It’s safe to say that the 2014 season for the San Francisco 49ers, thus far, has been its most tumultuous since the days of Mike Singletary and his “I want winners” tirade.
With that in mind, let’s review all of the good and bad things about the Niners thus far in the regular season, shall we? Personally, I like to start with the bad news first – rip off the band-aid, you know? – so that’s what I will do here.
Here we go:
Bad News: The 49ers are 5-4 after nine games
Sure, the Niners can point to key injuries and absences – namely LBs NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, and a hobbled offensive line. Regardless, this team has simply not looked like the NFC Championship participants they have been over the last three years.
From a head-scratching loss vs. current NFC North doormat Chicago (in their inaugural game at Levi’s Stadium, no less), to their inexcusable loss to the Rams at home, it’s hard to believe a squad considered to be in the mix for another NFC title would be struggling this mightily.
Good News: All things considered, they could easily be 2-7 right now
While this may not be comforting for 49ers fans to hear, it’s not difficult to believe.
Without Colin Kaepernick’s last drive at the Superdome on Sunday – including a clutch 51-yard pass play to Michael Crabtree – and a nullified TD catch for the Saints on the last play of regulation, that game would’ve been in the loss column. I can also point to an early 14-point deficit in St. Louis and an 11-point deficit vs. Philadelphia late in the first half as instances where San Francisco could have easily folded.
Sure, I’m playing the “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda” game, but from what I’ve seen of this team overall after nine games, it’s not a stretch to think they could be “2-and-7” bad.
Bad News: RB Marcus Lattimore retires from football
I remember the day the Ladies of the Empire announced the 131st pick in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
Knowing the former South Carolina running back’s pure talent – but also knowing his bad luck with two ACL injuries – I had hope that he could be the second coming of Frank Gore, current franchise leader in rushing yards. He would be following in his footsteps, after all – remember that Gore came out of a devastating knee injury himself to rise to NFL prominence.
However, chronic problems with Lattimore’s knees has forced him to retire. You feel bad for the 49ers, robbed by circumstance of a potential heir to the running game, but you obviously feel worse for Lattimore, who wanted so badly to prove himself in the pro level, but his knees simply wouldn’t let him. I’m sure everyone in the 49er Empire wish Marcus the best moving forward.
Good News: The 49ers grabbing RB Carlos Hyde looks better and better
It was a bit of a head-scratcher this past NFL Draft when the organization took Ohio State battering ram Carlos Hyde in the second round, with CB as a position of need at the time, and Gore and Lattimore in the team’s back pocket.
But now, with healthy bodies at the RB position at a premium, Hyde is looking like a genius pick today. He was already seen as a steal in the second round for a team that loves to run the ball. Now, with Lattimore gone, Hyde is the heir apparent to Frank Gore.
And, so far, he has looked pretty good in the role – in a limited role, Hyde has 54 carries for 214 yards and 3 TDs on the ground. His violent style of play is almost reminiscent of Seattle Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch (Hyde has said he hates getting tackled), and he looks to fit in nicely in the 49ers offense for the foreseeable future.
Bad News: Patrick Willis (toe) was placed on season-ending IR
Willis, the 49ers franchise LB – and the stalwart on defense over the last seven years – finally lost his battle with, of all things, a bad toe.
Described as a condition the Pro Bowl defender has always had, Willis will have surgery on his left big toe, that will keep him off the field for the rest of the season. He was placed on season-ending IR on Tuesday, and his loss will obviously be a huge hole for a defense already hurting for playmakers.
For Patrick Willis fans (including myself), this was certainly disheartening news. As the defensive face of the franchise, he represented everything that was right about the team. He is the heart and soul of the defense. Now he is sidelined for the season, for the first time in his career.
Good News: Chris Borland has filled in admirably, and the LB corps gets Aldon Smith back
No one in their right mind would, if given the choice, take the rookie LB from Wisconsin over the seven-time Pro Bowler.
However, in this case, the former has been on the field making plays, and the latter has been sidelined for a significant amount of time. Borland – who was originally taken in the third round of the 2014 draft to fill in for a recovering Bowman – has filled in nicely for Willis. In the past two games alone, the diminutive Borland has amassed 35 tackles. To be fair, he was compared to another seven-time All-Pro LB – Miami Dolphins legend Zach Thomas – coming out of college.
Additionally, the NFL reinstated another key cog to the defense – suspended LB Aldon Smith. His presence in the defensive front will be vital to the defense moving forward, and the combination of Smith and Borland could make 49ers fans forget about the loss of Willis.
At least, that’s the hope.
Bad News: Colin Kaepernick still hasn’t looked like the passer that experts thought he would be by now
He just got his brand-spanking new contract. He’s officially the franchise QB. He has all the requisite weapons at WR and TE.
But he still only projects glimpses of the kind of quarterback that wins championships.
In terms of statistics – despite the many weapons he has – he is still rather pedestrian. At the moment, he is 19th in passing yards per game (241.0), 15th in passer rating (92.7), tied for 14th in TD passes (13), and 20th in completion percentage (61.9).
Worst of all, he can’t seem to fare well in the pocket, holding the ball for too long, resulting in a league-high 31 sacks through nine games. Ultimately, it would be fair to say that Kaepernick has possibly regressed in his quarterbacking skills.
It’s enough to bang your head against the wall.
Good News: That predicament isn’t entirely his fault — and despite everything, he still shows flashes
Like I said, it would be easy to blame Kaepernick’s quarterback regression on the man himself … that is, if you refused to look at the whole picture.
First of all, the offensive line – whether because of injuries to key starters, an inability of backups to protect the pocket, or what have you – has not done well by Kaepernick. While people could point to the signal-caller holding the ball too long, it’s still a two-way street. If you remember, in Week 9, Kaepernick was sacked eight times – EIGHT! – against a St. Louis Rams D-line that more than doubled their sack total in that one game alone. That certainly wasn’t entirely Kaepernick’s fault.
Secondly, a little blame could go to the pass catchers, and their drops of Kaepernick’s passes. According to SportingCharts.com (as of November 12), Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree have five drops apiece, while Vernon Davis has four. It may not be a big reason for Kaepernick’s struggles, but it certainly is a contributing factor.
And, even with his struggles, the 49ers QB can still pull off plays like the one seen against New Orleans at the end of regulation:
He’s not awful. He’s just the same ol’ Kap struggling behind a sub-par line that can’t pass protect like it used to – at least, for the most part.