Countdown to Extinction: How San Francisco's offense went bad
RENTON, Wash. -- When I asked San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore what exactly is wrong with his offense on Wednesday, he seemed as much at a loss as many who watch the team.
"Well, what do you think?" he responded.
"Um... I don't think you guys run as much play-action, the blocking seems a bit weird and they don't use you enough," I replied, a bit dumbstruck that I was telling an NFL player what was wrong with his offense.
"I’m going to go with what you said," Gore concluded. "You know, it’s a different type of game. We have been behind and things just haven’t been right for us. It’s just been a different year for us this year. As a guy who’s been here for 10 years, I’m blessed and I’m just trying to finish it out right. Hopefully we get out there and give them boys a good game. We’re trying to get the win and move on but I’m just having fun, man. I’m not happy about the situation we’re in, but I’m still blessed."
The situation the 49ers are in is not a good one at all. The team currently ranks 19th on offense in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics (22nd in the passing game; 16th on the ground) after ranking eighth in 2013 and fifth in 2012, the season in which they came one overthrown pass (and controversial pass interference no-call) away from winning the Super Bowl. Right now, quarterback Colin Kaepernick ranks 27th in FO's cumulative efficiency metrics -- he was 13th in 2012 and eighth in 2013.
Most of the blame has been thrown Kaepernick's way when it comes to explanations for the team's regression -- that's just the nature of the beast -- but it's just as easy to throw shade at an offensive line that was the best in the NFL in 2012, and has fallen off severely over the last two seasons due to injuries, personnel missteps and overall ineffectiveness. While some insist that Kaepernick isn't mentally tough enough to deal with the pressure when things aren't going well for him, those watching the tape are more likely to believe that Kaepernick is the same quarterback he's always been (physically gifted but limited) and it's what's around him that has eroded.
"The 49ers have a team issue on offense, and it starts with Kaepernick playing better," former NFL coach and current Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden told ESPN Radio Wednesday morning. "I do know this: They have not blocked very well. They have not blocked to the capabilities of this offensive line. Boone held out, they've got a new center, the right tackle is hurt, Jonathan Martin hasn't been a smashing hit... it's a combination of a lot of things. Vernon Davis has not been the same player, if you ask me. He wanted a new contract -- I don't know if that's festering. They're not running the ball, and they're not throwing the ball and Colin Kaepernick isn't playing well. But to say that yelling at him or hugging him is going to make a big difference? That's a bunch of bull, to me. I just think they need to play better as a football team, particularly up front on offense."
Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup, told me as much on this week's matchup podcast.
"There are issues throughout their entire offense," Cosell said. "Kaepernick is not the kind of quarterback who can compensate for that. He's now reached the point where he's not seeing things. If you want to reduce quarterbacking to its simplest terms, and this is the extreme Cliff's Notes version, it's 'See the field, make good decisions, and throw it straight to the right receiver.' Kaepernick is not doing that."
There's a lot Kaepernick isn't doing, but let's focus on the offensive line a bit more. In 2012, that line ranked very highly in most of FO's metrics, especially when it came to converting in power and short-yardage situations. This year, they rank dead last in the league in conversions of plays in which it's third or fourth down and there's two yards or less to go. They're just as bad in gaining serious yardage upfield, and that's not about Gore showing his age after 10 years as much as it is an almost complete ability to deal with defenders at the second and third levels.
Result? Nobody goes anywhere, the 7-6 49ers are facing a playoff whiff for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era, and there's all sorts of talk about what might happen in the organization if things continue to go badly. Let's throw the speculation aside for now and deal with what is evident in their last two games, a 19-3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Thanksgiving night, and a 24-13 loss to the Oakland Raiders last Sunday.
This is the first play from scrimmage against the Raiders last Sunday, in which Kaepernick throws a pick to Oakland safety Brandian Ross, a third-year player from Youngstown State. Here, he tries to get Michael Crabtree on the same page as he scrambles from right to left, but Crabtree can't break out of the bracket created between cornerback Tarrell Brown and Ross as Ross closes on the play. Cosell told me that based on the input of people he's spoken with, this was supposed to be an easy throw to fullback Bruce Miller in the flat, but things went off-script. And when you factor in Kaepernick's frequent and glaring inaccuracy to either sideline, this isn't a throw he should be making under any circumstances. We're going to see a throw he shouldn't have made to the right side later in the article. As Cosell told me, that's the downside of random improvisation, and Kaepernick is making too many of those throws.
For those who believe that the 49ers should be doing more designed runs for Kaepernick this season, we give you this: it's the first play of San Francisco's second drive. Out of Pistol offset left, Kaepernick takes off on an outside run that is clearly planned. Cool, except for a couple of things: linebacker Sio Moore (one of the better and more underrated players at his position, it should be said), gives a pretty clear indication that he's moving in hard on a run blitz. Despite this, Moore is left unblocked as left tackle Joe Staley and Gore head out to... well, what are they doing? Hitting those one-on-one battles with Brown and safety Charles Woodson, it looks like. Whether Kaepernick or someone else should have changed the protection call is relevant to the point that somebody should have.
The 49ers' blocking issues aren't limited to the offensive line, as we see on this minus-1-yard reception by Michael Crabtree halfway through San Francisco's third drive. Kaepernick hits Crabtree on a quick screen out of bunch right, with Anquan Boldin blocking Woodson and Vernon Davis blocking and he runs straight past cornerback T.J. Carrie, who tackles Crabtree behind the line of scrimmage, in order to "deal with" cornerback D.J. Hayden several yards downfield.
This is San Francisco's first play against Seattle on Thanksgiving night -- note that once again, there's some decent, choreographed blocking at the line level, but nothing of note up front. Boone gets up to linebacker depth, but fails to seal the inside edge against linebacker Bobby Wagner, and a seven-yard run that could have gone for a lot more is stopped as a result. In 2014, this is about as good as the 49ers' run game gets.
San Francisco's second drive against Seattle ended with a Kaepernick sack, and this play brings up another undersold issue with this offense: no receiver on this team has the ability to consistently beat tight coverage with pure physicality, and the Roman/Harbaugh combination for whatever reason -- isn't doing as much with formations at this point. Result? You see more coverage sacks than you should. On this play, the idea is to motion to twins right and cross Seattle's secondary up, but no go. The routes aren't sold, and Seattle's secondary clamps down.
Jerry Rice, who redefined the receiver position for this franchise once upon a time, certainly believes that the 49ers' current receiver rotation could do a lot better.
“I look for separation and I’m not seeing much right now,” Rice said Wednesday in an interview with Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News. “It makes it easier for a quarterback when he can see separation from defensive backs where the quarterback can throw the ball. Everything is so confined. They need to spread the offense out and get the wide receivers wide where they can win one-on-one.”
Sometimes, however, it doesn't matter because a receiver gets open and the quarterback doesn't see it. Kaepernick ended San Francisco's third drive against Seattle with an interception thrown to Richard Sherman, and this is one of many plays that you could point to if you wanted to specify the issues he has with multiple reads -- even simple ones. Sherman has Brandon Lloyd downfield on inside position, and he's practically busting out of his pads to jump the route if Kaepernick throws it to a place where Lloyd can catch it. Instead, Kaepernick makes things less complex by throwing the ball directly to Sherman.
You can see it on the overhead, but it's more graphic on the end zone tape -- this is a third-and-8 from the San Francisco 30-yard line, and Anquan Boldin is wide open on an intermediate crossing route from left to right. The only Seahawks player in Boldin's vicinity is defensive tackle Jordan Hill after Boldin crosses over Wagner, and that's with Seattle rushing three and dropping eight. No way anyone can blame this on the line -- Kaepernick has a textbook pocket, but he broke away from Boldin based on what he saw in a split second, froze his read to Lloyd's area, and made a bad throw.
The 49ers must come up to Seattle and face those same Seahawks again this Sunday, this time at CenturyLink Field, which has been a house of horrors for Kaepernick since he became the team's starter halfway through the 2012 season. In preparation for the game, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll wasn't about to insinuate that the offense he'll face isn't still a threat.
"They have everything available. They have all of their run game," he said, when I asked if the overall focus has changed and they're asking Kaepernick to do too much. "It shows up, and they have a diverse pass game. They probably spread out a little bit more because of their receivers that they have, but they’ve done that in the past also, so it doesn’t look like they have a new notebook. They’re still loaded with stuff -- they still give you a lot of problems because we have to prepare for so much.
With all due respect to Carroll, whose team is on an interstellar hot streak right now, I'm more inclined to lean in Frank Gore's direction. The San Francisco 49ers, as currently constructed, are a team looking desperately for answers on offense, and few are forthcoming.