By Sam McPherson
The San Francisco 49ers enter their 2015 bye week somewhat in turmoil, having benched the star quarterback and traded the star tight end. With a 3-6 record, the team is in the NFC West division basement and probably will finish there for the first time since 2005. That qualifies as a disastrous season for an organization that made three straight NFC Championship Game appearances recently (2011-13).READ MORE: Yolo County Launches Race-Blind Charging Program To Remove Biases From Criminal Justice System
QB Colin Kaepernick is probably done with the 49ers, and they are probably done with him. TE Vernon Davis will catch passes now from a future Hall of Fame QB in Denver, not a wannabe Hall of Fame QB in San Francisco. The organization’s jewel of a stadium still will get plenty of attention when Super Bowl 50 comes around in February 2016.
It’s just another season of drama for the 49ers, even without Jim Harbaugh in town.
Maybe This Gabbert Fellow Isn’t That Bad After All
Most people saw QB Blaine Gabbert’s 5-22 record as a starter in Jacksonville and assumed he couldn’t play in the NFL. A few wiser people recognized he never had quality talent to work with there, and count Harbaugh as the one who saw something in Gabbert others did not see. No, the new 49ers QB won’t set the league on fire like Kaepernick did in mid-season 2012, but Gabbert is a capable NFL quarterback.
His performance Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons with just one week of preparation with the first team—and a makeshift first team at that, considering the running back, tight end and wide receivers positions are in flux—was impressive. With a bye week to work more with the regulars at the skill positions, expect Gabbert to manage the offense pretty well over the final seven games of the season. If RB Carlos Hyde and WR Anquan Boldin come back from injuries in two weeks, this 49ers offense might actually be potent again.
Take The Show On The Road, Coach
The 49ers are 3-2 at home and 0-4 on the road. Three of the four road losses were blowouts. San Francisco had played significantly better at Levi’s Stadium this season, and it’s no secret that the organization needs to figure out how to translate that relative success to the road performances. The 49ers are from a juggernaut at home, of course, but the defense plays significantly better in Santa Clara than away from it.READ MORE: Sacramento Man Suspected Of Shooting At Other Driver In Sutter County Road Rage Incident
Why can’t the defense bring that kind of intensity and effort on the road? Holding the Green Bay Packers to just 17 points at home shows the team can play defense when it wants to—giving up 27 points to the St. Louis Rams on the road is problematic. Yes, many of the defense’s issues on the road stemmed from the offensive problems, so maybe those will smooth themselves out now. If the best offense is a good defense, then the best defense also can be a good offense.
Focus On The Offensive Line
A team with a strong OL can run the ball effectively and make any QB look decent. In some sense, that is what the 2011 49ers were about on offense. Alex Smith had his best season in an S.F. jersey, because the line was strong—and he could stay healthy that way. A little dose of Frank Gore running the ball didn’t hurt, and Smith made just enough throws to Davis and Michael Crabtree to capitalize on the strong defense.
The OL has lost a lot of quality since 2013. The team had to replace two starters from that team for the 2014 season, and now only LT Joe Staley and RG Alex Boone remain. That hasn’t been enough to keep the QB from getting sacked a lot and the RBs from running as freely as they once could for this team. The good news is that all five starters on the line have started all nine games so far; the bad news is …well, some of the starters aren’t very good. It’s up to the coaching staff now to make them better.
Evaluate For 2016 Now
At 3-6, the 49ers are 1.5 games behind the 4-4 St. Louis Rams and the 4-4 Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West. The 6-2 Arizona Cardinals have the division lead. Realistically, the remaining schedule for San Francisco won’t allow them to recover enough for a postseason berth. In addition to three games against those division foes (the 49ers are 0-3 against them already, losing by an average of 26 points each time), the team has winnable games against Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit.
Perhaps Gabbert could lead the team to seven wins, but it wouldn’t be enough. Right now, the team is focusing already on next year. Gabbert could stay on to help tutor a rookie QB or two in 2016 and 2017, but the 49ers need to figure out who can play defense on this roster—and who can’t. The staff has to do the same with the offensive line and some of the skill positions. There will be a lot of roster upheaval—again—before next season, and every play right now counts for shaping next year’s roster.MORE NEWS: Future Of Lake Tahoe's Clarity In Question As Wildfires Worsen
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.