Can the San Francisco 49ers Bounce Back in 2015?
After three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship game and a Super Bowl berth, the San Francisco 49ers have fizzled out this season.
The 49ers have now dropped four in a row after losing a 21-point lead to the San Diego Chargers on Saturday, and after three years of being an elite team, the 49ers won’t even finish over .500 this year.
Coupled with the on field struggles, the 49ers have seemingly led the league in off-the-field incidents and rumors. From numerous player arrests to consistent reports of head coach Jim Harbaugh’s departure at the end of the season, the 2014 season has been a massive disappointment. After retaining much of their core from 2013 and adding Stevie Johnson and rookie Carlos Hyde the 49ers expected to have a bit more talent than recently and to get over the proverbial hump.
So what went wrong?
The Running Game
For three years, the 49ers were seen as one of the most physical and imposing teams in the NFL. The 49ers’ tremendous success under Harbaugh (36-11-1 from 2011-2013) was largely due to their ability to run the ball at will. Now, in the midst of a tumultuous 7-8 season, the 49ers biggest problem can be attributed to the one thing that was once their biggest strength: the running game.
Their trademark physicality on offense has been missing, and the 49ers have experienced a significant drop in efficiency running the ball. At numberFire, we use a metric called Net Expected Points (NEP) to measure a player’s or team’s efficiency. NEP is a cumulative that tracks whether a player (or team) has performed above or below expectation on the many plays in which he is involved. As you’d expect, the 49ers’ efficiency numbers have been awful this year.
Only five teams have a lower overall rushing NEP than the 49ers, and among all backs with at least 150 carries, Frank Gore is only ahead of Andre Ellington in individual Rushing NEP. Even Colin Kaepernick , who often supplements the 49ers overall rushing efficiency numbers, ranked dead last in both Rushing NEP and Rushing NEP per Play (among the six quarterbacks with 40 or more attempts) before his 90-yard touchdown on Saturday.
The drop in rushing efficiency across the board is largely due to one factor: a regression in run-blocking from both the offensive line and the tight ends.
Coming into the season, with only Jonathan Goodwin, the team’s center from 2011 to 2013, missing from the past season, the 49ers rightfully felt that their offensive line would again be a strength of their team. However, after injuries forced Jonathan Martin into the lineup for Anthony Davis, the offensive line began to struggle.
Anthony Davis gave up the fifth-fewest sacks last year amongst all tackles in the NFL and was a rising star for the 49ers’ line. In contrast, Martin has struggled with quick pass rushers all season, giving up six sacks in only 70 percent of the 49ers offensive snaps. Combined with Martin’s ineptitude at right tackle, the 49ers’ line has been riddled with injuries all season, leading to a complete lack of continuity and cohesion. The 49ers have had to start seven different offensive line combinations this season and three different centers. In addition to the inconsistent blocking from the offensive line, Vernon Davis has been downright awful as well.
If you have watched the 49ers’ offense the past three years, you know that they love to put their tight ends in motion and use them to open up running lanes. The departure of Delanie Walker and the obvious struggles of Vernon Davis-- whether due to injury or frustration over his contract -- in the run game have hindered the 49ers’ successes on the ground.
As a 49er fan reflecting on what went wrong this season, one game always sticks out: Week 9 against the St. Louis Rams.
It’s 1st-and-goal from the two-yard line, and San Francisco is down by 3. So what do the 49ers do?
They throw back-to-back incompletions on play-action attempts. Then, they try a quarterback sneak behind rookie center Marcus Martin, leading to a fumble.
Game Over. Two yards away from sealing the game, and a 49ers team that has built its foundation on running the ball at will fails to pick up two yards against a 2-5 Rams team -- at home. This is not the Jim Harbaugh 49ers team that Bay Area fans grew to love. The 49ers lost their ability to run the ball and lost their identity as a physically imposing team.
Change is coming.
After dropping to 7-8 this past week and being eliminated from playoff contention, the future of the 49ers is hazy.
With new rumors circulating everyday, it is an almost certainty that Harbaugh will leave the 49ers after seasons end. But who will replace him?
The 49ers desperately need an innovative coach on the offensive side of the ball to spark a unit that finished in the bottom half of most statistical categories. With four wide receivers who have posted 1,000-yard seasons in their career (Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Stevie Johnson, and Brandon Lloyd), a Pro Bowl tight end, a future Hall of Famer at running back, and a $100 million quarterback, the 49ers still struggled to score.
Through Week 16, the 49ers rank 26th in points per game, 31st in passing yards per game, and have been an incredibly frustrating offense in 2014. In addition to the problems running the ball, Kaepernick has steadily regressed as a passer after an electrifying first season. This season, Kaepernick has a Passing NEP of 15.23, which puts him below Kyle Orton, Brian Hoyer, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. The 49ers need to find a coach who can harness Kaepernick's natural abilities as a runner and put him in position to succeed as a passer.
Here are two guys who could help maximize the talent on the roster.
Mike Shanahan (Former Redskins, Broncos, and Raiders Head Coach)
Having made stars out of late-round picks like Terrell Davis, Alfred Morris and Olandis Gary, Mike Shanahan’s patented zone-blocking running scheme has always been effective in producing solid rushing numbers. Shanahan has produced a top-five rushing attack in more than half of his 18 seasons as a head coach. With talented backs like Gore and Hyde, Shanahan’s system could be capable of revitalizing the 49ers’ rushing attack. In addition, Shanahan's West Coast offensive principles will surely appeal to Jed York, who desires to revive the glory days of his uncle Eddie Debartolo's 49ers.
Josh McDaniels (New England Patriots Offensive Coordinator)
According to Chris Mortensen of ESPN, however, McDaniels is at the top of the 49ers’ list of potential head coaches. Although McDaniels struggled in his short stint as head coach for the Denver Broncos, he is heralded as one of the league’s best offensive minds. McDaniels has always been able to adjust his system to the structure of his team. We know he can lead a pass-heavy team like the 2007 Patriots that shattered offensive records and owns the best Adjusted NEP per Play of any team since 2000. However, he is also capable of a balanced attack, as evidenced by the current Patriots, who rank inside the top six in both Adjusted Passing NEP and Adjusted Rushing NEP. (The 49ers rank 24th in both.)
While McDaniels doesn’t have the locker-room cache that a name like Shanahan would, he has the creativity to structure an offense that could maximize the 49ers’ talents.
While the coaching upheaval has been rumored nationally since the start of the season, what many may not know is the potential for a massive change in personnel as well. Here are the 49ers’ major free agents in 2015: Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Crabtree, Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver.
With Frank Gore’s poor efficiency this season, he may end up being a cap casualty as the new regime hands the keys of the offense to Carlos Hyde. Although the 49ers have drafted numerous interior lineman through the years in preparation for Iupati’s departure (Daniel Kilgore, Marcus Martin, and Brandon Thomas), the new staff may be inclined to keep the Pro Bowl guard to solidify a unit that struggled this season.
As for Crabtree, after an exciting 2012 campaign, he has been plagued with injuries and has devolved into merely a possession receiver. This season, Michael Crabtree has a receiving NEP of 59.61, which would land him 44th amongst eligible receivers. I expect the 49ers to pass on the high dollar figure Crabtree would command and instead lean on youngsters Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington to supplement his production.
Defensively, the 49ers have a chance to be even stronger next year. Without Navorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, and Aldon Smith this season, San Francisco still managed to stay in the top half of the league in most defensive categories through Week 16.
According to our metrics, the 49ers are ninth in Adjusted Defensive NEP. They rank 11th in both rushing and passing defense, per our metrics. As for raw data, they rank fifth in average yards allowed and 11th in points allowed per game.
With Chris Borland, Aaron Lynch, and Tank Carradine showing flashes this season, the 49ers will have one of the deepest front-sevens in the NFL in 2015. If the 49ers can draft or sign an effective cornerback in the off-season to supplement the potential losses of Culliver and Cox, their defense will once again be a strength of the team.
If the 49ers can hit a home run with their coaching hire and revitalize their offense, they appear to have the talent to bounce back to the top of the NFC in 2015.