Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Moving Forward: What’s the Plan?

Oct 28, 2015 at 6:31 AM11

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.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • jc
    Dorkie where are you.....hiding under your moms bed with Balke...what are you doing?? loser
    Oct 28, 2015 at 10:29 PM
  • Ant Con
    Clean house YES get NEW OWNERS or bring back Eddie d or something DORKS SUCK [email protected]
    Oct 28, 2015 at 10:25 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    When you don't have conviction in your decisions you hedge your bets. This is what Baalke has done when building this team through the draft. Instead of puting his reputation on the line and his team on the map, he chooses players thorough the draft that are developmental players and the walking wounded. Now I have no problem taking an injured player (one year away) deep in the draft. 5th rd or later for a Q. Dial, Reaser or Acker is smart in my book. Taking Tank, B. Thomas, Latimore, Smelter in the first 4 rds is a mistake. Not only does it affect our draft decisions next yr. (we depended on B. Thomas taking over for Iupati) it creates questions about our depth that we can't answer untill we see the player on the field. Further more taking a developmental player in the first rd. is breaking a cardinal rule. 1st rd. picks are starters in their first year. We drafted Armstead (1st rd) a young 20 yr old that is probably 3 yrs away from playing at an All Pro level (ok?). The problem with this is we don't don't sign players after their rookie contract. We will develop BigBoy for the next four yrs. and potentially only get one yr. of Pro Bowl play for that pick. We need a foundation.
    Oct 28, 2015 at 5:24 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    If I was Ballke; Here's what I would propose. We trade Kap this year for a 1st rd pick next yr. Whatever team is interested is certainly going to be a losing team desperate for a QB; Texans, Browns or Redskins for example. Team will want a conditional pick in return, we give them a 2nd rd. in 2017 if they want to trade him back to us after 2016 season. We trade a 6th rd. for RG3 we start him for the remaining 7 games. As long as he doesn't start 8 games his 16 mil. contract does not fully invest for next yr. If RG3 doesn't get killed behind our donuthole and plays like the stud he was at Baylor we sign him to modestly priced 3 yr deal. If he doesn't work out we have lost every game that remain this season, Kap loses every remaining game for our trade partner and we get two high first rd. picks next year. Its time to think outside the box Baalke, show some creatitive intelligence. Aaron as for your argument Baalke is not as bad as we think and is as good as anyone else when it comes to the draft. Your right he is better than most in my opinion, however, it's not his picks that bother me the most, it's his philisophy on how to build a team. Baalke chooses quantity over quality.
    Oct 28, 2015 at 4:24 PM
  • Dallas Niner Fan
    It never ceases to amaze me how you guys defend Baalke. You say he has hit on first round draft picks, Really? Sure he has gotten some decent players but where are the real difference makers? The superstar player, not one in all of those drafts. By the way is he ever in our lifetime, ever,going to draft a decent wide receiver? He has failed miserably in restocking the offense line and getting a decent QB to compete with Kap and all this in spite of the fact that he had a huge stock pile of draft picks. Then the intangibles, drafting players with questionable character who are heading for jail or who don't really have the will to compete and retire. On top of all that he has an incredible ego, is very political and was a huge factor in the firing of Harbaugh. Finally, look at the great job he did in replacing Harbaugh. What's to like about this guy????
    Oct 28, 2015 at 12:27 PM
  • Nick
    Baalke had time, money and opportunities to sign solid replacements for the recent departures I dont buy any of that BS. He obviously has no vision or football sense for that matter because we all knew Kaepernick does not have it in terms of smarts and QB instincts he simply had a very good supporting cast. Once JH tried to make into a drop back passer and the support left now we are saying its all Kaps fault? I think Baalke is as bad or worse a GM than Donohue ever was and we all know what happened during his tenure right ...
    Oct 28, 2015 at 10:45 AM
  • Tim
    I am more than a little disturbed by the Amazon add just above that is selling Kam Chancellor gear...
    Oct 28, 2015 at 10:30 AM
  • Robert
    Baalke didn't just miss on some picks, a lot of the misses were head scratchers to begin with. Sure, nobody is perfect, everybody has a bad day/year, whatever, but Baalke has had more stinkers than successes since his tenure as GM. Time for somebody else. I personally don't think a GM should have final say on the roster, or on assistant coaches. That should solely belong to the head coach. The Yorks' have tried desperately to find a gem in the trash bins to no avail. They need to find proven winners this time, and with the current philosophy, quality coaches and players won't even want to interview.
    Oct 28, 2015 at 9:02 AM
    Response: As a matter of perspective, Ozzie Newsome is often used by 49er fans as an example of a GM who has enjoyed prolonged success in the league. The Baltimore fanbase is currently calling for his head because of their skewed expectations of how frequently draft picks find success in the NFL. Most players are out of the league in 3 years or less. That is the average success rate for any pick. Hitting on 6 of 7 first round picks is good. He has struggled in the second recently, but he's done better than most in the late rounds. You can hate the decisions regarding the HC position (I suspect Jed was involved), but his personnel moves are successful more frequently than other GMs.
  • Chirag
    To your point about draft picks in the first round making it only about 50% of the time, that part is true and I agree with but what about the other draft picks that Baalke has made (compared to what else was out there and could have been had instead of who we picked, i.e. James, V. McDonald, Jenkins, and many others), these weren't just 'near' misses. They were very bad misses. We also have to look at the free agent signings that he has made, Bethea was a great one, but he also traded or signed Pears, Devey, Bush, when again others could have been had. They might have cost some more money, but the stats are out there, these guys (specifically the line) are about as bad as it gets. I think the GM position and the choices that Baalke has made after McCloughan left definitely have to be a point of focus as well. Why is the roster so bad, why did we not replace the players that left with more than 'projects' that would have been good if they didn't have significant injuries...
    Oct 28, 2015 at 7:39 AM
    Response: No question that the OL is a mess, and that the greatest responsibility (within the building) for that mess rests upon the personnel department. That said, the proposed starting line at the time of FA/the draft would have likely been Staley, Boone, Kilgore, Martin/Thomas/Tiller, and A Davis. That's a pretty good looking line. It would be hard for a GM to anticipate Kilgore needing a follow-on surgery and Anthony Davis suddenly quitting the sport for at least one year. While it appears clear that there was a plan in place to try to replace Justin Smith (the one widely anticipated departure), the personnel and coaching staffs were also likely blind-side by the sudden and late departures of both Patrick Willis and Chris Borland. Without the opening of FA and the draft to fill those holes, options were clearly limited. In regards to the second round draft picks, the odds decrease from 50% the farther you get from the first round. I'd like to see better production from our second rounders, for sure, but our success in the first is uncommonly high. Odds are that our success somewhere else in the draft would be lower than most. Gems like Antonio Brown are surprises to everyone. He was a fourth round pick, so every team (including the one that drafted him) missed on him three times.
  • idaho9erfan
    I have to agree with Edd. Fire Baalke. A new GM who knows football and the best HC available. Clean house. Rebuild.
    Oct 28, 2015 at 7:29 AM
  • Edd
    Aaron, your player trades/cuts seem logical and even necessary for a re-building team. But the real problem is higher up. First, immediately fire Baalke and get a new GM now to allow strategizing for the next draft. Second, wait until the end of the season when good coaching candidates are available, and pounce early on the best HC prospects. Third, spend the next 3 seasons drafting, trading, and re-building. There is no quick fix to this mess called the 49ers.
    Oct 28, 2015 at 6:51 AM
    Response: Edd, I do not agree that Baalke is as bad as many think. I believe there is an unfair assumption that other GMs are regularly hitting home runs in the draft, and that Baalke is far less successful than his peers. I don't feel this is true. First round draft picks tend to have about a 50% chance to wash out in this league. Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, Aldon Smith, Eric Reid, Jimmie Ward, And Arik Armstead are all good football players. Iupati left for more money than we could give him, and he really wasn't much of a scheme fit anymore. Davis and Aldon are gone for their own reasons, but they were never bad players. Reid was a Pro Bowler as a rookie, and Jimmie Ward is playing very well in first year free of injury. Armstead is our most disruptive interior pass rusher, and he got a very late start, due to Oregon's academic schedule and a stupid NFL rule. Jenkins was a huge bust, but that's one first round bust out of 7 picks. I honestly believe that firing Tomsula this year would prevent top candidates from considering the 49ers position. There would be legitimate concerns about leadership and stability.

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