When Jim Harbaugh was actually leading the San Francisco 49ers successfully, the team ran an offense predicated on clean play with few risks and even fewer turnovers. They were not incredibly productive, but they rarely lost games on that side of the ball and thanks to elite special teams and defensive units, the battle for field position often swung in their favor.
Under Jim Tomsula in 2016, the 49ers actually did attempt to run a similar offense ... it just went incredibly poorly. They were not mistake-free and, in fact, were quite the opposite. Only seven teams had a worse turnover differential last season and though the 49ers were not among the worst teams when it came to turning the ball over, they were among the worst teams when it came to creating their own takeaways.
The Dallas Cowboys committed 33 turnovers last year, a staggering number and when you put the 17 turnovers by the 49ers next to that number it looks laughably unbalanced. But the 49ers were rarely effective when it came to forcing fumbles and snaring interceptions themselves, and ultimately lost the battle of turnover differential. They also lost the battle of field position accordingly.
There were few momentum swings over the course of the 49ers' 2015 season, and even fewer in their direction.
Protecting the football should always be the top priority in an offense that features an elite running back at its core. The 49ers are going to try that with Carlos Hyde this season, but protecting the football has never been a hugely important concern of new head coach Chip Kelly.
Last season, Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles turned the ball over 31 times. They had the same differential as the 49ers though, at minus-five, because they were better at creating turnovers on defense. But 31 is still a massive number. Kelly's no-huddle, option-heavy offense can keep a defense off-balance but it can also keep an offense off-balance. Neither Colin Kaepernick nor Blaine Gabbert look ready to handle a complicated scheme.
Factor in the fact that the Eagles turned the ball over a whopping 65 times over the past two seasons under Kelly, more than any other team in that time, and things start to look dire. Kaepernick already cradles the ball in a haphazard way when he's in motion. Gabbert already under- and over-throws passes seemingly at random. The 49ers have an umproven stable of running backs.
Even worse, the battle for field position is an unknown quantity at this stage as well. Bradley Pinion didn't have an egregiously poor rookie season, but he wasn't as good as Andy Lee and if he doesn't improve as expected, then he can't be counted on to swing games with his leg.
Field position and turnover differential could both be working completely against the 49ers next season. Needless to say, it's something that needs to be a point of focus for Kelly at this stage. Whether it actually will be is another question entirely.