It feels like QB Colin Kaepernick is being set up to be the fall guy for the San Francisco 49ers' 2015 season as Jim Harbaugh was in 2014. The 49ers, who are sitting at the bottom of the NFC West, are in disarray right now. It was expected. It was predicted. However, for the Niner Faithful, there was still hope that a coaching reboot would revitalize this team. It had the opposite effect. The team has regressed, looking more and more like the pre-2011 squads than the post-2011 ones.
Kaepernick deserves some of the blame. He doesn't always see open receivers. The ones he does see, he'll be just off target. His social media posts are often criticized. He won't take off those darn headphones for interviews. Now there are rumors of a locker room divide and that Kaepernick is 'alone on an island' among his teammates. Two things that head coach Jim Tomsula disputed on Tuesday morning during a radio interview. Worst of all, he is trying to be something that he isn't.
During Thursday's loss to the Seattle Seahawks at Levi's Stadium, he did not run the ball once. A first in his career. Kaepernick spent the offseason trying to improve as a pocket passer. It was a good goal, but not at the cost of ignoring what made you so dangerous in the first place. There have been numerous times when Kaepernick could have taken off with the ball, but instead, he tried to stay in the pocket and make something happen with his arm rather than with his legs. What made Kaepernick so dangerous was that you had to defend the arm, but at the same time, you had to be ready for the run. He is a dangerous runner. It is an ability that might even mask some of the deficiencies of an absolutely abysmal offensive line.
Kaepernick was sacked six times by the Seahawks – the second-most he has had in a game during his career. He had a minus-1.3 rating from Pro Football Focus. Now he is traveling to St. Louis to face the Rams, who rank second in the NFL in sacks. Even scarier is that Kaepernick is on pace to be sacked a career high 57 times. Only Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, who has offensive line problems of their own, has been sacked more (31 times) than Kaepernick (25 times).
Some fans are calling for Kaepernick to be benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert. Yes, Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert looked decent in preseason, but it was preseason. The only thing that a Kaepernick benching might accomplish would be to see how another quarterback would fare behind the 49ers' poor pass protection. If they did happen to do better, it would not save the 49ers' season, but it might answer one of many questions.
The Trent Baalke Dilemma
As said, some of the blame belongs to Kaepernick. However, a lot of the blame belongs to general manager Trent Baalke. His failures to properly restock this team around its signal caller is the real reason for the 49ers' demise. While blame was mostly placed on Harbaugh last season, CEO Jed York may finally be realizing that perhaps that blame was misplaced. Baalke's best-player-available draft strategy is a good one … if your team is already loaded with talent. Baalke seems to make a lot of 'potential' picks. Guys who are injured now but could be solid contributors once they are fully recovered. For the record, none of those guys have really panned out for Baalke and the team. There is still hope for WR DeAndre Smelter, but probably not for this season.
In Baalke's defense, he may not have been able to predict T Anthony Davis' abrupt retirement. Davis' decision caused the 49ers to scramble to fill in the gaps along the offensive line. The problem was how he addressed the holes within that unit. Apparently his hand selected draft picks were not ready yet. He traded for G Jordan Devey, a guy that New England Patriots fans thought might get QB Tom Brady killed one day, and signed T Erik Pears. These two, along with out of place C Marcus Martin, make that entire right side of the offensive line a liability. The trio consistently rank as some of the worst in the league according to Pro Football Focus.
Baalke also took a project defensive end in Arik Armstead rather than addressing one of the team's weakest positions – like cornerback. Now, Armstead has shown some flashes, but there were bigger needs at the time.
Then there is the now famous 2012 49ers draft. None of those players are with the team anymore. Baalke's deal will end in 2016. Will he be back? Chris Biderman of Niners Digest wrote an interesting piece titled "Put yourself in the shoes of the key figures of the latest 49ers melodrama" that is worth a read.
When Kaepernick flourished, his teams had defenses and offensive lines that were the envy of the NFL. He was backed by a powerful running game and a coaching staff that did a phenomenal job of hiding any team weaknesses.
The Selection of a New Coaching Staff
There is no need to further defend the former coaching staff. They are gone and they are not coming back. It is a dead horse and quite frankly, people are probably tired of hearing about it. The issue is that when the 49ers decided to clean house, they did so in a manner that made it tough to acquire other talented coaches. Head coach Jim Tomsula seems like a good guy. The thought was always that, like Kaepernick, he could do well if the proper pieces were placed around him. That didn't happen. He was a positional coach that was thrown into a head coaching job and it showed during early interviews with the media.
No one bought into a "mutual parting" between the 49ers and Harbaugh. Coaches interviewed for coordinator jobs, but it didn't really feel like anyone wanted to come to San Francisco after the Harbaugh-Gase-Tomsula fiasco. After all, the team had just fired a coaching staff that had taken their team to three consecutive NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl because management did not get along with the head coach. What kind of job security was that? It all seemed so childish.
Their head coaching search originally looked as though it would land on former Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase. It sounded like a done deal. However, at the last minute, the 49ers allegedly demanded that Gase make Tomsula their defensive coordinator, which did not fly well with Gase. He said no. He had his own staff in mind, which may have included keeping Vic Fangio – a Harbaugh guy – as the defensive coordinator. That's when the talks ended and the 49ers pretended that Tomsula was always their top choice. It was obvious that Gase was not going to be the Yes Man that the team was looking for.
After trying to put some talent around Tomsula, the team had to settle for promoting Kaepernick's quarterback coach, Geep Chryst, to offensive coordinator. Their tight ends coach, Eric Mangini, became their defensive coordinator. Steve Logan, a guy who had not coached since 2011, who's claim to fame is that he helped develop Matt Ryan at Boston College, who was last a football analyst on the radio, and who was on Tomsula's staff in 2006 in NFL Europe, became Kaepernick's new quarterback coach. Maybe he should have been the one to tell Kaepernick, "Improving as a pocket passer is good, but add it to your skill set and use it in addition to your God given talents."
York and Baalke in Hiding
Jim Tomsula is the face of the franchise now. Team CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke do not speak to the media during the season. Members of the media have requested interviews this season, but have been denied. This is not a bad thing when you are winning. However, at 2-5 with most fans calling for the heads of management, a lot could be eased with an appearance. Baalke had insisted all offseason that the team is "reloading" and avoided the other dreaded R-word, "rebuilding." The real problem is that Baalke may have actually believed that. There is no doubt that the team is rebuilding now and one has to wonder if Baalke should be part of those plans anymore.
Jed York was once the golden boy among the fans. During his reign, the 49ers returned to their winning ways and even built a shiny new home in Levi's Stadium. Things have since fallen apart. York told fans to hold him accountable if things did not work out. He insisted that the team was making moves with a Super Bowl as the goal. The fans were not stupid. Most saw through it then and even more see through it now. York has become the most hated individual in Bay Area sports. Coming out and saying, "I was wrong. We are going to fix this" and showing that he is actually upset by the current circumstances would go a long way. He should take ownership of his mistakes. Of course, that probably will not come until after the season as the team scrambles to make some changes.
Until then, we will just have to brace ourselves for this ride.