Here is my Saturday column.
Are the 49ers trying to lose? Are they losing on purpose?
I’m not saying they are — let’s make that clear. I’m not accusing the 49ers of tanking. But, I’m wondering. How do you explain the way they lost last week to the Bears? It just doesn’t make sense.
That was a game the Niners should have won, or at least kept close. The Bears were decimated, missing 12 of 22 starters from Week 1, and they were playing their fourth quarterback of the season. Plus, their defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, is someone the 49ers should have known how to beat.
Fangio was the Niners’ defensive coordinator just two seasons ago and he was on the same staff as Tom Rathman, the 49ers’ current running backs coach. Rathman knows Fangio’s defensive philosophy. And Trent Baalke knows Fangio’s defensive philosophy. Fangio hasn’t changed it since he left the Niners. If anything, he simplified it to accommodate all the backups the Bears have used this season.
And yet, the Niners couldn’t score more than six points in that game. Couldn’t gain more than 6 net passing yards.
Can a team be that bad unintentionally? Probably, but let’s play a game and pretend the Niners didn’t really care about winning.
Let’s look at Chip Kelly’s game plan. It may have sabotaged his own team. Here’s what I mean: Kelly adjusted to the snowy weather by calling runs 77 percent of the time through the first three quarters when the game was somewhat close. And when he did call passes, he mostly called deep ones which led to scattershot throws and sacks.
A run-heavy game plan supplemented by deep passes is the exact formula to lose in the snow. Don’t take it from me, though. Take it from Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton, a cold-weather specialist – he played for the Minnesota Vikings during the ’60s and ’70s.
“Here’s how you adjust your game,” Tarkenton said on KNBR this Friday. “You throw the ball. And you throw shorter passes … With my receivers, they have a great advantage over the defensive backs. The defensive back is scared to death because my guy knows where he’s going and how to make a cut. The defensive guy has to make a quicker cut and worries about slipping, which he does.
“So, I thought I had a great advantage passing. I didn’t go to a running game. I thought that was the worst thing you could do. You’ve got to throw the ball, but you’ve got to throw short passes and not throw the ball 30, 40 yards down the field, because the ball will flutter on you and you won’t have the accuracy.
“I played against Joe Kapp in Boston at Harvard Stadium, and I warmed up and I said, ‘We’re not going to be able to control the ball beyond 15 yards.’ And we scored 35 points. Joe — I think we shut him out — he was throwing the ball 50, 60 yards down the field. Couldn’t control it.
“You’ve got to pass the ball in bad weather. If you just go to three yards and a cloud of dust, you’re done because I think the defense has a great edge in the interior line.”
Tarkenton figured this out 50 years ago. By now, every coach at every level of the sport should know how to call a game in the snow, including Kelly. So, either he’s a total idiot or he’s tanking or there’s another explanation I don’t understand.
Sure, Kelly’s roster isn’t good. We can agree on that. But it isn’t that bad, either. It’s not the worst roster in the league — Cleveland’s is the worst. The Browns have 17 rookies. They’re a glorified college team. You can understand why they’re 0-12. It’s much harder to understand why the Niners have lost 11 consecutive games.
Let’s break the down their offense, Kelly’s specialty, which currently ranks 30th in the league of 32 teams.
The Niners have three good running backs, including Carlos Hyde, who has played 10 of 12 games this season. Last season, he played only seven of 16 games. So, that’s one advantage Kelly has over the previous coaching staff.
The 49ers also have six good offensive linemen — Joe Staley, Zane Beadles, Daniel Kilgore, Joshua Garnett, Trent Brown and Andrew Tiller.
The 49ers also have a good tight end, Vance McDonald, whom the team just gave a five-year, $35 million extension on Friday. He earned it. When the Niners’ quarterbacks target McDonald this season, their passer rating is 103.1.
And the 49ers have a good wide receiver — Torrey Smith. One of the best deep threats in the NFL. Last season, he averaged an astronomical 20.1 yards per reception, which led the entire league. When the Niners’ quarterbacks targeted him, their passer rating was 116.9. Again, astronomical.
But now under Kelly, Smith is having the worst season of his career. Averaging only 13.4 yards per catch on just 1.8 receptions per game. Has fewer yards than the Niners’ No. 2 tight end, Garrett Celek.
Smith is only 27 years old — in his prime. He should be having the best season of his career, especially under Kelly, a supposed offensive genius.
But, Kelly hardly ever makes Smith do the one thing he’s good at — run deep. Instead, Kelly calls deep passes for everyone but Smith, and makes Smith run routes he doesn’t run well, such as curls, comebacks and shallow crosses.
I would hate to think Kelly is losing on purpose. Losing just to get better draft picks or get Baalke fired. I would hate to think Kelly has wasted one of the final seasons of Joe Staley’s great career.
But I admit, I never have seen a head coach less invested in his team than Kelly is this season. Almost every day, he reminds us this isn’t his team — it’s Baalke’s team. And these aren’t his players — they’re Baalke’s players.
If the coach is not invested in this team or this season, why would the players be invested?
Why would they play hard Sunday against the Jets? They may not even be here next season. If Baalke gets fired and Kelly gets more power, how many players will fit Kelly’s scheme? How many will he trade or cut? Remember, these guys were picked by Baalke. All of them.
How many will risk suffering an injury in December for a coach who may not want them in January? Serious injuries would ruin the chances for these players to sign with other teams during free agency. Why would they take that risk?
When you watch the 49ers play the Jets — a team that’s dead in the water, a team the Niners should beat — ask yourself if the Niners really are trying to win. Watch how hard they play. Watch how the players on defense tackle. Do they gang tackle? Or, do they avoid the pileup after the play to protect their knees and ankles?
Decide for yourself if the 49ers are tanking and, if they are, it all starts with the coach.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.