What's Wrong With the San Francisco 49ers' Offense?

The 49ers offense has been struggling of late, but can they turn it around in time for a playoff push?

Perception isn't always reality, particularly in the NFL.

A gleaming 7-4 record and only two games out of first place in the NFC West, the San Francisco 49ers are very much in the thick of the playoff hunt.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has helped lead San Francisco to this record, yet the play of their top signal-caller has been off to say the least this season.

Kaepernick has been inconsistent all year and been on quite a downslide as of late. Just for high-level proof, his last three games have resulted in fantasy finishes ranked as QB17, QB20, QB16 in standard fantasy scoring. In fact, Kaepernick hasn't had a top-10 ranking since Week 6. He hasn't thrown or run for multiple touchdowns over that time span either, as the entire San Francisco offense has come unraveled squeaking by with narrow victories.

So what exactly has been the cause of the new $126 million man's drop in productivity?

Kaepernick's Play

Colin Kaepernick's 2014 campaign has seen quite a change from both a production and fantasy perspective.

Using numberFire's Net Expected Point (NEP) metric, we can evaluate how effective a player measures above or below the expectation compared to what an average player would accomplish in a similar situation. Looking at his numbers so far this year, Kaepernick's regression becomes even more evident when looking at players with at least 150 drop backs.

Passing NEPPassing NEP per Drop BackRushing NEPTotal NEP
201214th15th (tied)8th14th
201412th14th (tied)32nd16th

2013 saw an increase in production from Kaepernick after his first year as a starter in 2012. His career looked as if it were taking a positive turn, as head coach Jim Harbaugh found ways to pile up the victories with one of his most dynamic playmakers. However, this season has seen quite a different glimpse of the young quarterback.

Kaepernick's Passing NEP has reverted back to his 2012 ways, but the biggest decline lies in his Rushing NEP totals. Kaepernick's decisions to run with the ball are actually costing his team points this year, as his -5.49 is the third-worst score of passers with at least 150 drop backs in 2014. Being more selective when to tuck it and run could aid his team significantly, as he's averaging only 3.2 yards per carry over his last five games. With the plethora of weapons he has at his disposal, Kaepernick needs to find his receivers down field more often.

The passing game has not had quite the same precipitous drop in productivity - Kaepernick has actually improved going through his progressions this year when comparing to previous years. His completion percentage is on the rise from last year 58.4% to 61.7%, and outside of an abysmal game against Chicago where he threw three interceptions, Kaepernick has been very protective of the ball turning it over only five other times. As a result, his passing numbers are more or less the same as previous seasons.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman's play calling has yet to incorporate Kaepernick throwing the ball 40-plus times, a feat he has yet to accomplish in his career. While Kaepernick may not be the volume quarterback (31.5 pass attempts per game) that some of his fellow 2012 quarterbacks in Andrew Luck (42.2) and Nick Foles (42.7) have been this year, he still can find ways to move the chains. He currently ranks 11th in yards per attempt, but with a low number of attempts and a horrific run game, is there any hope to turn it around this season?

Where's the Help?

The struggles behind Kaepernick's play can't be placed solely on him, as the other 10 guys on offense have also shown their deficiencies this year.

The offensive line hasn't performed well this year at all. Health along the offensive line has been a key component, as offensive tackle Anthony Davis has struggled with injuries dating back to the preseason and center Dan Kilgore has been placed on injured reserve.

Of the remaining offensive linemen, the unit's struggles have prevented Colin Kaepernick time to go through his progressions down field. He has been sacked 34 times on his 382 drop backs (8.9%), the most in the league. Losing offensive line coach Tim Drevno has unequivocally hindered this unit and now turned it into a major concern.

San Francisco's run game is well off the pace that Greg Roman would like it to be at. Running back Frank Gore has been the third-worst running back from an efficiency standpoint out of all running backs with a -19.62 Rushing NEP. Rookie running back Carlos Hyde was supposed to come in and help provide fresh legs for the veteran, but has produced at almost nearly an equal poor rate, ranking 123rd out of 144 running backs with at least one carry in NEP.

That futility is not going to open up any passing lanes for Kaepernick.

However, out of all of the weapons that San Francisco has surrounded Kaepernick with, only Anquan Boldin has provided the quarterback with a consistent target.

PlayerReceptionsRec NEPTarget NEPRec NEP/Target
Anquan Boldin6577.2648.570.81
Michael Crabtree4853.0219.520.64
Stevie Johnson3238.929.590.93
Brandon Lloyd1123.074.510.89
Vernon Davis2113.540.540.34

In fact, Boldin ranks 11th out of all wide receivers in Reception NEP, as he and Kaepernick have continued their chemistry that blossomed into Boldin's first 1,000 yard season since 2009 during last season. Boldin appears well on his way to repeating that feat, accumulating 65 receptions for 825 yards to date.

The rest of the skill position players have been largely disappointing for San Francisco. Tight end Vernon Davis has seen a sharp decline in his productivity this year while being plagued with injures, ranking 44th out of all tight ends in Reception NEP. The 49ers' recent drafts have not helped supplant youth into their wideout corp, either. Since Michael Crabtree was drafted in 2009, the 49ers have drafted a wide receiver each year. Out of the five drafted, only Quinton Patton, with a whopping three career receptions, and rookie Bruce Ellington remain with the team. The outlook for this position looks anything but promising.

Red Zone Woes

The 49ers offense is having trouble from both a personnel and an execution standpoint. One area the team is struggling mightily is finishing drives in the red zone.

San Francisco currently ranks last in converting offensive red zone opportunities into touchdowns. Greg Roman wants the identity of his offense to be a power running team, but the offense is having difficulties executing and finishing drives on the ground. Inside the red zone, Frank Gore has been averaging 1.9 yards per carry with only a pair of touchdowns this season. Opposing defenses are keying on Gore and have found success stifling the run in the red zone.

One area Roman could look to exploit are the fantastic numbers Kaepernick has been putting up while deep in opponent's territory. Kaepernick has been incredibly successful in the shortened field, completing 18 of 29 pass attempts with 8 touchdowns without a single interception.

Roman may need to alter his offensive game plan with a declining Gore and a banged up offensive line. Vernon Davis is a huge red zone threat that is coming off a 15-touchdown season last year including the playoffs, but has not reached the end zone since Week 1. Nine of his 15 scores last year came from inside the red zone, something San Francisco should look to try and incorporate back into their offense, as he has only scored once from there this year on his lone target.

Hope on the Horizon?

The 49ers have plenty of offensive talent on their roster. They have a superb defensive unit that ranks in the top 10 in passing yards allowed per game, rushing yards allowed per game, and points allowed per game. Allowing 20.5 points per game should keep their offense in the game if they can improve on their red zone touchdown scoring.

Greg Roman's play calling has been called in to question, as it rightfully should have. With the talent on this roster, the 49ers should be producing more than the 20.7 points they've been averaging while settling for field goals. A 0.2 point scoring margin isn't going to aid in this team going far in the playoffs if they do not turn things around in their next few games.

Unfortunately, they face one of the league's most daunting remaining schedules.

Facing the reigning champs twice will not be an easy task, as their final five games include hosting Seattle, traveling to Oakland and Seattle, and finishing with two final home stands against San Diego and Arizona. Taking Oakland out of the equation, they're facing teams all with their own playoff hopes very much intact.

The perception is San Francisco at 7-4 still has an opportunity to fight their way into the playoffs.

The reality is that the 49ers have worse than a 50/50 shot to get in, holding onto 49.4% odds of making the postseason. If they don't make it, they can thank their struggling offense.