“We’re still trying to find our identity, and that’s a (expletive) place to be,” guard Alex Boone said Sunday after the 49ers scored only three points against the Packers. “Whatever it is, we’d better figure it out by tomorrow.”
A few feet away, left tackle Joe Staley had a similar assessment: “We’re just young; we’re learning. We’re trying to find our identity right now”.
That it’s October and the 49ers still haven’t figured out who they are as an offense and what they do best is troubling. But it shouldn’t be surprising. They’ve been sending mixed messages about that identity for months.
Two weeks ago, coach Jim Tomsula said the 49ers are not a drop-back style team – “We’re not built that way,” he said – but in the offseason spent a lot of money on a prominent downfield receiver, Torrey Smith who built his reputation playing with the ultimate drop-back passer, Joe Flacco.
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Smith has been among the most frustrated 49ers as they’ve stumbled to a 1-3 start, and you can understand why. He has nine catches and is on pace for a career lows in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns.
In June, quarterbacks coach Steve Logan said “explosion” plays would be a staple of the team’s offense. “Explosion plays – that’s where you make a living,” Logan said. But so far, the 49ers have fewer run and pass plays of 20 or more yards than any other team in the league.
It’s not just that the 49ers aren’t completing those passes. The disconnect is that the 49ers aren’t attempting many long throws. Of 34 qualifying quarterbacks, Colin Kaepernick ranks 32nd in yards per attempt.
Then there’s Tomsula’s comment that the team’s strength lies in its tight ends. The tight ends are a bridge between the running and passing games, and having a strong group theoretically would allow the 49ers to do both well. That’s the team’s aim this season.
But there seems to be an overestimation by the 49ers as far as the quality of those tight ends. Vernon Davis did little last year and has been a nonfactor this season in the three games for which he has been healthy. He hasn’t caught a touchdown pass since Sept. 7, 2014. Vance McDonald still is looking for his first career touchdown and has more flubs than big catches in 2 1/2 seasons.
The best tight end – or at least the most consistent – has been Garrett Celek. Nothing against Celek. He’s a fine player who has improved dramatically as a pass catcher during the past four seasons. But defensive coordinators are getting a solid eight hours of sleep before facing San Francisco because no one is worried about Garrett Celek.
That the 49ers are struggling with their tight end-centric offense also raises again the curious trade of Derek Carrier. In March, the 49ers signed him to a modest, two-year contract extension, which is straight out of their playbook when they envision a lightly used, undrafted player – who is eager to earn more than the peanuts he currently is getting – having a bigger role in the future.
They did it with Boone, Ian Williams and Tramaine Brock. And they did that with Carrier, which made sense considering that of all the team’s 2014 tight ends, Carrier showed the most promise. But five months after inking the contract extension, he was traded to Washington for a fifth-round pick in 2017.
Something to watch: Washington’s top tight end, Jordan Reed, is dealing with an array of injuries this week, which could put Carrier in a featured role.
Finally, and most critically, Kaepernick seems to be pulled in two directions.
When the 2014 season ended, he went to Phoenix to work on becoming a better pocket passer and was mentored by a renowned former pocket passer, Kurt Warner. At the same time, 49ers owner Jed York said the team would put Kaepernick “in a position where he can run the ball,” and his coaches began crafting an offense that skews to what he did best at Nevada, which ran a decidedly un-pocket-like, non-drop-back offense.
Should Kaepernick run, or should he stick it out in the pocket? Too many times this season, it has appeared he didn’t know the answer.
It’s not hard to figure out why.