An NFL offense is like an ecosystem: If one component is struggling, the rest get thrown out of whack.
In the world of the 49ers, the element that’s becoming harder to find is the receiving corps. It’s not extinct – its numbers actually have grown in recent weeks – but in terms of impact, it’s heading for the critically endangered list. Greenpeace is on alert. Elizabeth Warren is speaking about it on the Senate floor. They’re selling “Save the Wideouts!” T-shirts in Portland.
Consider that through three games, newcomer Jeremy Kerley leads the 49ers in receiving with 114 yards. That ranks 92nd in the NFL. Their passing attack collectively ranks 30th ahead of only Los Angeles and Buffalo, which already fired its offensive coordinator, Greg Roman.
There are plenty of reasons for the 49ers’ feeble passing game:
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1. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert hasn’t been exactly – what’s the right word? – good. His passer rating, completion percentage and yards-per-attempt average rank 30th, 31st and 32nd, respectively, in the league among starters. Check-down throws? Gabbert makes Alex Smith look like Daryle Lamonica.
2. The running game has been inconsistent. It ranks 11th in the NFL, but a lot of the gains have come while playing catch-up in the second half. Coach Chip Kelly says the passing game is built off the running game. If the latter sputters, the former will, too.
But there’s a reverse effect, as well. If defenses don’t respect the passing game, they can concentrate on stopping the run.
3. The 49ers have played three really good defenses. Their two losses have been at Seattle and Carolina, which rank No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, in total defense. Sunday’s opponent, Dallas, ranks No. 22, and the 49ers will play at home.
4. The 49ers simply don’t have a talented wide receiving corps, and that has a big bearing on all three earlier points.
From top to bottom, the position was weak last season and somehow managed to get weaker this year. That’s underscored by the fact that half of the six receivers on the roster didn’t go through training camp with the 49ers and have been added since Aug. 28. One of them, Keshawn Martin, signed this week.
Yes, Bruce Ellington, Eric Rogers and DeAndre Smelter are injured. But none of the three is a proven commodity in the NFL, and it was a leap of faith to think any of those three would have made a significant difference this season.
Despite an abundance of picks and salary cap space, the 49ers virtually ignored the position in the draft and in free agency.
They waited until late in the sixth round to draft Aaron Burbridge, a gritty, tough player but one seemingly better suited for former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh’s rough-and-tumble offense than Kelly’s. The only wide receiver they picked up in free agency was Rogers, who played last year for the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.
There weren’t a lot of receiver options in free agency. But one of them, the Lions’ Marvin Jones, leads the NFL with 408 receiving yards. Another, Atlanta’s Mohamed Sanu, would have been a nice fit in a Kelly offense that puts a premium on run-after-catch yards. Another, restricted free agent Chris Hogan, has eight catches, 122 yards and a touchdown for the Patriots.
The 49ers’ best receiver, meanwhile, is a bit of a fish out of water in Kelly’s offense. Torrey Smith once shined in a Ravens offense that included quarterback Joe Flacco, who is one of the top deep-ball passers in the league and who could take advantage of Smith’s straight-line speed. The 49ers’ passing offense is rhythm-based, featuring shorter, quicker passes to receivers who are expected to catch the ball and “knife” up field for first downs.
Indeed, “catch and knife” has been a buzz phrase in Santa Clara all week, an explanation for why Gabbert often throws short of the first-down marker on third downs and how the passing game is supposed to work.
The problem is that the knife is dull. The 49ers’ receivers so far haven’t cut it.