While their record might not reflect it as well as another teams, the San Francisco 49ers season has been rougher than anticipated. From the highest highs to the lowest lows have these mighty warriors traveled. Each, in turn, riding the wings of the mighty Pegasus, and trolling with Charon the river Styx…but I digress.
Clearly for players and fans, parts of this season have both lived up to the hype and fallen so far short of it as to cause even the best fans to suffer moments of doubt.
In the beginning (see: Week 1), there was much elation. It seemed like Colin Kaepernick was indeed a savior at quarterback and Anquan Boldin the best possible offseason pickup anyone could have made. Mere weeks later, stumbling through a two-game losing streak and the 49ers were in one of the darkest possible places. It seemed like little was working, and since that time we’ve seen a fair mix of good and bad for the Niners, though to be fair, almost exclusively the struggles have been on offense, and through thirteen weeks, lets look at each unit, do a little analysis and pass out some better-late-than-never grades.
Colin Kaepernick has taken nearly every snap at quarterback this season, and it’s sure been up and down. With a season passer rating of 88.9, it probably looks slightly less bad than it actually was or has been. With his efforts creating the 31st-most passing yards per game and sporting a less than ideal 57.8 percent completion rating, it’s easy to start to lose hope in the man under center. I think though, we can chalk a lot of this up to growing pains. Clearly when the offense is rolling, things are better. If you factor out the losses and only count the games where the Niners won, Kaepernick is 121-of-195 (62 percent) for 1716 yards (14 yards per completion average) for 13 TDs(1.6 per game). It’s not the best, but it’s better. Clearly when the game plan is working, he flourishes.
Frank Gore still finds ways to make me smile. As I came into my own as a football fan, there were certain things I discovered I liked more than others. I absolutely love a hard-running, up-the-middle running back. Coincidentally, I love watching Frank Gore run. At 30 years old, one would expect there’d be a lot less snaps for this veteran RB. And they’d be right to do so, but two things are probably keeping that from happening more often: One, Frank is running like a younger man, and two, he remains one of the best in the business in pass protection. He’s averaging four yards per carry, has eight TDs and is probably going to hit 1,000 yards in the regular season. What more could you ask for in your feature running back? Unfortunately for Frank, sometimes when the game isn’t going as planned, even when his runs are, he gets benched. Gore has, and always likely will be, better as the game progresses. He punishes defenses the longer the game goes on, and that’s usually when he busts something long and breaks the spirit of the defense he’s running against.
Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon share the rest of the snaps and there’s a boatload of talent between these three. Kendall Hunter looks like someone who can grow into the role of an every-down back when he gets the chance, and has a surprising speed. I remember in one of the early games this season, maybe against the Colts, he tore a run up the edge and he moved a whole lot quicker than I expected to see. LaMichael James has seemingly found a good niche as a returner, though I had repeatedly hoped to see more of him in the screen/toss game, not unlike Darren Sproles. Dixon has shown this year, more than previous years, that he wants to keep his roster spot beyond special teams. In a lot of ways, I wonder if he won’t give Hunter a run for the starting spot if his upturn continues.
*Honorable Mention: Bruce Miller continues to do good work as a fullback and lead blocker, rather than as a ball-carrier.
Vernon Davis. Not much else really needs to be said. He may never lead the league in any stat at his position, but it is absolutely undeniable that he’s going to be in the running as one of the best TE’s to play the game. He’s a matchup nightmare for ANYONE on coverage be they linebacker, corner or safety. Currently he ranks tied for third among all receivers for touchdowns (only Jimmy Graham and Calvin Johnson have more) and rounds out as 3oth in for yards in the same category. This puts him in front of players like Larry Fitzgerald and Hakeem Nicks. Not bad company, especially when 14 of his 42 (33 percent) targets are for more than 20 yards.
Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek and Derek Carrier round out the rest of the TEs and I have to say I’m very impressed with the rookie McDondald. He’s big and physical and if he can be utilized correctly, I see him being a lot like Owen Daniels or Heath Miller. Celek is currently nursing a hamstring and I expect Carrier might see more play time because of it.
Run blocking in this group might have fallen off slightly with the departure of Delanie Walker, but I feel like McDonald is going to learn quite a bit in the offseason about this, and will help the group considerably in this regard.
I feel like this section really needs an asterisk or something. Some sort of caveat to accurately indicate the frustration this position has caused fans, coordinators and players alike. There really isn’t much else that needs to be said about Anquan Boldin that hasn’t already been said a million times over. This man plays the game like a beast–2nd among receivers in yards, 16th in receptions more than 20 yards, this is a man who loves to catch the ball and move the chains. Imagine what he could do in a passing attack that wasn’t nearly last in the NFL. All you have to do really is look back at Week 1 against Green Bay. The sky’s the limit. Unfortunately, when you’re a team’s only legitimate wide out, gameplanning against you becomes a thing. Michael Crabtree is finally healthy from a torn Achilles tendon, and the Week 13 game against the Rams proves he’s ready to play. His long reception showed what appeared to be a fully-healed injury, and based on the starts and stops and changes of direction I think we’ll see a much improved passing attack the rest of the season if players stay healthy.
Ignoring Vernon Davis, every other pass-catcher combined equal fewer receptions than Anquan Boldin. This being said, Mario Manningham (recently returned from injury), Michael Crabtree (also recently returned from injury), Jon Baldwin (formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs) and Quinton Patton(rookie) give this group of receivers very little other than significant upside, even if it might not translate to the playing field. Manningham should be a solid third WR once Crabtree gets back up to speed and you can bet teams are worried about Crabtree and Boldin on the field at the same time. Think back to both player’s postseasons last year where they were fantastic.
*Honorable Mention: Bruce Miller, again, for being a safety valve when the Niners need it, and a sneaky pass-catcher when the play demands it.
Phil Dawson has been a damn fine addition to the roster. He’s proven accurate from any distance (perfect inside 40 yards, 86 percent overall) and clutch at maintaining good field position on kickoff he’s been a force this year, in his 15th season.
Clearly this is not last year, when the 49ers O-line dominated opponents week in and week out. Last year saw a highly ranked run game in response to this, and there are clearly struggles. Right now both Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati haven’t met the levels of play we saw last season, and this greatly hurts how the offense plays it’s game. Center Jonathan Goodwin seems to lose his focus in pass protection a little too often. Joe Staley is still a beast and one of the best left tackles in the game right now, but is unfortunately out with an injury. Iupati missed his second straight game, but at least the backup RT Adam Snyder played well after Alex Boone shifted to the LT spot to replace Staley. There’s a ton of room for improvement, especially considering just how good this unit performed last season.
There’s a lot to be excited about if you’re a San Francisco 49er fan right now. It looks like some of the much needed things are going to start working as intended starting this week and next week, and if there’s ever a perfect time for a team to get hot, it’s right now, on the way to the postseason.