Playing armchair QB or general manager from the sideline is a dangerous game. We’re not in the meeting rooms. We don’t know how practice is going and aren’t in tune with the coaches and players. We miss the 10-12 hour workdays leading up to Sunday and see the three-hour result.
The theme of last week was the special teams' blunders. First, against the Vikings, Robbie Gould missed a field goal that would have made Minnesota’s final drive irrelevant. Next, Trenton Cannon had a shaky kick return. Then, Brandon Aiyuk always looks like he has no idea how to field a punt. Finally, the kickoff team allowed a kick return for a touchdown.
So, what did the 49ers do for an encore? They allowed a 73-yard fake punt that, honestly, couldn’t have been easier. On Monday, Kyle Shanahan explained what happened on the special teams' gaffe:
“No, they just got us on it. They made a good play call, a risky one, backed up like that. But it was a good one. We had two guys doubling the gunner and we had a guy in the six-man box. And as you run that, you run the risk of a guy coming off the gunner unblocked, which would be a dead play. And they rolled the dice on it and we didn’t have a guy come off and that’s what happens. So there’s nothing the players could have done differently on it. I’d like [WR Brandon] Aiyuk to make the tackle down the field so it’s not a touchdown and we could live another day. But they got us on that and that’s something we have to look at in our tendencies and everything like that.”
Please, watch this play and tell me how in the world Aiyuk is supposed to make this tackle:
It’s Aiyuk against one and potentially two lead blockers from Seattle — that’s not counting the ball-carrier. A week after allowing a touchdown, the 49ers only needed four plays to do the same. If there’s nothing the players can do differently, perhaps, it’s time to find a coach that can get it done.
I hate the idea of calling for somebody’s job. But, at the same time, this is a business, and these players and coaches are paid handsomely to perform as if they are the best in the world. When the same mistakes are happening — Gould missed an extra point, Aiyuk let another ball bounce to surrender field position, Travis Benjamin fumbled a kickoff return, Mitch Wishnowsky’s final two punts, when the team needed to flip the field, went for 37 and 40 yards — it’s time for a change.
The 49ers were down two of their best players on offense and defense. When that’s the case, knowing that points will be challenging to come by when you’re missing the player you’ve revolved your offense around, you need the third phase of the game to pick you up. Instead, San Francisco’s special teams unit cost the team eight points, two possessions, and critical field position.
I’m not absolving the offense from turning the ball over, nor am I making excuses for a few lapses in coverage on defense. This is a scenario where all things can be and are true. The 49ers' margin for error is slim given their injuries and playing on the road against their rivalry. It doesn’t help when you give Seattle the ball a couple of times on offense.
With a competent special teams unit, you can overcome a mistake or two. Unfortunately, the 49ers aren’t given themselves a chance in the third phase of the game. These errors happen on a weekly basis. When that’s the case, there has to be a scapegoat. If there’s nothing else that the players can do, find a coach who holds them accountable. That coach is not Richard Hightower.
As always, this falls back on the head coach. Kyle Shanahan is the offensive play-caller. Therefore, he spends most of his time with the offense. I don’t want to say he doesn’t care about special teams because that’s not fair or true. But it sure doesn’t seem as though there’s enough emphasis there.
The 49ers are now 23rd in special teams DVOA. They are the third-worst kickoff coverage unit — the Seahawks had a 33-yard kick return and another return that helped them start with good field position before the half — and 31st in kickoff return.
I’m not saying the 49ers should fire Hightower. If they continue to play this way on special teams, they can kiss the playoffs goodbye. But, if that means you need to make a change, then do so, even if Hightower is best buds with Shanahan.
Hightower can’t go out there and make the kicks, or hold onto the ball, or even make the tackles, but it’s his job to put the players in a position to succeed, and that isn’t happening. It’s naive to believe it’ll happen all of a sudden 14 weeks into the season. It’s time for the 49ers to make a change on special teams.