Those awfully stupid 49ers and their awful, stupid faces: A rational preview of an irrational offense
Seaside Joe 1289: A look at San Francisco's extraordinary changes on offense since the NFC Championship game
It’s approximately 6:30 PM SoFi Stadium time on January 30, 2022. About 30 minutes earlier, George Kittle caught a 16-yard touchdown from Jimmy Garoppolo to give the San Francisco 49ers a 10-point lead on the road with under 2 minutes remaining in the third quarter of the NFC Championship game.
Garoppolo has no idea that it will be the last touchdown of his season, perhaps the last of his 49ers career, and that more than eight months later he will be second on a team’s depth chart. Let alone, second on the depth chart of a team that he started two NFC title games for in three years.
But not many would have predicted that more than half of the 49ers’ offense from that game is no longer in the same standing with San Francisco that they were in late January.
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Kittle, the most important offensive weapon on the team, missed Week 1’s loss to the Chicago Bears with a groin injury. Though head coach Kyle Shanahan expressed optimism last week that Kittle would be a full participant in practice ahead of Week 2, that hasn’t been the case.
Starting running back Elijah Mitchell, a player who didn’t have enough success in the fourth quarter of that game to help San Francisco burn clock with a lead, will be out for two months after spraining his MCL in Week 1.
Amazingly, four of the five offensive linemen who were blocking for Mitchell will not be starting for the 49ers against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday: Center Alex Mack retired, guard Laken Tomlinson left in free agency for the New York Jets, tackle Tom Compton is on PUP for the Denver Broncos, and guard Daniel Brunskill has been out with a hamstring injury since the first preseason game.
It would be easier to list the 49ers from the NFC Championship who you should expect to see in Week 2 than those you won’t: San Francisco’s starting receiver trio of Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and Jauan Jennings; tackle Trent Williams; and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
Those players, as well as backup tight end Charlie Woerner, are the only offensive components from the Niners’ near-trip to the Super Bowl who are guaranteed to remain in place for this Sunday.
Better? Worse? That’s a matter of some debate. But typically when your starting quarterback hasn’t thrown 100 career pass attempts, the majority of running backs room hasn’t played in an NFL game before, and the interior of your offensive line has a combined 459 career snaps, that’s at least a recipe for nerves and miscommunication.
Between Garoppolo’s final touchdown pass and Garoppolo’s game-ending interception, the San Francisco 49ers offense had three drives, they gained two first downs, punted twice, turned it over, had one three-and-out, and ran off barely more than four minutes of clock; the all-important drive in the middle of the fourth quarter, right after the Los Angeles Rams had kicked a field goal to tie the score at 17-17, ran the clock down from 6:49 to 6:32 and went backwards five yards.
The next time someone asks, “Why isn’t Jimmy Garoppolo starting for someone?” just mention the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game. Even if you believe that a quarterback should not be defined by one quarter of play, you can’t deny that Garoppolo would be starting right now if the 49ers had scored a touchdown and advanced to the Super Bowl.
Shanahan’s decision to go with the date that John Lynch forced him to take to prom was made a lot easier by the fact that the Garoppolo offense couldn’t find three points during the most important quarter of their lives. The changes on offense for San Francisco are understandable…
That doesn’t guarantee that the 49ers won’t be worse off.
Kyle Shanahan, the eighth 49ers head coach hired since San Francisco last won a Super Bowl, has been showered with praise for game planning the team through two deep playoff runs in three years.
And yet, under Shanahan, the 49ers have also been outscored in three of his five seasons, ranked outside the top-12 in scoring in four of five seasons, and even last year had a barely-better-than-mediocre output (+62 scoring differential, 10-7 record) and made it to January 30 in part because of Mike McCarthy coaching in the wild card game (the Seahawks know how this goes) and because of a special teams miracle at Lambeau Field that preceded Aaron Rodgers not being Aaron Rodgers in the final minutes at home.
If the Rams had just beaten the 49ers in Week 18 only three weeks later, we wouldn’t even be debating San Francisco as a “good team.” They would be in the same position now as the Colts, Dolphins, and Saints teams that went 9-8 and missed the playoffs.
There was nothing especially enthralling about the 49ers’ 2021 season until they came within minutes of another Super Bowl appearance. Now the 49ers are rebuilt anew and the first impressions of the Trey Lance offense in Week 1 were not encouraging unless you’re one of the delusional ones who had an excuse for everything that led to 10 points, two turnovers, and only 155 passing yards in Chicago.
Blame weather conditions if you’d like, the only logical takeaways are ones of discouragement or agnosticism. But not optimism.
Headed into Week 2, Shanahan’s offense will lack experience in ways rarely seen from a team that almost fell backwards into the Super Bowl only months earlier. Were it not for the left tackle, the entire offense would feel like a group of players still trying to find their footing in the NFL.
QB - Trey Lance
Career starts: 3 (2nd season)
Career snaps: 246
Career passes: 99
Never let others manipulate you out of making factual statements. An example would be saying that Trey Lance played poorly in his debut as the 49ers’ starting quarterback. It was not his first start, but it was his debut as a starter. You are allowed to say that he played poorly and to ignore those who say, “Well, the rain” and “Well, he had a few nice plays” and “Well, it wasn’t his fault that the 49ers lost.”
Trey Lance played poorly.
That doesn’t make him a bad prospect. That doesn’t mean that he won’t play magnificently in Week 2. It just means what it intends to mean: Trey Lance played poorly.
Taking into account his overall lack of experience, 17 games at the FCS level for North Dakota State, including throwing only one pass in 2018 and 30 passes in 2020, it is to be expected that Lance is learning how to quarterback while on the job. He finished 13-of-28 (46%) with 164 yards, one interception, two sacks, and 13 carries for 54 yards.
And my feeling is that as a runner, he’s taking too many hits like an RGIII and not sliding often enough like a Russell Wilson.
Lance was credited with nine “bad throws” on 28 attempts, making his 33% bad throw rate the third-highest of Week 1. You might have expected a higher rate of RPO designs than usual, but Shanahan only called three; Lance ran it twice for four yards and had one incomplete pass on those RPO plays.
Facing the Seahawks defense, Shanahan will attempt to scheme up some of those wide open receivers as he did in Week 1, but perhaps the bigger play will be to test Seattle’s ability to tackle. The Seahawks only allowed 16 points against the Broncos. However, Denver was twice within inches of a touchdown and the opposing red zone forces this time will include Deebo Samuel, Trey Lance, and potentially George Kittle.
Those players are much more dangerous around the goal line than Melvin Gordon. And it may be harder to stop Lance out of an RPO or QB draw these days than Russell Wilson.
Trey Lance did play poorly in Week 1. But he also gave Shanahan a new set of data to work with as far as what he can do…and what he can’t do.
RB - Jeff Wilson
Career starts: 9 (5th season)
Career snaps: 836
Career rushing attempts: 307
Career catches: 37
For some reason I had convinced myself that Jeff Wilson once ran for 200 yards against the Seahawks. Maybe just Frank Gore flashbacks. But in his second career game, on December 2, 2018, Wilson did rush for 61 yards and catch eight passes for 73 yards in a blowout loss to Seattle.
Wilson has hung onto the roster for five years but outside of a few spot starts, he hasn’t been regarded by Shanahan as being that important: Wilson played in only three snaps in the wild card round, then was injured on one special teams snap in the divisional round. He had fallen behind Mitchell but the team will now turn back to Wilson as a starter.
Over four starts in 2021, Jeff Wilson carried the ball 67 times and gained 261 yards (3.9 YPC) and caught seven passes for 31 yards. He’s the only active running back on San Francisco’s roster who has played in an NFL game before.
RB - Tyrion Davis-Price
Career games: 0 (rookie)
Career snaps: 0
Though Davis-Price was the 49ers’ first of two third round picks this year, he may have actually fallen behind an undrafted free agent on the depth chart. Davis-Price was inactive in Week 1 because he doesn’t contribute on special teams. Davis-Price had 211 carries for 1,003 yards and six touchdowns at LSU last year. He caught 10 passes for 64 yards.
RB - Jordan Mason
Career games: 0 (rookie)
Career snaps: 0
Undrafted out of Georgia Tech, Mason only had 87 carries for the Yellowjackets in 2021. He ran for 439 yards (5 YPC) and scored one touchdown. He caught 10 passes for 80 yards over 12 games.
Mason was active in Week 1, but didn’t play on offense. Shanahan noted that it’s a battle between Davis-Price and Mason to be the backup running back behind Wilson.
FB - Kyle Juszczyk
Career games: 140 (10th season)
Career snaps: 3,855
Career catches: 229
If you call Juszczyk a six-time Pro Bowler, you would be accurate. If you said that he has carried the ball 50 times in nine seasons, you would be just as money. Juszczyk was targeted twice in Week 1, both passes falling incomplete. There’s not much to see here other than a good player with limited positional value.
WR - Deebo Samuel
Career games: 39 (4th season)
Career snaps: 1,899
Career catches: 169
Career rushing attempts: 89
Deebo didn’t want to play for the 49ers again until he was guaranteed the life-changing financial windfall that all players hope for one day because of Shanahan’s insistence on using him as a dual threat. The 49ers made it happen, so Deebo returned and he was immediately given eight carries in Week 1. He gained 52 yards and scored San Francisco’s only touchdown, but five of his seven targets fell incomplete and the 49ers only gained 14 yards on those plays. He also lost a fumble. He had four fumbles last season.
WR - Brandon Aiyuk
Career games: 30 (3rd season)
Career snaps: 1,701
Career catches: 118
The 25th overall pick in 2020, four after Justin Jefferson and two ahead of Jordyn Brooks, Aiyuk has flashed top tier abilities and at the same time been somewhat protected from criticism. Through 15 games last season, Aiyuk had only caught 46 of 71 targets (65%) for 625 yards (8.8 YPT, 42 YPG) and five touchdowns—before added 201 yards in the last two games alone. In the playoffs, Aiyuk had 66 yards, 0 yards, and 69 yards over his three games.
Then Aiyuk was cited as San Francisco’s “training camp star” this year, almost as if that would erase memories of being underwhelming, but he caught only two passes for 40 yards in Week 1. There might be more of a deep passing attack with Lance, but the degree of difficulty on those catches might only go up with Lance instead of Garoppolo. Deebo got a contract extension after three seasons. Aiyuk is not headed in that direction.
WR - Jauan Jennings
Career games: 17 (3rd season)
Career snaps: 378
Career catches: 28
For further proof that Aiyuk has been a disappointment, look no further than San Francisco’s seventh round selection that same draft: Jennings didn’t make the team as a rookie, but he caught 24 of 38 targets for 282 yards and five touchdowns in the regular season (as many touchdowns as Aiyuk on half as many targets) and he had four catches for 62 yards in Week 1. It’s early in Aiyuk’s career, but he if he doesn’t want to be San Francisco’s WR2, it seems Jennings is willing to take the job.
WR - Ray-Ray McCloud
Career games: 49 (5th season)
Career snaps: 843
Career catches: 65
A fourth option could be special teamer Ray-Ray McCloud. The kick and punter returner for the 49ers, McCloud had a 20-yard catch against the Bears in Week 1. He was targeted 66 times for the Steelers last season and 22 times the year before that (with a stunning return of 20 catches for only 77 yards), but McCloud is not more than a one or two-play gadget option.
TE - George Kittle?
Career games: 67 (5th season)
Career snaps: 3,608
Career catches: 335
Kittle is amazing. He also missed his 14th game since 2019 when he sat out Week 1 and there’s no guarantee he will play in Week 2.
TE - Tyler Kroft
Career games: 82 (8th season)
Career snaps: 2,605
Career catches: 102
Kroft. Bad last name. I hate writing it, I hate saying it. A third round pick in 2015, Kroft accumulated 40-percent of his career yards (1,033 total) back in 2017 with the Bengals. He is San Francisco’s starter if Kittle is out, mostly used as a blocker. Kroft has 38 catches for 399 yards in the last four seasons.
TE - Ross Dwelley
Career games: 61 (5th season)
Career snaps: 1,115
Career catches: 41
Dwelley was active for all 17 games but only played in 18% of the snaps in 2021. He played 19 snaps in Week 1 and he caught one of two targets for 11 yards.
TE - Charlie Woerner
Career games: 32 (3rd season)
Career snaps: 387
Career catches: 8
A sixth round pick in 2020 out of Georgia, Woerner has been targeted 10 times in 32 career games, gaining 88 yards. He played the same number of snaps as Dwelley: 19.
LT - Trent Williams
Career games: 150 (13th season)
Career snaps: 8,075+
There are those who say that Williams was as good as any player in the NFL in 2021. He may have more career snaps than the rest of the 49ers offense combined on Sunday. There’s only so much value a left tackle can bring, it’s up to the other players to make that presence matter.
LG - Aaron Banks
Career games: 10 (2nd season)
Career snaps: 73
A second round pick in 2021, Banks will be making his second career start.
C - Jake Brendel
Career games: 38 (6th season)
Career snaps: 318
Undrafted out of UCLA in 2016, Brendel is on his fifth team in six years. Most of that was spent as a backup on the Dolphins, including three starts in 2018. He didn’t make any appearances in 2019 or 2020 and then he played in six snaps in 2021. There seems to be no expectation of a Brunskill return in Week 2.
RG - Spencer Burford
Career games: 1 (rookie)
Career snaps: 68
A rookie fourth round pick out of UTSA, same school as Tariq Woolen.
RT - Mike McGlinchey
Career games: 53 (5th season)
Career snaps: 3,459
Rather than find out what they could get out of the 2018 QB draft class, the 49ers traded for Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017 and then extended him to a contract worth over $120 million after only five starts. Had John Lynch gone the draft route, the 49ers might have had an even worse record in 2017 and potentially been in position to pick Josh Allen in the top-six. Instead, the 49ers won their last five games, extended Garoppolo, and drafted McGlinchey ninth overall instead of someone like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Derwin James, Vita Tea, Kolton Miller, Jaire Alexander, or Frank Ragnow. McGlinchey missed nine games and the playoffs in 2021 and I’ve never heard many positive reports about him despite being a top-10 pick at right tackle.
People praise John Lynch?
Didn’t realize how bad Lynch is as a GM until reading several of your pieces on him recently. Fro afar, names like Bosa Warner Kittle blinded me from seeing his many mishaps
Is Lance a better prospect than Kaepernick was as a second round pick? I don't think so. Both are very good running QB's. Both of them have strong arms. Neither of them are either experienced nor have they shown in college excellent accuracy. Both of them might survive leaning on their running threat, but neither of them are likely to last longer than their legs.