By Jerrell Richardson
The San Francisco’s 49ers season started with Super Bowl aspirations. After three straight NFC Championship appearances, the hope was that this was their year. The season started and ended well enough, but after it was all said and done, the 49ers have an 8-8 record and were not invited to the playoffs. While the outcome is a far cry from a Super Bowl appearance, the reason for the 49ers’ fall from fame is simple: Injuries and one big suspension made them a shell of themselves and unable to compete with the NFL’s best.
Can Injuries Be An Excuse?
Every single NFL team has to deal with injuries, but who had it as bad as the 49ers this season? It’s not just the number of players who missed games, but more importantly, it’s who missed games. Out of the 15 names on their injured reserve list to end the season, three names stand out: Patrick Willis, Daniel Kilgore and NaVorro Bowman. Why are these names important? Because they are the three players—outside of Colin Kaepernick—who are responsible for their respective units communicating. Add to them Glenn Dorsey, Aldon Smith, Anthony Davis, Joe Staley, Tramaine Brock, Stevie Johnson and Mike Iupati (just to name a few) as players who were barely on the field in 2014, or when on the field not very effective (see Aldon Smith, Brock and Johnson).It’s hard not to use injuries as an excuse for the 49ers dreadful season.
Offensive Woes Start With Injured Line
Most NFL games are won with the battle in the trenches. So with a new line almost every week, and the loss of their halfway through the year center, can you blame the 49ers for struggling at time to run the ball or protect Kaepernick?
The biggest loss on the offensive side was Center Daniel Kilgore. Not only did San Francisco lose the quarterback of the offensive line, but the replacement was a rookie coming off a preseason injury and thus had no real game time experience with the offense. While Marcus Martin played well, and there are two sides to a quarterback center exchange, the team lost at least one game due to the unfamiliarity between Kaepernick and his center when a late goal line fumble handed the team a loss to the St. Louis Rams.
Why Kaepernick Struggled
Of course the quarterback has a lot to do with the offensive ineptitudes as well, but Colin Kaepernick’s so called regression is a bit premature when considering the pathetic line in front of him and the new offensive game plan. In Kaepernick’s prior seasons, the 49ers were a run-heavy ball club. This year they tried to convert to an aerial attack, and it backfired.
How important does a running game and solid line mean to a team? Take a look at two NFC Super Bowl hopefuls: The Seahawks and Cowboys. Seattle has the No. 1 ranked running game. The only reason the Dallas Cowboys are all of a sudden a threat is that they have taken the ball out of their gun slinger Tony Romo and put it all on the shoulders of their running back DeMarco Murray. Give any quarterback a flawed system and a flawed protection scheme and he will struggle. Take away the injuries to the offensive line and Kaepernick has a much better season.
Defensive Struggles Due to Backups
In the eight losses this year, half of them were just as much on the defense as the offense. Against the Bears, the defense allowed 21 4th quarter points, and against the less-than-impressive Cardinals offense earlier this season, the 49ers allowed 21 second half points. The losses to the Broncos and Seahawks were due to the 49ers playing a better team, so no fault goes to either side of the ball for those two, but that doesn’t explain the past three weeks when they allowed 24 points to the Raiders, blew a 21 point halftime lead to the Chargers, and last week allowed 316 passing yards to Ryan Lindley.
It’s no coincidence though that the bad performances started to pile up toward the second half of the season, as the injuries continued to pile up. Remember, it was expected to have Willis, Bowman and Aldon Smith on the field for a second half push, but the only one playing was a rusty Aldon Smith. Both Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite played better than expected filling in for Bowman and Willis, but both replacements are not Pro Bowl caliber players, and were both exposed in passing situations.
When Healthy They Are Contenders
As a team, the San Francisco 49ers struggled in 2014, but they still showed that they can compete with just about any team in the league, especially when healthy. They only teams to dominate them this season were the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, who are among the NFL elite. It’s not just about the x’s and o’s, sometimes it’s about the John’s and Joes, and the bottom line is that the 49ers never had the personnel on the field to compete for a Super Bowl Title.
While some will argue the next man up theory and point to the Cardinals, consider two things: One is that nobody really gives the Cardinals a chance to win it all because they are without their quarterback. Two is that the Seattle Seahawks, the team now figured to win it all, were floundering earlier this season, and they turned it around when they got back their two defensive studs, Earl Thomas and Bobby Wagner. What this shows is that any team is one or two injuries away from derailing their season, and it’s hard to blame a team whose roster is missing key figures. The good news for San Francisco is that the chances of them being this injury riddled next season is very unlikely, and when healthy, they are still among the NFC’s top teams. They will be back to compete for a playoff berth in 2015.
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