Heading into the Thursday night showdown with the Seahawks, the stakes appeared to be clear: win, and the season becomes a hard fight to chase down the front-running Cardinals for a division crown that seemed impossibly out of reach just weeks ago; lose, and any hopes for a postseason berth would effectively be dashed, as the 49ers take sole possession of last place in the division. Well, the 49ers didn't win. In fact, there was never a point in the 20-3 beating in which the contest ever seemed competitive. At home against another 2-4 team, the 49ers failed to match their opponents in intensity, skill, or strategy.
Judging from Jim Tomsula's recent comments, the 49ers are singularly focused on salvaging the season and making a run at the playoffs. Their play against playoff-caliber teams suggests that this goal may lie beyond the capabilities of this 49ers incarnation. Certainly, the 49ers are too far down the road of claiming that this year is a "reload, not a rebuild" to say that the talent simply isn't sufficient to challenge the league's top teams, so what Tomsula says may not be the best indication of the 49ers intentions through the rest of the season. If the front office and coaching staff have not yet decided that the pursuit of a championship is beyond the reach of the 2015 team, they certainly will if the point arrives that the 49ers are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Regardless of their public motivations, "big changes" are rumored to be in the offing at 4949 Centennial.
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Where does the team go from here? The depleted defense just saw one of their four star players sit down for the season, as Antoine Bethea joins the IR. The offensive line had its worst game of the year, which is staggering when one considers the depths of ineptitude displayed by the right side of the line so far this year. Jordan Devey and Erik Pears failed to offer much resistance against pass rushers who were stronger, faster, and clearly much more motivated to succeed. Vernon Davis managed his most productive game in years, while managing to look like a lost and terrified boy, as he froze up and hit the dirt after each reception, clearly aware of the punishment that a lurking Kam Chancellor could rain upon him.
This team needs an enema. The current product the 49ers are placing on the field is not winning football; it is hardly watchable football. Fans hoping for sweeping changes to the coaching staff are fooling themselves. Even if the front office determines that the coaching staff is solely to blame for this mess (they aren't), firing Tomsula for being unable to win with a depleted roster, one year after firing Jim Harbaugh for being unable to make everyone feel comfortable while winning, would make this job the least stable (and therefore least attractive) in the NFL. To repair any damage the prestige associated with the 49er head coaching position took in the wake of firing such a successful coach as Harbaugh, the 49er front office must give Jim Tomsula a fair chance to turn this mess around, and this roster does not present him a fair chance this year.
Where could the changes come from? Avenues for change that remain open to the 49ers include trades, benchings/promotions, and schematic shifts. None of these possibilities seem terribly likely to show a dramatic uptick in the win column, but they could result in progress toward success in the more distant future.
Vernon Davis seems like an ideal candidate for a trade partner. If the rumors of him sitting out games without an injury are true, he's got to go, regardless of what your position may be on his alleged calling-out of Colin Kaepernick after the Seattle game. Tight ends are producing in the league, and he's still the fastest one. Some coaches will likely believe that they can get more out of him than the 49ers can. His big–play potential can offset 15 months of poor production, as play callers can be enticed to consider what Davis could mean to an offense "in the right fit." It's unlikely that any team would surrender the OL parts the 49ers need to become an effective offense, but any pick received for Davis could help towards patching holes for next season.
Ahmad Brooks could be another trade option for teams looking to gear up for a playoff run. He plays the edge well against the run, and he is a capable edge rusher. He has provided some the most timely and memorable defensive plays in recent seasons. His age might mean that he won't factor much into the 49ers plans once the roster is more talented, so his role on a team that might soon embrace the prospect of a prolonged rebuild would be murky.
The pleading to bench Colin Kaepernick is as loud as it has ever been. If Kaepernick actually is benched, it will say more about scapegoating tendencies of the 49ers organization than it will about Kaepernick and his chances of becoming a franchise quarterback. While Kaepernick has made poor decisions and bad reads that can only be blamed on him, he has been running for his life in a an important developmental phase of his growth as an NFL quarterback. Expecting him to carry a team in spite of horrible pass protection is essentially demanding that a developing quarterback be equal to the best quarterback in the game (Aaron Rodgers), who alone seems capable of consistently reading defenses and delivering perfect downfield strikes inside a rapidly collapsing pocket.
More realistic targets for benching would be Erik Pears and Jordan Devey. Devey has already been outperformed by a potential replacement (Andrew Tiller). Unfortunately, Tiller struggles at zone blocking (which is supposedly a strength of Devey's), which is a central focus of the offensive scheme. Pears has also been identified as a lineman whose skill set favors zone blocking. It is odd that both have been so ineffective at pass protection, since zone blocking linemen tend to excel at pass protection, as the decreased need for carrying extra pounds affords them better lateral agility and overall endurance throughout a game.
Pears may be more easily replaced than Devey, as the 49ers have a physical freak with nimble feet waiting in the wings, in the form of six foot, eight inch, 355 pound Trenton Brown. Brown has cut considerable weight since college, and was already known for having remarkable lateral agility for a man of his size. While his technique is obviously not as refined as that of a veteran like Pears, his size and athleticism decrease the likelihood that he would be outmatched physically as often as Pears. Pears epitomizes the long-toothed veteran type that can drive a fan base crazy: he is smart and experienced enough to know where he should be on every play, which earns him the trust of his coaches; however, he is so physically limited that he struggles to make the play once he gets where he is supposed to be.
The defense has already seen a significant scheme change, as Eric Mangini has dropped several of the more exotic pressures and coverage disguises from his play calling sheet. The simplified defensive scheme has resulted in better play, as the young defense is doing a better job of playing fast with less to think about. The defense is not yet where it needs to be, but it is getting there faster.
The offense has maintained the same scheme, with a greater early focus upon short, high percentage passes and (until Thursday) a greater number of snaps from under center. Prior to Thursday's departure from elements that provided Kaepernick a brief window of improvement, the passing offense appeared to find its legs, albeit against lesser defenses. The results on Thursday will likely result in a return to Kaepernick taking the majority of his snaps from under center. As Andrew Tiller continues to vastly outperform Jordan Devey in pass protection, the 49ers might have to feature more power runs, which Tiller excels at.
Unfortunately, power runs do not lend themselves to play action passing and bootlegs as easily as zone runs, as power run fakes require a pulling guard, which requires a significant adjustment to their dynamic protection scheme (not the best move for a unit that struggles greatly at the simplest of static protection schemes). That said, shifting to power running could also usher in the switch from Erik Pears to Trenton Brown, whose raw size should enable him to excel in downhill blocking. I expect Brown to find his way into the lineup if and when the 49ers are eliminated from the playoffs, if not sooner. The 49ers simply must know before the offseason arrives which lineman can be counted upon going forward, and Pears should not be a starter next year.
While this might already feel like a lost season to many 49er fans, one can clearly assume that upcoming shifts in the roster, starting lineup and backup rotation, as well as shifts in overall scheme will provide a clear window into the construction of the 2016 49ers team.