To get a better understanding of what we’re up against tonight, I linked up with David Fucillo from Niners Nation, the SB Nation community for 49ers fans.
New coach. New team? Are the 2017 49ers decipherable from the Chip Kelly or Jim Tomsula 49ers? Did the fact that you guys nearly went into Seattle and ended a seven-game (now eight) skid against them suggest that you're close to really figuring out how to make Kyle Shanahan football work for you guys sooner rather than later?
There is certainly a sense of optimism that has not existed for some time. I think part of that is as much about having a professional relationship between John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan. The team appears to have a plan to build up the defense first, and that's what we've seen through two weeks. More on that down below, but the 49ers defense played fairly well against Carolina, and then mostly lights out against the Seahawks on Sunday. The close loss to Seattle says more about defensive improvement than anything else.
The 49ers are switching over to the Shanahan zone-blocking scheme, and it's certainly a work in process. But Carlos Hyde and Matt Breida having solid games suggests maybe things are moving in the right direction. Brian Hoyer is not a good quarterback, but I think sort of ironically, expectations are significantly lower for the offense than they were under Tomsula and Kelly. Under Tomsula, people figured getting rid of Greg Roman might help them shake things out a bit. Under Kelly, the hope was that having an offensive guru would wipe out the Tomsula stink.
The problem for Kelly was that GM Trent Baalke had "his guys" on the roster, and they really didn't fit what Kelly liked to do. And it's not like they had much talent in the pass-catching department. I mean, Colin Kaepernick was throwing to guys like Jeremy Kerley, Garrett Celek, and Quinton Patton. It was some slop. The 49ers have added some solid professionals. They have a ways to go, but it feels like they're inching forward under a competent coaching staff and GM.
Suffice to say, you guys are struggling on offense. What's the biggest issue holding you guys back? Is it overall talent? Talent at a specific position? Is it one unit in particular underperforming? What do you need to do to have a breakout game?
I think overall talent is the biggest issue on the offensive side of the ball. The biggest problem in Week 1 was the interior line, particularly the guards. Center Daniel Kilgore has gotten off to a bumpy start, but left guard Zane Beadles was a disaster in Week 1. The 49ers acquired Laken Tomlinson in an August 31 trade, and after being inactive Week 1, he replaced Beadles in the starting lineup for Week 2. He was not great, but he was better than Beadles. I think he will continue to improve as he gets more comfortable in the 49ers offensive system, and with the rest of the line.
The more high profile issue is Brian Hoyer. He's off to an inauspicious start through two games. Against the Seahawks, he set the 49ers record for most pass attempts in a game without hitting 100 yards passing. Congratulations, you made their Hall of Shame. The hope has been that we'd see something along the lines of what he did in Cleveland in 2014 or in Chicago for a few games last year -- simply put, some competence. I think improved offensive line play will help him, and Marquise Goodwin not dropping easy catches would be nice, but the ceiling is incredibly low with Hoyer.
Improved offensive line play could be what gets this unit over the hump for a big performance this season. If Laken Tomlinson improves, I could see Carlos Hyde being in position to really bust out with a huge game. A big offensive performance would most likely be on the back of Carlos Hyde rushing for somewhere north of 150 yards. The passing game could impress, but it's much less predictable for the time being.
Defensively, what's working well? You guys clearly frustrated the Seahawks. Does that feel more like the anomaly or something perhaps indicative of a legitimate improvement after last year's...well...after last year?
I have tried to temper my optimism about the defense given how awful the Seahawks offensive line is. I think Aaron Donald is going to have Russell Wilson for lunch when y'all face Seattle. But even with that in mind, I am loving what this unit is starting to do. They will have inconsistent performances, but we are going to see a lot of great things as the season moves along. The more they can string them together, the better they'll be (Captain Obvious, I realize).
The best thing thus far has been the run defense. The 49ers gave up historically bad rushing performances last season, but through two games, they have done a good job containing the Panthers and Seahawks ground games. The front seven has been a swarming unit, even with rookie linebacker Reuben Foster sidelined with a high ankle sprain. The defensive line has been strong forcing running backs to kick out to the sideline, and the linebackers have done a good job closing the deal.
The pass rush was non-existent against Cam Newton and the Panthers in Week 1, but it improved considerably in Week 2. Again, the Seahawks offensive line likely was a big reason, but the 49ers deserve credit for making the plays. They had Russell Wilson running for his life, and while he made the one big play he needed to win the game, it was a solid step forward.
The 49ers head into this game dealing with several injuries on the defensive side of the ball. Weak side linebacker Reuben Foster is out with a high ankle sprain, and strong safety Eric Reid is out with a knee injury. Safety Jaquiski Tartt is questionable with a neck injury. The 49ers have solid safety depth, but I expect Sean McVay to challenge that unit.
What's the sense of the franchise stability in general? You guys are on your fourth head coach in four years. Since Steve Mariucci departed following the 2002 season, the turnover at head coach has been, well, frequent. Is there a sense that Kyle Shanahan is long for the gig, that he'll get a couple of years to get things worked out like Mike Nolan or is his leash shorter?
Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch each got a six-year contract. That doesn't guarantee they'll be in Santa Clara for the length of their deals, but that kind of length for a rookie HC and GM is unprecedented as far as I know. CEO Jed York seems to realize he needs to create some semblance of stability. This offseason showed things settled down for the first time in a while. 2015 was all Harbaugh talk. 2016 had the Colin Kaepernick stuff, but also just the idea that Trent Baalke was GM'ing out the string.
The 49ers decision to sign Brian Hoyer would suggest Shanahan and Lynch have a decent leash. It has become clear you need a solid option at quarterback to compete for a Super Bowl. The 49ers signed Hoyer and Matt Barkley in a year where there were no clear franchise quarterbacks in the draft (sorry Bears). That was as much a sign as any that Shanahan and Lynch are getting some time. If the 49ers stumble to an 0-16 season, I suppose all bets are off, but I see almost no way in which Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch do not get at least three years to turn this thing around.
One of my favorite threads ever on TST was leading into Week 17 in 2015 when you and I looked into which of our two franchises was in worse position. You guys were 4-11 knowing that the Tomsula era was over after just one year. We were 7-8 after a 4-8 start stuck in the Fisherball era. Then 2016 happened and you guys got worse and we got worse and we were both worse and things were worse and I ate some wurst and I considered kayaking down the Werse. We were both very bad.So in the spirit of better days ahead...which one of these teams wins the NFC West first? The Seahawks and Cardinals look to be coming down from their avian perches. Which is good. Bird mascots are for children. But between the 49ers and the Rams, who gets the division crown before the other?
This is a fascinating question given how awful things got. We thought our teams were hitting rock bottom, but then they pulled a Leslie Shepherd and found some room underneath. I agree though that the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks are seeing their windows close. Seattle is blowing chances at the Super Bowl with some atrocious offensive line play. As for Arizona, I think we can stick a fork in them. That defense is talented, but I think Carson Palmer is just about finished. And I actually think the Rams finish ahead of Arizona in the standings this year.
But a division title is a tough call. The Rams are currently in a better position, particularly if Jared Goff continues to improve. Their problem is that Seattle is still better, and could remain that way for at least another year or two. That gives the 49ers time to continue rebuilding and move closer to the Rams. The homer in me wants to say the 49ers, but it's too early to know where things stand with the new regime. This defense seems to be getting good really quickly. If Reuben Foster can stay healthy, I honestly think this unit could be top ten in efficiency stats by the end of the season. A crappy offense will likely result in higher total yards numbers, but in terms of efficiency stats, I think they'll impress by season's end.
But it comes back to the offense. The 49ers don't have a clear long-term option at quarterback yet. If they sign Kirk Cousins next offseason, that changes in a hurry. I didn't say "franchise quarterback" because I don't know if Cousins counts as that. My favorite line about him is that he's just good enough to get a GM fired. But if the 49ers had Cousins on Sunday against Seattle, I think they win that game. And that's kind of a big deal.
I'll go ahead and just say I think the 49ers end up with the next division title. I mean, how can I pick the Rams in this question?
Thanks to Fooch for the time.