You could say that Jim Harbaugh has had a teensy amount of success in his three years in San Francisco. Over that time, he has tasted the despair of defeat only 18 times - and that includes the preseason. Who’s got it better than him? Not many.
The 2013 season was no exception. Harbaugh brought the 49ers to their third consecutive NFC Championship game appearance after a 12-4 regular season. Prior to their loss at the hands of the eventual champion Seattle Seahawks, San Fran had won eight consecutive games. Yet, it still seemed as if the team failed to live up to expectations after their Super Bowl loss last year.
What could they have done to meet those expectations? Simple. They had to win the Super Bowl, Colin Kaepernick had to become half Peyton Manning/half Usain Bolt, Frank Gore had to stop the spread of H1N1, and Michael Crabtree had to listen to the Pitch Perfect soundtrack without busting out his best soprano. Simple.
There was a lot of good on this 49ers squad, but there was also plenty of room for improvement (not including Crabtree’s riff-off skills). So let’s break this puppy down numberFire-style.
Although the team finished 30th in the NFL in passing yards per game, they cozied up to the numberFire metrics in the category just fine. In case you need a crash course in what Net Expected Points (NEP) is, you can click here.
The 49ers, as a team, finished the season with an Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back of 0.14. The metric measures a team’s effectiveness for each pass play adjusted for strength of schedule. This total was good enough for the fifth highest of all teams with the league average at 0.06.
Much of this (outside of Kaepernick’s cannon) was due to a talented group of pass catchers. Among all players in the league with at least 20 targets this season, the average Reception NEP per target (a measure of efficiency) was 0.56. Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis all exceeded that.
Boldin didn’t just exceed the league average; he was among the leaders in the category. Among players that were targeted at least 50 times, Boldin’s per target Reception NEP (0.935) was the sixth highest. This put him ahead of Megatron (0.920), Demaryius Thomas (0.916) and even Keenan Allen (0.927), who is 4,224 days younger than Boldin.
Our own JJ Zachariason wrote an article earlier contending that Boldin was the most underrated receiver in 2013, and he’s probably right. Is now a bad time to remind the Ravens that they gave him up for a sixth-round pick?
All of that is not to discredit Kaepernick for a great season. Among passers with at least 200 pass attempts, Kaepernick had the eighth-highest Passing NEP per drop back at 0.14, which makes sense considering the 49ers rank when adjusted for strength of schedule. Who were the three directly behind him? Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady. The kid is going to be a star.
None of that even accounts for his rushing skills. Among players with at least 75 rushing attempts, Kaepernick trailed only Cam Newton in Rushing NEP per rush at 0.33. He’s the type of player you can build a team around, as the last two seasons have shown.
In addition to ranking well in through the air, the 49ers were better than the league average in against the pass and rush as well. Honestly, it’s hard not to excel defensively when you have Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith (occasionally) in your linebacking corps.
NOTE: Please don’t send me a link to video of Bowman’s leg injury. I have successfully avoided both that and the Kevin Ware injury to this point, and I don’t intend for that to change. I have the intestinal fortitude of a child.
As I mentioned earlier, not a lot went wrong for San Francisco this year. Thus, most of the things below are going to be nit-picky suggestions that normally wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar for the other teams. They are areas, however, that could help the fightin' Harbaughs over the hump next year.
Speaking of that “hump,” you may as well just name it Seattle. This hump drinks too much coffee and chafes if you mention that you listen to Top-40 radio. Because these two teams are so buddy-buddy with each other, I figured it’d be fun to compare the two to see where San Francisco stacks up. Spoiler alert: it isn’t pretty for the Golden Staters.
In each of the four major categories (Adjusted Passing/Rushing NEP per play, Adjusted Defensive Passing/Rushing NEP per play), the Seahawks were better than the 49ers. And for one of those categories, it wasn’t even close.
I mentioned that the 49ers finished better than the league average when it came to pass defense. In fact, they finished 11th in the category, which isn't too bad at all. But they didn’t come close to equaling their in-conference foe. If we look at Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP, which looks at pass defense from a cumulative perspective (as opposed to per play), the 49ers finished at 10.19, more than 20 points better than the league average of 31.70. The Legion of Boom brought the ‘Hawks to a -93.84 rating in the category though. This means that San Francisco's secondary alone was surrendering 6.50 more points per game than Seattle's.
Not all of San Francisco’s need areas are based on comparisons with the Seahawks. They also have a legitimate need in the ground game.
The team finished 19th in the league in Adjusted Rushing NEP per rush at 0.00, and that includes Kaepernick’s disgusting rushing numbers. If you take him out of the equation, this backfield was lacking to say the least.
Among players with at least 75 carries, Frank Gore ranked 36th in Rushing NEP per rush out of only 60 that qualified. Kendall Hunter was right behind him in 40th. Both players finished at -0.06 in the category, which was below the average of -0.01 among those 60 players.
In their limited action, Anthony Dixon and LaMichael James weren’t much better. Dixon finished at -0.29 on his 28 carries with James at -0.12 on his 12 carries. Although rushing isn’t as important in today’s NFL as passing, this is still something the front office may want to look at in the offseason.
What Should They Do?
Well, for starters, they should pray that the Seahawks move to Oklahoma City or that Russell Wilson realizes playing for the Colorado Rockies is his life’s true destiny. Those seem unlikely for some reason.
The good news for San Francisco is that their success and depth has allowed them to draft for the future over the last few years. Marcus Lattimore is the perfect example of this. (Yes, I have seen his injury. Hello, nausea.) Assuming all goes well with his recovery, as it reportedly is, he could be the perfect infusion of talent the backfield needs.
Even with the great output from Boldin, Crabtree and Davis, San Francisco would benefit from adding a receiver in the off-season. Boldin and Mario Manningham could become unrestricted free agents, and A.J. Jenkins didn’t exactly pan out (nor did Jon Baldwin whom the 49ers received in exchange for Jenkins from the Chiefs before the season).
Despite a solid rookie campaign from 2013 first-round pick Eric Reid, it wouldn’t hurt the 49ers to look for additional help in the secondary. Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown, Eric Wright and Perrish Cox (a fan-favorite of all Scrubs aficionados) are all currently set to hit free agency, so this unit will see some change prior to the 2014 opener.
Overall, the 49ers are in a great position to keep winning games both next year and for years into the future. They may be just a few pieces from reclaiming their spot at the top of the NFC from that pesky team up north.