The entire nation is sleeping on the potential of the San Francisco 49ers this season. Not only will this team not completely fall apart following the release of Aldon Smith on Friday, but it has a legitimate chance to sneak into the playoffs as a wild-card team in 2015.
In case you’ve been living under a rock the past few days and haven’t heard, the 49ers cut ties with Smith on Friday after he was arrested for the fifth time since 2012. The team that had already been brutalized by the worst offseason anyone can ever remember got stabbed in the heart once again with what most have said is a crippling blow.
The 49ers were already doomed, and this latest development just ensures a trip across the River Styx for this once-proud franchise.
It’s to be a glorious dumpster-fire of a season to commemorate the downfall of owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke, who pushed Jim Harbaugh out the door. Now, instead of potentially competing for the sixth Lombardi Trophy in team history at Levi’s Stadium in Super Bowl 50, the 49ers will be lucky to avoid picking in the top 5 in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft.
That’s been the national narrative, but there is much more to this story.
Jim Harbaugh was part of the problem
Ironically, Harbaugh was a huge part of the problem in 2014, yet that fact gets largely ignored by those who prefer to beat the convenient war drum against York, who certainly has his faults.
Listening to the veterans this summer praising new head coach Jim Tomsula for his understanding of their needs, it’s clear Harbaugh’s relentless “passion” had turned at least some of the older players against him.
“I think he just pushed guys too far,” Alex Boone said in an episode of HBO’s Real Sport. “He wanted too much, demanded too much, expected too much. You know, ‘We gotta go out and do this. We gotta go out and do this. We gotta go out and do this.’ And you’d be like, ‘This guy might be clinically insane. He’s crazy.’”
Harbaugh seriously never quits. This is why he’s been highly successful wherever he goes, until it’s time for Jim to move on. For a quick, yet thorough, understanding of why this is the way it is, read this brilliant column by ESPN’s Seth Wickersham from October of last year entitled “Jim Harbaugh comfortable in chaos.”
Harbaugh’s mania can only be handled for so long, and the 49ers veterans had reached their limit.
Jim Tomsula is part of the solution
Now, under new leadership, despite all the losses (which, make no mistake about it, were catastrophic), the 49ers still have the talent on this roster to stay highly competitive in a brutal NFC West.
Tomsula made a horrible entrance into the spotlight this offseason during his first national press conference. Since that point, however, he’s endeared himself to the media for his candid nature, which was on full, powerful display following the team’s decision to cut Smith.
In much the same way, those unfamiliar with Tomsula’s vast coaching background have assumed that since he has never had NFL head coaching experience he will not be able to succeed in this role for the 49ers this year. Whereas Harbaugh helped turn the franchise around with relentless enthusiasm (which turned sour after a few years), Tomsula approaches his task as a teacher who relentlessly pushes perfecting the fundamentals of the game.
It’s all about doing the little things right, and it’s about correcting past mistakes.
How the offense will succeed
One of the biggest mistakes that never was corrected during the Harbaugh era was putrid communication on offense. After offensive coordinator Greg Roman finally decided which play to call, Harbaugh would mull over if it was the right call or not. By the time it finally reached Kaepernick’s ear, there were often 10 seconds or less left on the play clock. Delay-of-game penalties destroyed many a drive, which drove 49ers fans absolutely crazy.
Ever loquacious, Boone, who is switching from right guard to left this year, expressed his thoughts on the impact of this particular change:
“We just know that we’ve got to break the huddle a lot faster if we want to win some games,” Boone said, via Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com.
“We obviously took a long time last year to get plays off and that was a problem and I think everybody knew that was a problem. It pissed a lot of people off, including the offensive line. So for this offense to get rolling, get moving, it’s completely different [to practice breaking the huddle early] but at the same time, I love it. You’re just going. You’re not thinking, you’re just moving and you’re doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Based on the torrid pace of the team’s new high-tempo offense, nobody should expect a repeat of the past four seasons, when the 49ers accepted 35 delay-of-game penalties to “lead” the league.
Boone also mentions how much easier it is to function in this new environment. What he does not mention is how ideally suited this new up-tempo offense is for the personnel operating in it.
During the offseason, Baalke mentioned how much the offense is centered around speed now, as opposed to last year’s crew, which didn’t feature a single true burner.
“The one thing that really shows up is the way the field’s opened up more with the speed or Torrey being able to stretch the outside,” Baalke said (h/t CSN Bay Area). “And it really helps Vernon’s game because now Vernon’s game is (to) stretch the field a little bit, as well. Jerome Simpson is another one who can really run and make plays on the perimeter. So watching those three guys out there just brings another dimension.”
All the reports coming out of camp so far are outstanding as it pertains to Kaepernick successfully hooking up with his deep threats. There is no doubt Kaepernick didn’t hit on a lot of deep passes in the past, but it had little to do with his lack of touch. He simply didn’t have the speed he needed outside to continually take shots that mattered.
This newfound stockpile of passing weaponry certainly doesn’t mean the 49ers will abandon the run, though—far from it.
The 49ers will still pound the rock as relentlessly as any team in the league with Carlos Hyde as the featured back in a new-look zone-blocking scheme. With Kendall Hunter, Mike Davis and Reggie Bush rotating, given the team’s fast-paced approach, defenses are going to get worn down very quickly.
And don’t forget about how dynamic Kaepernick still is with the ball in his hands. He’s going to be running the ball—on purpose—more than he did last year.
“We want to utilize the total package,” Tomsula said this winter (CSN Bay Area). “Does that mean Colin Kaepernick is going to be the leading rusher every week? No. No plans on that. Let’s use everything we have — like we have done. Let’s not act like that hasn’t happened, either.”
This will lead to more explosive plays, both in the running and passing games. Put this in the bank: The 49ers will easily outpace the scoring outputs generated the past few years, and Kaepernick is going to bounce back wonderfully after his stunted 2014 campaign.
How the defense will succeed
There is no doubt San Francisco’s defense was obliterated in many ways this offseason, and losing Smith this past Friday was a huge blow. However, thanks to Baalke’s stockpile approach to drafting, the 49ers are in better shape than most believe.
Ahmad Brooks will start in Smith’s stead, and second-year stud Aaron Lynch will step into the other starting spot. Nobody will mistake either for Smith, but they are both highly talented players who can disrupt the pocket on a regular basis.
Rookie pass-rusher Eli Harold is a guy who will be on the field a lot in Smith’s absence as a rotating linebacker, and he might actually end up being the most dangerous of the three when it’s all said and done.
The defensive line is a tremendous strength for the 49ers. Rookie Arik Armstead is has been outstanding so far and has been working with the ones, and the entire line is stacked with athletic big men who will control the line of scrimmage.
This will work brilliantly with new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini’s scheme, which is heavy on blitzing and misdirection. The defense blitzes so often in practice that offensive tackle Joe Staley complimented Mangini on Sunday regarding how much he’s helped the offensive line with blitz pickup.
“He’s done more blitzes this offseason than the previous 6 combined,” Staley said, via Taylor Price of 49ers.com.
It’s a tremendous change of pace compared to the philosophy of former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who utilized a scheme in which four men rushed the passer almost all the time. Thanks to the amazing talents of Justin and Aldon Smith, playing it safe often worked because they still got plenty of pressure on opposing passers.
Now, with both of them gone, it’s a good thing Mangini is here to switch the script. Besides, the linebacking personnel on the current roster is darn good at blitzing—starting with NaVorro Bowman, who returns from the devastating knee injury suffered in the 2013 NFC Championship Game.
Bowman is reportedly looking like a speed demon once again, making outstanding plays all over the field. And while penciled-in starter Michael Wilhoite has been sidelined with an injury, third-year inside linebacker Nick Moody has been staking his claim to line up next to Bowman, instead, once the season begins.
Both are fast, athletic backers who can cover in space while also applying pressure on the quarterback when their numbers are dialed.
Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid comprise one of the best safety duos in the NFL, while Jimmie Ward and rookie Jaquiski Tartt should also both see action this year in sub-packages.
Returning to action this year after missing most of the last, cornerback Tramaine Brock leads an extremely underrated cornerback group. Dontae Johnson should be an exciting player in his second year, and Shareece Wright is also having a strong camp.
With the playmakers on this defense, sacks and turnovers should be plentiful during the 2015 campaign. One of the hallmarks of the Fangio defense was a bend-but-don’t-break unit that rarely gave up big plays, but teams could often sustain long drives and moved the ball when the pass-rushers went cold.
The entire nation is sleeping on the potential of the 49ers for the 2015 season.
The offense will be significantly more dynamic that it has been the past few seasons—both by design and because of the playmaking talent on the field—and should put up more points on average.
The defense might give up some big plays, but it’s going to be a ton of fun to watch and should be highly productive at creating scoring opportunities.
There will be fewer mistakes, fewer sideline meltdowns and more fun under Tomsula than there was under Harbaugh, who eventually had everybody’s panties in a bunch.
Am I suggesting that the 49ers should be considered a serious Super Bowl contender in the same mold as Seattle, Dallas or Green Bay?
However, I am saying that a wild-card spot isn’t out of the question, provided injuries don’t decimate the team’s remaining stars.
Photo Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports