Go back to the summer before the 2014 season and you wouldn’t need to look for long before finding someone who’d predicted the San Francisco 49ers would win the Super Bowl that year. It wouldn’t have been considered “bold” by anyone except maybe Colin Kaepernick’s fiercest skeptics. In fact, one such skeptic was an opposing player who had this to say (anonymously) about one of the NFL’s most exciting players the two seasons prior:
“I don’t think he’s a factor if we’re on our stuff. They run a bunch of phantom routes to get him free to run. You know you’re digging to your last shell if you have to do all that. You can’t do anything else but play backyard football. Really it’s up to the D-Line and linebackers to contain him and make him be a passer, because really he’s not a great quarterback when he is throwing the ball inside the pocket. When you’re playing Kaepernick, you can read his shoulders and his eyes. He’s average to me overall. He’s a great athlete, so you just have to keep him from getting outside where he can make things happen. It’s his legs. When he’s able to get outside the pocket and create, it’s hard to stop him.”
What a crazy person, right? Right?
The 49ers had gone to the NFC Championship game in 2011, 2012, and 2013, nearly won the Super Bowl in the middle of those years, and went 36-11-1 in the regular season under Jim Harbaugh. Offensively they finished 11th in scoring all three seasons; defensively they were second, second, and third in points allowed, respectively. By DVOA, they ranked sixth, fourth, and seventh under Harbaugh.
Picking against Jim Harbaugh in 2014 would kind of be like picking against John Harbaugh in 2020.
John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens ranked seventh in DVOA in 2017, sixth in 2018, and first in 2019. In all three seasons they had an exceptional defense. In their most recent season, an exceptional top-ranked offense with a dual-threat quarterback and because why not — the same offensive coordinator in Greg Roman, who developed, nurtured, and watched the fall of Kaepernick six years earlier.
If you don’t think the Ravens will go 8-8 next season that’s perfectly fine, but I would call it no more surprising than what happened to San Francisco in 2014.
Though All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman would open the year on PUP after tearing his ACL in the NFC Championship game in January, the 49ers roster was largely the same as it had been during their dominant seasons in the NFC West under Harbaugh. In spite of this, the Niners lost to the Chicago Bears in Week 2 with Kaepernick turning the ball over four times and Jay Cutler throwing four touchdowns with no picks. The Bears finished 5-11 that season.
They next fell two games behind the 3-0 Arizona Cardinals after blowing a 14-6 halftime lead to end up losing 23-14 to quarterback Drew Stanton.
Following three straight wins, San Francisco lost 42-17 to the Denver Broncos — proving to be no match for the team they would’ve faced in the Super Bowl had they not lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship game — and then lost 13-10 at home to the eventual 6-10 St. Louis Rams. Much like against Arizona, the 49ers failed to score any points in the second half.
The Niners were 4-4 at the midway point and Kaepernick’s numbers (64%, 12 TD, 5 INT, 7.6 Y/A, 274 rushing yards with zero touchdowns, four fumbles, and 27 sacks) could be best described as “fine”.
Then came a “hot streak” of three straight victories, but each win came against a team with a losing record, and all three games were close and could have been losses. This proved to be a tell of how the rest of San Francisco’s season would go, as they lost the next three games while scoring a total of 23 points in those losses — two of which were to the Seahawks.
Remember, when Kaepernick signed that extension with the 49ers in 2014, it supposedly had a "record $61M guaranteed." Except that was just an injury guarantee. His actual full guarantee was more like $24M.— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) January 31, 2018
The 49ers finished the season at 8-8, ranking 25th in scoring and 10th in points allowed. Kaepernick, who signed a six-year, $126 million extension in June of 2014 which would’ve kept him on San Francisco through this upcoming season, went from being fine to losing his grip on a future in the NFL.
As the anonymous player had predicted, Kaepernick was no threat as a passer and when he had been contained as a runner (one 100-yard rushing game in 2014 in a 38-35 loss to the San Diego Chargers, one touchdown all season, eight fumbles), he had essentially become a burden to his defense rather than an aide. Against bad defense, he was okay. Against good defenses, he was a liability. In the playoffs, quarterbacks like Kaepernick make little sense to teams that need players who can provide potency against the best opponents in the league.
Somehow this was a blindspot to general manager Trent Baalke and owner Jed York since they did sign him to an extension. That future with Harbaugh, Kaepernick, and one of the NFL’s best defenses though, was never realized and should remind us all that the best laid plans in this league often don’t extend beyond the next play.
York fired Harbaugh and retained Baalke, Kaepernick for 2015.
Bowman returned, but potential future Hall of Famer Patrick Willis unexpectedly retired. Linebacker Chris Borland, a standout rookie in 2014, also called it quits early. Defensive end Justin Smith retired too, but it wasn’t surprising given his age. Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati left for the Cardinals. Michael Crabtree, one of the team’s stars in the 2012 and 2013 playoff runs, went to the Oakland Raiders. Running back Frank Gore went to the Indianapolis Colts after 10 years and eight 1,000-yard seasons with the 49ers. They also had to replace both starting cornerbacks, Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox.
The result under first time head coach Jim Tomsula, arguably the clearest sign that York and Baalke had no intention of winning in 2015, was as expected.
You may remember the 49ers and Minnesota Vikings playing on Monday Night Football in Week 1 of that season. San Francisco surprisingly won 20-3 with Carlos Hyde rushing for 168 yards and two touchdowns while Adrian Peterson was held to 31 yards while returning from a torn ACL. Were the Niners “back?”
San Francisco lost the next two games 43-18 and 47-7, followed by 17-3 and 30-27. Then a win over a 1-5 Ravens team came, but that was followed by two more losses in which they scored a combined nine points with no touchdowns. Less than 18 months after signing his six-year extension, Kaepernick was benched for Blaine Gabbert following a 27-6 loss to the Rams in which he completed 20-of-41 passes for only 162 yards.
By that time the team had already traded Vernon Davis, a Pro Bowler with 13 touchdowns in 2013, to the Denver Broncos. Hyde had already hit injured reserve. So had three-time Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea.
The 49ers went 3-5 with Gabbert, but those three wins were 17-16 over the Atlanta Falcons, 26-20 over the Bears in overtime, and 19-16 over the Rams, also in overtime. They were theoretically three total points away from going 2-14 and not that distant from losing each of their final 15 games.
Again, this is a team that was barely a year removed from not only being one of the two or three most dominant franchises in the NFC, but was also a favorite headed into 2014. There was not much “writing on the wall” prior to the collapse. Unless you believe it all hinges on the quarterback and you were a Kaepernick skeptic — but this is clearly more than a QB problem.
It can happen in an instant and even when the roster sure seems solid top to bottom.
Sort of like the San Francisco 49ers today.
Unlike 2014, the 49ers don’t have a three-season run of success under their belts this time. They went 13-3 in 2019, but 6-10 and 4-12 in Kyle Shanahan’s first two campaigns. That being said, Shanahan took over a team that was 2-14 under Chip Kelly and Harbaugh took over a team that was 6-10 under Mike Singletary, and many did attribute his success to what he inherited.
But he also had to take on Baalke, and that wasn’t something any coach could survive.
Today that GM is John Lynch and he seems to have a wonderful relationship with the head coach. I’m not sure if the quarterback is any more stable, but his issues and potential issues do seem less concerning than what you saw from Kaepernick during his prime. What are the odds that San Francisco experiences a similar fate of a repeated and quick collapse? What are the odds they’re building something that could be successful for a decade?
That’s what I’ll talk about in the following podcast ...