The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.
It’s a creed used entirely too often. But for the San Francisco 49ers’ often-pedestrian offense, it certainly rings true – through both good times and bad.
Looking back to the beginning of the 2014 NFL season, it is interesting to see how many had expected the 49ers – a team, under former head coach Jim Harbaugh, had reached the NFC Championship game in three straight seasons, from 2011 to 2013 – to tap into its full potential on the offensive side of the ball.
After all, QB Colin Kaepernick, despite a few sputters here and there, was still the dynamic playmaker that almost willed a game-winning TD against the Seattle Seahawks – only to see it tipped by Richard Sherman for the game-ending interception to seal the 49ers’ fate at the end of the 2013 season.
Furthermore, the team retained reliable WR Anquan Boldin for two more years, Michael Crabtree was looking to take a step forward, and the front office pulled off a draft-day trade to bring in former Bills standout Stevie Johnson – all seen as dynamic weapons for Kaepernick to utilize in 2014. Coupled with a draft that saw them potentially bolster their running game with Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde and USC C Marcus Martin, this looked to be an offense primed to make a run at Super Bowl XLIX.
Unfortunately, it was anything but.
Under a dysfunctional coaching staff that was plagued with departure rumors throughout the season, Kaepernick regressed mightily. Whether opposing defenses figured him out, or he was affected by the ongoing drama, we may not know for some time. Nonetheless, it was obvious that an offensive scheme that attempted to make him more of a shotgun passer had failed him, and the 49ers offense, miserably.
As a result, the Niners finished with their worst offensive ranks in the Harbaugh Era, in 2014 – 20th in total yards per game (327.4) and 25th in points per game (19.1). Due to “The Great Santa Clara Coaching Purge”, incumbent OC Greg Roman, who had served as offensive head for four seasons, was allowed to leave for the Buffalo Bills.
In its wake, the 49ers decided to promote one of the only Harbaugh holdovers – QB coach Geep Chryst – to the offensive coordinator job. He will be entrusted to ignite a 49ers offense that has obviously been lacking in explosiveness.
Then again, the 49ers haven’t been a vastly dynamic offensive team – at least, not by the numbers – in quite some time. In fact, a recent blog by 49ers Insider Eric Branch pinpointed the last time San Francisco cracked the top ten in points per game and total offensive yards per game: 2003.
George W. Bush was still serving his first term in office, Lord of the Rings: The Return of The King swept the Oscars, and Britney Spears had a scandalous smooch on national television long before Katy Perry became famous for kissing a girl.
That was the last time the 49ers can say they had an elite offense.
So, what have the Red-and-Gold been able to muster since then? Let’s go back. Way back. Back into time …
Offensive Coordinator: Greg Knapp
YPG: 355.4 (5th)
PPG: 24.0 (9th)
This was the first year of an eight-year postseason drought for the 49ers, under new head coach Dennis Erickson. The team still had QB Jeff Garcia at the helm, who accounted for 25 total TDs (18 passing), a two-headed running attack in Kevan Barlow and Garrison Hearst, and the dynamic yet controversial WR Terrell Owens, who had 1,102 yards receiving.
Despite a disappointing 7-9 season filled with off-field drama (Sound familiar?), and Garcia missing games to a sprained ankle, the offense still managed to be a fine-tuned machine for the majority of the year.
Then, things got bad.
Offensive Coordinator: Ted Tollner
YPG: 286.6 (26th)
PPG: 16.2 (30th)
You can thank the departures of mainstays like Garcia, Owens and Hearst – along with OC Greg Knapp – for the huge drop-off in offensive production in 2004. Tim Rattay took over as the starting QB after impressing in a backup role the year before. Furthermore, Ted Tollner was promoted to OC after two years as QB coach (Sound familiar?). Combined with the departure of DC Jim Mora and a league-worst defense that gave up 28.2 points per game, the 49ers were dead in the water, and were two OT victories vs. Arizona away from a winless season.
Offensive Coordinator: Mike McCarthy
YPG: 224.2 (32nd)
PPG: 14.9 (30th)
New year, new offensive coordinator, new quarterback in top overall pick Alex Smith. It was obviously rough going for the rookie, starting 7 games in what became a QB carousel that featured Tim Rattay, Cody Pickett and Ken Dorsey. The inconsistency – plus the near 15% sack percentage on passing plays – likely led to such a horrid offensive output in 2005. Not much that OC Mike McCarthy could work with – though that didn’t stop the Green Bay Packers from poaching him to be their head coach before 2006.
Offensive Coordinator: Norv Turner
YPG: 303.6 (26th)
PPG: 18.6 (24th)
With Turner at the helm of the offense, 2006 turned into a season of promise for the offense – that is, despite less-than-pedestrian numbers compared to the rest of the league.
Alex Smith was a mere 110 yards from a 3,000-passing yard season, and Frank Gore became a diamond in the rough, running for almost 1,700 yards and 8 rushing TDs as the lone feature back. While finishing 7-9, the offense showed great promise with Norv Turner.
Offensive Coordinator: Jim Hostler
YPG: 237.3 (32nd)
PPG: 13.7 (32nd)
Unfortunately for Smith and the offense, Turner was nabbed by the San Diego Chargers as their next head coach. In stepped Jim Hostler – arguably the 49ers’ worst OC in their postseason drought – promoted from his QB coaching position (again, sound familiar?). Smith regressed dramatically, only throwing for 914 yards and 2 TDs in seven games – though, 35-year-old Trent Dilfer didn’t fair much better (1,166 yards, 7 TDs). The only highlight for the offense was another 1,000-yard season for Frank Gore, but, otherwise, the offense was awful.
Offensive Coordinator: Mike Martz
YPG: 311.1 (23rd)
PPG: 21.2 (22nd)
There was nowhere to go but up from ’07, and new OC Mike Martz and his high-octane passing philosophy, at least somewhat, did the trick. That, and a couple of QBs not named Alex Smith (Shaun Hill, J.T. O’Sullivan) who could implement it. Smith was placed on season-ending IR after just his first game of the season, and Hill and O’Sullivan split time at QB. The two combined for 3,724 passing yards and 21 TDs, but, despite Gore’s third straight 1,000-yard campaign, the offense was still lacking to a defensive front that was light-years better than the previous season.
Offensive Coordinator: Jimmy Raye
YPG: 290.8 (27th)
PPG: 20.6 (18th)
Mike Singletary was now the full-time head coach, and he was going to do things his way – and that included a new OC for QB Alex Smith to work with (his fourth in as many years with San Francisco). With Raye at the controls, it seemed to work for Smith, who threw for 2,350 yards and 18 TDs in 10 starts. However, Smith didn’t start the season – Shaun Hill was benched after 6 games when he was considered ineffective in a 3-3 start. The team finished with an 8-8 record, having allowed only 17.6 points per game – 4th best in the league that year. The offense wasn’t explosive, but it was steady.
Offensive Coordinator: Jimmy Raye / Mike Johnson
YPG: 313.3 (24th)
PPG: 19.1 (24th)
At the very least, QB Alex Smith would begin two consecutive seasons with the same offensive coordinator for the first time in his career – even though he wasn’t the starting QB at the beginning of the previous season. In any case, Raye was the coordinator, despite his clashes with head coach Mike Singletary. It didn’t take long for Raye to pack his bags, though – an 0-3 start to the season led Singletary to fire his incumbent OC and replace him with his QB coach, Mike Johnson (It’s like I’m a broken record). It would lead to an offense that couldn’t even get its running game going, averaging under 20 points for the first time since 2007.
Offensive Coordinator: Greg Roman
YPG: 310.9 (26th)
PPG: 23.8 (11th)
When Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman stepped into fold for Alex Smith, the expectations were low. But with a defensive unit coached to its full potential, the offensive coaching duo saw to it that Smith would not be given too much responsibility. Relying on a more run-heavy offense and taking a significant amount of pressure of their QB, their rushing offense jumped from 19th to 8th in the league in total yards. And while Smith had a typical year throwing the football, his efficiency showed marked improvement, throwing a league-low 5 INTs. After one of the most exciting back-and-forth playoff games in Candlestick Park history (capped off by a last-second TD grab by TE Vernon Davis), the team nearly reached the Super Bowl that year – if not for two crucial turnovers by Kyle Williams late in the NFC Championship vs. New York.
Offensive Coordinator: Greg Roman
YPG: 361.8 (11th)
PPG: 23.8 (11th)
Smith and the offense picked up right where they left off from the previous season – with a predominantly run-heavy offense that moved the ball effectively, without much flash. That flash showed up, unfortunately, at the expense of Smith, who went down with a concussion midway through the season. Backup Colin Kaepernick took the reins and never looked back, giving the team a measure of explosiveness from both his arm and his legs.
The combination of a dynamic runner like Kaepernick and a ground-and-pound RB like Gore led to a rushing offense that gained almost 2,500 yards for the season, and a team that came within a first down of the Super Bowl title.
Offensive Coordinator: Greg Roman
YPG: 323.8 (24th)
PPG: 25.4 (11th)
After a Week 1 win over the Green Bay Packers that saw QB Colin Kaepernick throw for over 400 yards, 49ers fans were hoping to see a more wide-open passing offense that featured Kap’s arm as well as his legs. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, as they continually were forced to lean heavily on the run game: the offense didn’t even see another game of over 200 passing yards until Week 6 against Arizona, then again in Week 12 vs. Washington. The passing offense never reached over 300 yards after Week 1, but an at-times explosive rushing offense helped the 49ers get back to the NFC Championship. That is, only for a certain CB to intercept Kaepernick on an ill-advised pass play in the end zone, giving the Seattle Seahawks their second-ever trip to the Super Bowl.
So, what does this mean for the 49ers, moving forward?
There have been a number of free agency departures and retirements that have certainly reshaped the entire team during the offseason – including the unexpected (though expected) retirement of longtime OT Anthony Davis, the loss of G Mike Iupati to Arizona, and the defection of Frank Gore to Indianapolis.
But, other than that, there is a sense of cautious optimism among the 49ers organization and the fan base. After all, they gave Kaepernick new dynamic weapons in the form of WR Torrey Smith and RB Reggie Bush – meant for a more up-tempo attack. Furthermore, we are yet to see the realtime, in-game results of the quarterback’s offseason regimen in Arizona with former Super Bowl champion QB Kurt Warner.
The plan was for Kaepernick’s release to be more compact and, therefore, quicker from the outset. Apparently, this is the result:
Whether he can translate that to a more efficient passing game remains to be seen. But, despite the doom and gloom of the national media, there is hope that this offense – now with a combination of Carlos Hyde and Kendall Hunter in the backfield and Smith and Jerome Simpson as their top 2 wideouts – could be the most dynamic, as a whole, the 49ers have seen since 2003.
Or, they could fall flat on their face, as is wont a 49ers offense to muster, generally speaking, over the last 12 years – making us continue to pine for better days.
In any case, we’ll get a minor sense of where this offense is in the 49ers’ first preseason game on Saturday. Anyway, here’s hoping for the former – if not for the success of the franchise, then for the streak of mediocre offensive seasons to finally be snapped.