive to go up by 28, Tomsula refused to give up on the run or attempt anything resembling a high-variance strategy to try and get back in the game. Those strategies were noticeably absent in Pittsburgh as well.

With Tomsula struggling to keep his head above water, he’s been forced to rely heavily on coordinators who have zero track record of coordinating anything successfully in their entire careers. Geep Chryst’s offense has been stale and predictable. Eric Mangini’s defense continues to show the same pre-snap disguises before dropping back into a zone coverage that puts defenders in all of the areas on the field where receivers are not. There’s been nothing to suggest San Francisco’s top trio of coaches have the answers to address problems that have been persistent for three straight weeks.

San Francisco isn’t going to get blown out by 25-plus for the next 13 weeks (I think…). There will be weeks where the breaks go their way and they play over their heads, that’s how the NFL works. But the schedule is brutal and every piece of evidence we’ve been accumulating since Jim Harbaugh was fired nine months ago suggested this was coming. The 2015 49ers are a bad football team and it shouldn’t be a surprise.

But hey, at least everyone is getting along now, right?