• Travis Hawkins

RebuildWatch 2018: Progress Is Not Linear

Image Credit: David J. Phillip/Associated Press

When I was younger, before the days of the internet, if I wanted to relive the most exciting moments from the past 49ers’ season I had to wait until NFL films released the team’s video yearbook, then I had to be lucky enough to catch when it aired on ESPN. If I wasn’t going to be home or awake when it aired, I needed to find a video tape that I did not mind recording over and set the timer on my VCR. For all that trouble, I would get an hour of highlights from that particular season that I would watch over and over again as a way to cope with football withdrawals while I waited an eternity (or at least it felt that way) for the next football season to start. Each year’s video yearbook would be given a title that tied in to a theme for that year’s team. One of my favorite video yearbooks was for the 1984 49ers; their video yearbook was titled “Masters of the Game.” That season, the 49ers finished with a 15-1 record, (their only loss was a three-point loss to the Steelers) and won Super Bowl XIX. If I had to give a title to the 2018 49ers video yearbook, it would be called “Progress is Not Linear: The Story of the 2018 San Francisco 49ers”

Coming into this season expectations were high for this team; the thinking being that the last five games of last season would be the launch point for something even greater. The reality is that progress is not linear, and things would get worse before they get better. Even with Jimmy Garoppolo under center this team played in fits and starts as new pieces learned to mesh together, and since the Garoppolo injury the examples have become starker from game to game. The inconsistent play can be attributed to youth. (The 49ers began the season with an average age of 25.8 years old on the 53-man roster; the Bengals were the youngest at 25.2 years old). Lack of discipline is one of the telltale signs of a young team; with that come penalties, turnovers and missed tackles.

Surprisingly the 49ers have been one of the least penalized teams in the league to this point, averaging 6.1 penalties per game, which ranks seventh in the NFL (a testament to good coaching). Against the Packers on Monday Night Football, the 49ers played one of their better games this season and had only two accepted penalties for 10 yards, a far cry from the 14 penalties for 147 yards against the Chiefs in Week 3. Last week against the Rams, the 49ers again had just two accepted penalties for 10 yards.

Another byproduct of youth and a lack of discipline are the turnovers that even some of the greatest players of all-time fell victim early in their careers (for example, Peyton Manning threw 26 interceptions in his rookie season) and the 49ers have fallen victim to turnovers all year long. At times this season, the 49ers have played well enough to win but have completely undermined themselves with turnovers; the game against the Packers is a perfect example. The 49ers lost two fumbles: one set up a short field for Aaron Rodgers (as he showed later he doesn’t need your help), then a hfourth-quarter interception by C.J. Beathard that gave Aaron Rodgers the ball back with just enough time to lead the game winning drive. Against the Rams the 49ers turned the ball over four times, and like Aaron Rodgers, the Rams do not need your help to win football games, which was reflected in the final score.

Outside of turnovers, missed tackles have been the biggest issue with this team throughout the season. The biggest offenders when it comes to missed tackles have been the inside linebacker duo of Rueben Foster and Fred Warner. From a silver lining perspective, Warner and Foster have the opportunity to miss tackles because they are always around the ball, but they need to tighten this up. Foster’s struggles could be, in part, due to a lingering shoulder issue and may not be resolved during the season. Warner is trying to learn a new position in his rookie season and the responsibilities that come along with playing middle linebacker in the NFL (Warner is responsible for calling the defense in the huddle and making sure everyone is lined up correctly), which could be adding to his struggles. The tackling has been better of late and the results are noticeable. Against Green Bay the defense’s struggles were related mainly to pass coverage, particularly, in the first and fourth quarters. Even though the score did not reflect it, the defense played well early against the Rams despite being put in a tough spot by the offense. Eventually, the talent disparity was too much for the defense to overcome and they got steamrolled.

With the nine-game losing streak to start the season last season, the five-game losing streak the team is currently working through and a five-game winning streak sandwiched in between, time can really become distorted, making it easy to forget that there is not a lot of experience at some very key positions on this team. C.J. Beathard has barely started a half season’s worth of games. Even an unquestioned starter, Reuben Foster, has yet to start a full season’s worth of games, and he is halfway through his second season. As this team works its way through the remainder of the season, the nonlinear path of progress will continue.

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