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Parity is the grim reality of the NFL. With the salary cap preventing talented teams from keeping all of their best players and the NFL draft order allowing the least successful teams to pick first, it is remarkably difficult for any one team to maintain a roster that can win games without employing superior strategy. More than those in any other sport, football coaches take a central role in the success of a team. While there are plenty of good football players to go around, there is not a surplus of effective coaching staffs, and the effect of that reality has doomed organizations to mediocrity when they consistently fail to hire the right coach.
Last year, the 49ers failed to hire the right coach. Jim Tomsula, by most accounts, was a good, warm-hearted man who cared deeply for his players, and he had a special way of explaining technical aspects of football in simple terms. Unfortunately, as a head coach, he was unable to establish an identity on offense, and he failed to oversee the installation of a scheme that would keep the offense in a rhythm and opposing defenses off-balance. When the 49ers fired Tomsula and replaced him with Chip Kelly, they did so with the clear expectation that Kelly would be able to turn the dismal offense around and scheme for increased production.
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The first test for Chip Kelly's offense appeared uneven. In the first half, while the players who are likely to remain on the roster after August were playing, the 49ers piled up yards, even though the passing offense struggled. With Blaine Gabbert connecting on less than half of his passes, the 49ers gained more than 300 yards and could have had 20 points in the first half, if DuJuan Harris and Thad Lewis had not combined to fumble a hand off at the goal line.
The 49ers' lone touchdown was an exciting 43-yard touchdown pass to Vance McDonald. While Gabbert should be credited with spotting McDonald open 14 yards deep in the secondary, McDonald gets most of the credit for springing open when his defender fell down, putting a move on the last remaining defender, and running 29 yards after the catch to score.
Gabbert missed badly on several of the short passes he was expected to excel at, and he appeared to guess poorly while attempting to read the Texans' edge defenders on zone read plays. Both of those issues seem likely to improve to some degree through continued repetition and study. The degree to which Gabbert improves his execution of the short passing game, as well as his decision-making at the mesh point of zone read plays, will speak loudly in his bid to win the quarterback competition. Even without the threat of a dangerous passing offense to keep defenders out of the box, the offense continued to grind out rushing yards in chunks.
Thad Lewis relieved Gabbert after Gabbert's only touchdown drive, and went a long way to demonstrate how effective the offense can be when helmed by a quarterback who is experienced and comfortable in the system. As Lewis closed out the first half, passes were thrown on time and to the correct receiver, at least one of whom was always open. Correct choices were made in the zone read, keeping the Texans' defenders off-balance and providing wider running lanes.
The passing offense and running attack worked well enough together to keep defenders guessing, and the plays were drawn up with significant flexibility to ensure that, when the Texans' guessed on the play, they guessed incorrectly. The deception inherent in the play design and play selection allowed offensive linemen to keep members of the Texans' defensive front guessing where the ball was going and which offensive lineman would be blocking them. As such, the 49ers' linemen (who admittedly boast more talent than last year's unit did) had little difficulty creating movement and winning match ups.
There is no certainty that Gabbert or Kaepernick will reach Lewis' degree of comfort within the offense anytime soon, but the quarterback who gets there sooner is likely to win the starting job. That quarterback should flourish, with confidence bolstered by the knowledge that he will be taking the reins of a detailed, deceptive, and ruthlessly efficient offense, that is only missing effective quarterback play.