2015 was always going to be a tough season. With Jim Harbaugh leaving at the end of the 2014 season along with a string of quality players like Mike Iupati, Justin Smith, Chris Borland and the amazing Patrick Willis. They appointed former Defensive Line coach Jim Tomsula as Harbaugh’s replacement in a move that surprised many.
Record: 5-11, 4th in NFC West, 7th overall draft pick
A surprise week 1 victory over Minnesota had 49ers fans optimistic, only for it all to come crashing down the next week with a 43-18 loss in Pittsburgh and a 47-7 defeat in Arizona. By week 9 Colin Kaepernick had been replaced under center by Blaine Gabbert. The 49ers were a listless 2-6 and headed towards mediocrity. The worst moments came when they were soundly beaten in Cleveland in week 14 and then in Detroit in week 16.
The fact that they changed quarterback in midseason should tell you all you need to know about the state of the 49ers offense in 2015. They finished 31st in offensive yards and dead last in points. The free agent signing of Torrey Smith didn’t really pay off, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the 49ers. Carlos Hyde, when healthy, had a good season. Joe Staley was his usual awesome self at left tackle. Blaine Gabbert showed some signs of life. Under his steady hand the offense never failed to score less than 10 points – which they did 4 times under Kaepernick. But it’s impossible to say the 49ers had a good year on offense, or even an ok one.
This is where the story brightens for the 49ers. The return of Navorro Bowman after missing all of the 2014 season recovering from the gruesome knee injury he suffered in the 2013 playoffs was fantastic to see. Not only was he back on the field but he was back playing at an All Pro level. The losses of Patrick Willis and Justin Smith didn’t seem to affect his play at all. He was simply a tackling machine. On the outside Aaron Lynch, a 2014 5th round pick, improved on his good rookie season and picked up 6.5 sacks and 21 QB hits. He is certainly a building block for the future of this defense. Unfortunately, even with those two players marauding around the front 7 the 49ers defense as a unit was not good. They were one of the worst passing defenses going, allowing 4375 passing yards. Only 7 Quarterbacks threw for more. The 98.1 QB Rating allowed would have been 9th and perhaps more worryingly the 8.0 yards per attempt was behind just 4 quarterbacks. The passers that faced the 49ers in 2015 put up number just shy of a MVP candidate. Against the run the 49ers were ok. While they gave up the 4th most rushing yards they were far better on a per carry basis (4.0 yards, 12th best). It’s easy to see why the 49ers defense is no longer the fearsome unit they were just a few short years ago with all the talent that has left but there were useful contributions from players like Eric Reid, Jaquiski Tartt and Ahmad Brooks. It certainly wasn’t the dumpster fire that the offense was.
The 49ers focused their early picks in replacing the outgoing defensive talent. Their top 2 picks of Arik Armstead (DE, 17th overall) and Jaquiski Tartt (S, 46th overall) provided good production and took a lot of snaps, but the rest of their draft class rarely saw the field. Eli Harold (OLB, 79th overall) had just 14 tackles and the offensive players they did pick barely saw the ball. Armstead and Tartt pull up the lack of depth and make it a decent draft for the 49ers and they’ll hope they can develop some of the lower round picks to be important contributors in the future. They have certainly shown an ability to build from within before and fans will be hoping they can again, and quickly.
It was a poor season for the 49ers, but probably in-line with expectations in the pre-season. The manner in which their 5-11 record came about will be a disappointment though. They were blown out too regularly and the faltering offense is a huge worry. Tomsula’s dismissal at the end of the season isn’t a shock, he was always likely to be a stop-gap before they found someone else. That someone else ended up being Chip Kelly, which given his history in Philadelphia it’s a big risk. Going forward they need to make a decision at Quarterback and restore the roster-wide depth that helped drive their play-off success under Jim Harbaugh.
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