One of the 49ers’ big storylines in training camp this summer was how the offense might be the most dynamic ever under head coach Jim Harbaugh.
By adding veteran wide receivers Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd, plus rookie receiver Bruce Ellington, San Francisco was entering the season with a deep corps of proven pass catchers.
“It gives us the opportunity as an offense to do a lot more,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group in late July. “You have a lot of weapons that you can put in a lot of different places. … They all have the capability of getting open and making plays.”
Yet 12 games into this 2014 season, the 49ers are 7-5 and currently on the outside looking in for the NFC playoffs.
But perhaps most troubling is the fact the Niners offense has taken a huge step back in 2014 and looks incapable of taking over a game.
With four games remaining – against the Raiders this Sunday, followed by matchups at Seattle, vs. the Chargers and Arizona – the 49ers offense ranks 22nd overall in the NFL, averaging 325.3 yards per game. San Francisco is 25th in scoring, averaging just 19.2 points per game.
In their Thanksgiving night, nationally televised 19-3 loss to Seattle, the 49ers offense was incapable of sustaining anything.
This season, the passing offense – with a strong-armed quarterback, good wideouts and a stellar tight end – is only 25th in the league. Even the running game, the offensive backbone under Harbaugh, is just 12th in the NFL this season.
So what gives?
Obviously, something’s wrong.
Kaepernick, the offensive line, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and head coach Jim Harbaugh have all come under fire during this up-and-down season for the inconsistent offensive play and the fact the offense no longer seems to have an identity.
The former run-first team now operates just as often in a spread formation with multiple wide receivers.
After the loss to Seattle, Kaepernick put much of the blame on himself and said, “We keep working. That’s the only way it’s going to get right.”
But Matt Barrows, who covers the 49ers for the Sacramento Bee, took a step back and looked at the 49ers offensive problems and pointed to something else: confusion in the coaching ranks.
In an analysis that ran in the Bee Sunday, Barrows noted that there may be too many brains and personalities involved in shaping the offense.
Harbaugh, Roman, receivers coach John Morton, offensive line coach Mike Solari, quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst, running backs coach Tom Rathman and tight ends coach Eric Mangini – a former NFL head coach brought in this year to add his thoughts to the offense – all help shape the game plan.
And that offensive plan has seemingly changed from play to play, Barrows noted.
“The 49ers’ system has an abundance of moving parts and no real identity,” Barrows wrote. “They began the recent Seahawks contest in typical fashion. On first down, two tight ends, including blocker Garrett Celek, were in the game, and Frank Gore gained 7 yards on the ground.
“On the next play, Celek ran off the field, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd entered and the 49ers lined up three wideouts to one side of the formation. All the substitutions and personnel packages are designed to keep defenses off-balance. But too often it has that very effect on the 49ers offense, which has had trouble finding – and moreover, sustaining – anything resembling a rhythm this season.”
With four games remaining, the 49ers’ playoff chances are still alive. Winning four straight to finish at 11-5 might still do the trick.
But to do that, the 49ers offense will need to become more consistent. And right now, that looks highly unlikely.