If the San Francisco 49ers are stuck in a time loop under Kyle Shanahan, then they will be good again in 2022; now is the “disappointment” year that follows that “understandably bad season with third-string QBs playing the majority of the season instead of Jimmy Garoppolo” year. But when we pull out for the long view on the 49ers—when we remember that teams have strengths and weaknesses that have nothing to do with the quarterback position—what is it is that is so flawed about this 3-5 Niners team that would be halfway to repeating their 6-10 record if not for the 17th game?
And what is it that makes people perceive San Francisco as a dangerous team, especially against an LA Rams franchise that Shanahan has beaten in the last four contests?
The 49ers host the Rams on Monday Night Football and records will be useless as weapons tonight. The Niners could be winless and they wouldn’t fear the Rams. The Niners could also be winless and I wouldn’t bat an eyelash because that’s just what Shanahan and company does sometimes.
For the most part these are the same 49ers that you remember from the previous four seasons, with some key differences that puts them somewhere in between the 2019 version that went to the Super Bowl and the 2017 and 2020 iterations that sure didn’t.
San Francisco 49ers
2020 record: 6-10
2021 record: 3-5
Head coach: Kyle Shanahan (32-40, 2-1 in playoffs)
Philosophy: “Always let the media deflect the blame to someone else or to a team that is even more disappointing”
Teams like the 49ers don’t trade two future first round picks for the rights to quarterback Trey Lance without feeling like the franchise a) doesn’t need him right away and b) that the team would be good enough to be sacrificing a pick in the late 20s instead of in the top-10. Right now, San Francisco is set to send pick nine to the Miami Dolphins.
As expected, Trey Lance is not ready for the NFL.
As unexpected—to Shanahan and general manager John Lynch at least—is the 49ers’ 3-5 record in spite of Jimmy Garoppolo being relatively healthy all season.
Stats in thanks to Pro-Football-Reference.com:
Garoppolo ranks 23rd in completion percentage, 18th in passer rating, and his 3.8-percent TD ratio is the same as Mike White of the New York Jets. Garoppolo’s Y/A is considered “good” but more than anything makes Y/A even more suspicious as a tool than it already is.
Jimmy Garoppolo is a replacement level starting QB, which means he needs to be replaced. Trey Lance has already proven that he’s not ready to prove it, so San Francisco wallows in another season where they’ll only go as far as the mediocre quarterback takes them.
Or as far as Garoppolo’s offensive weapons—a bright side on the Bay side—will drag him.
OC: Mike McDaniel
McDaniel served as an intern on his hometown Broncos in 2005, when he was 22. He followed Gary Kubiak to the Houston Texans in 2006, which is where he worked with wide receivers coach Kyle Shanahan. Other than a two-year stint in the UFL in 2009-2010, McDaniel has followed Shanahan everywhere he’s been, and in 2021, Shanahan promoted him to offensive coordinator so that he wouldn’t lose McDaniel to another team.
He’s also lifelong friends with comedian Dan Soder, a fact that must weigh on him heavily.
Ahead of the Rams game this week, McDaniel noted that Aaron Donald might be the best player he’s ever coached against.
“He’s one of the best, if not the best player that I’ve ever coached against in my 15 years or so in the NFL. So in that regard, he’s unbelievably disruptive. The biggest thing about an interior defensive lineman is that if you only block him, there’s a lot of other players that are going to make tackles. It would do an injustice to the Rams defense, which is a very good defense at all three levels, to just say you’re only focused on one guy. That being said, you know that he can change the game in a heartbeat. I think the game we won last year in L.A., we had a double team on him. I can’t remember what quarter it was, but he was on the backside of a run split it, had a strip fumble that was returned for a touchdown. So it happens like that. So, he’s a very, very good player, might be the best player that we’ve ever gone against offensively. From a defensive standpoint, especially interior players. There’s not many like him. But you can’t just get into a rabbit hole about one player when there’s a lot of good players surrounding him.”
Changes on Offense from 2020:
RT Mike McGlinchey to Tom Compton*
WR Kendrick Bourne to Deebo Samuel*
TE Ross Dwelley to George Kittle*
WR Richie James to WR Mohamed Sanu
RB Jeff Wilson, Raheem Mostert to RB Elijah Mitchell, Trey Sermon
What to expect from the 49ers offense
Fools’ gold rush in
In 2019, the 49ers finished second in points, fourth in yards, fourth in points per drive, second in rushing yards, first in rushing touchdowns, fifth in third down conversion rate, and third in net yards per pass attempt. They also had the fourth-best starting field position in the NFL that year thanks to a stout defense that ranked first against the pass.
San Francisco is 24th in starting field position this season.
With largely the same coaching staff and personnel—some would say even improved personnel—the 49ers appear to be weaker on offense in nearly every way. I wouldn’t place the blame on McDaniel, his title seems more honorary than anything else, so why are they so much less effective?
As noted by I.W. Twain in an article from a couple years ago, the 49ers 2019 offense thrived through a highly efficient early down rushing attack. Twain did not expect the Niners to improve from there—he felt that they had hit their ceiling (a super high one at that) as a running team—and that may be part of what we are seeing now.
2019 Chart via IW Twain:
Per this chart, San Francisco falls under the quadrant of teams that are good at running on early downs and should continue to run. But notice that the Colts, Ravens are also in the bottom left quadrant who had a top 3 offensive line in 2019. No matter how you slice it, a lot of data shows that the 49ers are already maximizing the talent they have to run a productive rushing attack. Therefore, improving passing efficiency should the key priority for San Francisco. (To learn more about San Francisco’s run game, check out this video on Kyle Shanahan’s run schemes by Brett Kollmann.)
The 2019 49ers rushing offense had Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida, and Tevin Coleman each touching the ball between 140 and 160 times that season. Even despite adding Trent Williams at left tackle and Alex Mack at center in the last two years, San Francisco is a less effective team on the ground:
Elijah Mitchell has 89 carries and nine catches, gaining 542 yards on 98 touches. But there is no three-headed monster this time. Rookie Trey Sermon has 31 rushing attempts and two receptions. Next is Jamycal Hasty at 13 rushing attempts and 13 receptions.
So far this season, the 49ers are posting -0.072 RUSH EPA, slightly worse than their 2019 mark of -0.061. However, it’s the EPA per dropback that is especially concerning and over the last five weeks, San Francisco has the seventh-worst EPA/dropback (-0.047) in the NFL, even worse than the Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars.
With no fear of the passing game, how hard is it to focus on stopping Shanahan/McDaniel’s rushing attack?
2021 offensive ranks
Pass attempts: 24th
Rushing attempts: 17th
Net yards per pass attempt: 6th
Passing touchdowns: 19th
Rushing yards: 14th
Yards per carry: 13th
Rushing touchdowns: 5th
Points per drive: 18th
Red Zone O: 1st
3rd down: 30th
Time of Possession: 27th
DVOA: 1th (8th passing, 3rd rushing)
Offensive “strength of schedule”: 7th
*Essentially, FootballOutsiders is saying that the 49ers have faced a more difficult schedule of defenses by DVOA than the average team.
Offensive Depth Chart
DC: DeMeco Ryans
When Shanahan and McDaniel went to the Houston Texans in 2006, the team picked linebacker DeMeco Ryans with the first pick of the second round. He was arguably a better player than first overall pick Mario Williams.
Ryans spent nine years in the NFL as a player, then joined Shanahan’s staff when the head coach was hired in 2017. He spent the previous three years coaching inside linebackers, of course, but was promoted this year when Robert Saleh was hired by the New York Jets.
These two coordinator positions are two of the most desired in the NFL probably, but it’s hard to gauge the impact that the 38-year-old McDaniel or the 37-year-old Ryans is having on the team right now, especially given the 3-5 record. I don’t imagine that either will be hired to run a team in 2022, and that they’ll continue to serve in these roles for a bit longer.
Changes on Defense:
DE Kerry Hyder to Samson Ebukam
CB Jason Verrett to Josh Norman
SS Tarvarius Moore to Jaquiski Tartt*
LB Dre Greenlaw to Azeez Al-Shaair*
DT Javon Kinlaw to Kentavius Street*
What to expect from the 49ers defense:
The real culprit
It’s easy to focus on the glaring issues at quarterback, that was obvious since training camp, but we can’t leave out a disappointing season by San Francisco’s defense. In 2019, the 49ers ranked second on defense by DVOA, including ranking second against the pass.
That’s a very important category to rank second in!
This season, the 49ers rank 17th in DVOA on defense, and they are 25th against the pass. The 49ers only intercepted two passes in 2018, then they intercepted 12 in 2019 and 2020, but that number is back down again. Only two picks this year in eight contests.
San Francisco is 2-2 when they force a turnover this year, 1-3 when they don’t. They have only forced more than one turnover once all season, and that came against Carson Wentz in a 30-18 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
The Niners have a bad defense in large part because they once again lack playmakers making plays; Fred Warner and Nick Bosa are great players having the seasons we expected, but there’s virtually no other player who you’d pluck out of a lineup. It’s a far cry from the hype this defense was receiving after 2019 with DeForest Buckner, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, Dre Greenlaw, Kwon Alexander, Solomon Thomas, and Arik Armstead getting hyped up as “an elite unit for years to come”.
It wasn’t and it isn’t.
You can successfully pass the ball against San Francisco’s defense this season, and we should expect Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and Odell Beckham, Jr. to do that.
2021 Defensive Ranks
Points Allowed: 26th
Yards Allowed: 8th
Turnovers Forced: 30th
Net Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 11th
Passing Touchdowns Allowed: 10th
Rushing Yards Allowed: 26th
Yards Per Carry Allowed: 21st
Rushing Touchdowns Allowed: 30th
Points Per Drive Allowed: 24th
TOP allowed: 19th
Red Zone D: 24th
3rd down rate: 13th
DVOA: 17th (25th vs pass, 6th vs run)
Defensive “strength of schedule” rank: 8th
K Robbie Gould - Activated from IR, Gould is 4-of-5 on field goal tries this season, 13-of-13 on extra points. Last season, he was 19-of-23 and 36-of-38. Gould is reliable under 50 yards.
P Mitch Wishnowsky - He was a fourth round pick in 2019. The Niners are a good punting team. Fourth round seems a little excessive.
PR Brandon Aiyuk - He’s had struggles as a receiver this season. Speaking strictly of punt returning, Aiyuk has 17 for 151 yards and a long of 27.
KR Trenton Cannon - 13 kick returns for 283 yards.
The 49ers haven’t allowed any special teams touchdown returns this season.
Last 3 games (1-2)
Colts 30, 49ers 18 - The 49ers turned the ball over four times and gained 280 yards of offense with only 13 first downs.
49ers 33, Bears 22 - San Francisco had zero turnovers in this game, but allowed 176 rushing yards to Chicago. The 49ers have allowed at least 148 rushing yards in each of their last three games actually. The Bears had more first downs than San Francisco in this game but Justin Fields is not yet ready for Sundays.
Cardinals 31, 49ers 17 - Another game with multiple turnovers. The 49ers turned it over three times and had zero takeaways. Arizona had four rushing touchdowns. San Francisco gained only 39 yards on the ground.