The 49ers have spent the last few offseasons thinking about how to beat the Seahawks. They’re spending this one figuring out how to be like the Seahawks.
No team in recent seasons has been better at squeezing the most from its resources, something the 49ers’ decision-makers feel they can emulate. The 49ers believe they are more talented than the Seahawks, but they have been outperformed by them.
This partly may stem from general manager Trent Baalke being in love with Trent Baalke and the players on the roster he’s assembled. But he’s probably right.
Consider Seattle’s playmakers from Sunday’s Super Bowl.
One wide receiver, Chris Matthews, was selling Asics in a Foot Locker at this time last year. He didn’t have an NFL reception before Sunday but caught four passes for 109 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots.
In 2013 another Seattle wideout, Ricardo Lockette, couldn’t make the 49ers’ roster despite being supremely positioned. For one, Michael Crabtree’s torn Achilles’ tendon that offseason created a gaping hole on the roster. Plus Lockette was housemates and best buds with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Lockette never caught a pass in a regular-season game for the 49ers. He had three catches for 59 yards Sunday.
The Seahawks’ third-leading receiver, Jermaine Kearse, had three catches for 45 yards. Like Matthews and Lockette, he wasn’t drafted, nor were any of the other Seahawks wide receivers who were in uniform Sunday.
The 49ers, of course, won’t be able to duplicate Seattle’s offensive style.
Quarterback Russell Wilson is eel-like in his ability to slip away from pressure and buy more time to throw. His deep balls practically float down field and are exceedingly – well – catchable. Neither of those are Kaepernick’s strengths. Said one league observer: “He’s not a point guard like Russell Wilson.”
Kaepernick’s strength is his ability to take off and gobble up yards once he gets a full head of steam, something he did to the tune of 639 yards last season but mostly on broken, not designed, plays.
One of themes of the 49ers’ head-coaching interviews with NFC West defensive coordinators Dan Quinn and Todd Bowles was puzzlement about why the 49ers in 2014 mostly abandoned the read-option plays that were so effective in previous seasons.
A significant change in 2015 figures to be a return to the read-option. The degree to which it will be used is unknown, but coach Jim Tomsula and CEO Jed York have mentioned in recent interviews that the 49ers will take better advantage of Kaepernick’s legs.
There was a sense inside the front office that San Francisco’s offense was too clunky in recent years, that it had too many moving parts that bogged it down.
The new version will be intended to be more simple and streamlined. It will get to the line of scrimmage more quickly and put more pressure on defenses. The theme will be that it will allow playmakers to make plays, and the overall hope is that under the likeable and energetic Tomsula, the 49ers will operate with a Seattle-like swagger and spark.
That philosophy sounds good and undoubtedly will be embraced by the players, including Kaepernick, but there are a few caveats and question marks:
▪ It seems to undervalue coaching, which has been a theme for the 49ers this offseason. Not only did the 49ers part ways with a successful staff, a “just let the players play” mentality simplifies what Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have done in Seattle. Yes, they’ve been excellent at squeezing production from even the bottom of the roster. But it’s something they’ve perfected, and they’ve chosen the right players. They have short but ultra-spirited practices that translate to Sundays and they have everyone on the same page. It’s certainly something the 49ers should shoot for, but is it achievable in one offseason?
▪ The mentality also exposes Kaepernick. He took nearly every snap in 2014, was sacked 52 times and never got hurt. He’s proven to be tough and durable, but he’s not invincible. He was hurt coming out of college and suffered a foot injury – on a scramble – in 2013 (though he didn’t miss any snaps), which was a factor in why the 49ers ran the read option so little in 2014. Washington leaned heavily on Robert Griffin III and the read option in 2012; he took a beating that year and hasn’t been the same since.
▪ Another reason why the 49ers used less read-option last season was because defenses have gotten better at defending it, which began to be apparent early in 2013. Against Indianapolis’ quick defensive ends that season, for example, Kaepernick managed only 20 yards on seven carries and was sacked three times. Kaepernick doesn’t have Wilson’s short-area quickness and isn’t able to scurry away from trouble (which partly explains the 52 sacks in 2014). If defenses are no longer fooled by the read-option, how effective will it be?
▪ How will a renewed emphasis on the run affect Kaepernick’s pursuit of becoming a better pocket passer? That appeared to be the well-reasoned intent when he settled on Kurt Warner – the ultimate pocket passer – as his personal Yoda this offseason. Would returning to the read option cancel any growth he makes as a pocket passer? If Kaepernick’s instinct is to bolt and pick up five yards, will he evolve to where he slides in the pocket and picks up 50 yards through the air? He can outrun the Chargers’ defense for a 90-yard touchdown at 27. Will he be able to do so at 37?
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.