San Francisco 49ers: A Quarterback Change Won’t Fix the Offense


The San Francisco 49ers are struggling through a 2-5 start in the first season of the post-Jim Harbaugh era, as owner Jed York strives to have his team “win with class”, whatever that means. In the wake of this downward spiral, a firestorm of controversy is surrounding 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

That’s the nature of the NFL. When an offense is struggling, the brunt of the blame will land on the quarterback’s shoulders. As a result, there has been chatter that the 49ers should bench Kaepernick in favor of his backup, Blaine Gabbert.

While it’s true that Kaepernick has not looked very good in his seven games so far this year, he also hasn’t had a lot of help around, or particularly, in front of him. NFL analyst, and former NFL offensive lineman Mark Schlereth chimed in, saying “it’s the worst I have ever seen an offensive line play consistently across the league”, adding that their performance on Thursday night against the Seattle Seahawks was “pathetic”.

Pathetic is probably the most apt description to give the offensive line without getting too graphic. The five men charged with protecting the quarterback are acting as a large turnstile, offering only minimal resistance as the defense enters the party in the backfield. One of Kaepernick’s biggest criticisms is his inability to run through his progressions. That may be true, but when Kaepernick barely has enough time to look for his primary receiver, running through a second or third read is downright impossible.

On Thursday night against Seattle, there was no pocket for Kaepernick. The offensive line was an absolute mess, with the right side being particularly difficult to watch. Right tackle Erik Pears, and right guard Jordan Devey (with the occasional appearance from Andrew Tiller mixed in) were basically tackling dummies, as the Seahawks’ defensive line had their way with them all night.

Kaepernick was sacked six times by Seattle on Thursday. The third sack (which came on the play immediately after the second sack), was on a broken play action play. The offensive line was supposed to wash their defenders to the left, and let the right defensive end go free, who Kaepernick would have to beat himself. Kap did make the man miss, as he used a pump fake to make him leave his feet, but as he stepped around the pressure, he was hit by Michael Bennett. Pears was supposed to move Bennett down the line, but instead, Bennett easily shed the block, and turned back towards the play to record the sack. If the block is made, Kaepernick can either tuck and run, or set his feet and throw.

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Five of the Seahawks’ six sacks came about because a) the right side of the line allowed their man to get to Kaepernick, or b) the pressure from the right side forced Kaepernick to either move up or to his left, causing him to be hit by someone else. Kaepernick didn’t face pressure from his right, or his left, or from up the middle. He faced pressure from his right, and from his left, and up the middle. He was unable to use his best asset, his speed, because he couldn’t step away from the pressure. Even when he moved away from one rusher, another was at his heels, champing at the bit.

This is nothing new for the right side of the 49ers’ offensive line. On the season, Pears is ranked 72nd out of 78 tackles in the NFL with a -16.3 rating from Pro Football Focus. Devey is 77th out of 81 guards with a -13.1 rating. Center Marcus Martin is 33rd out of 34 centers at -21.9.

The alternative of starting Gabbert isn’t a very awe-inspiring notion. Gabbert, the Jacksonville Jaguars first-round pick (10th overall) in 2011, is no stranger to bad offensive lines. In parts of three seasons in Jacksonville (28 games played), Gabbert was sacked 74 times, on 8.7 percent of his dropbacks. He didn’t respond well to the pressure, as he completed less than 54 percent of his passes, and threw more interceptions (24) than touchdowns (22).

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While he is athletic enough to move around in the pocket, Gabbert does not have the speed to get away from the daunting pass rushes he would face through the rest of the season, especially from the 49ers’ divisional rivals . Kaepernick has been able to use his pure speed to avoid some sacks (on top of the 25 sacks he’s already endured). Gabbert wouldn’t have that luxury.

The bottom line is that the offensive line couldn’t keep their quarterback upright if their lives depended on it. Whether it’s Kaepernick, Gabbert, or any potential franchise quarterback the team could draft, the quarterback can not succeed when they are under as much duress as the 49ers’ offensive line allows them to be under.

Kaepernick is the scapegoat, the pariah that takes the brunt of the blame, but games are won and lost in the trenches. The big hogs up front have to allot their quarterback the opportunity to lead his team to victory. It’s simply not possible for Kaepernick to lead when he’s running for his life.

Next: Jim Tomsula is in Way Over His Head