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Cleveland Browns fans shouldn’t be happy with an 0-6 start, but at least there are some good reasons for them to keep watching this season.
The Browns have played hard. They seem to have made a good coaching hire in Hue Jackson. They have some rookies and young players who are showing promise. Browns fans, assuming they’re not distracted by celebrating the Indians, should feel like they’re watching a team that’s trying to head in the right direction.
Very little of that applies to the San Francisco 49ers.
The Browns are the last winless team in the NFL, but they’re not the league’s worst team. That’s San Francisco.
Since a Week 1 thrashing of the Los Angeles Rams, a result that is inexplicable by now, the 49ers have looked awful. They’ve lost by 19, 19, 7, 12 and 29 points. Since that Rams game, which we can write off as an outlier (like last season’s Week 1 win for the 49ers over the Minnesota Vikings), San Francisco is being outgained 430.8-287.4 per game. That’s 143.4 yards per game. The 2008 Detroit Lions, the only 0-16 team in league history, were outgained by 136.1 yards per game.
The 49ers are not competitive. What makes it weirder is on Jan. 19, 2014, the 49ers were playing in the NFC championship game against (and almost beat) the Seattle Seahawks. That’s not that long ago. The year before that, they lost in the Super Bowl.
It all fell apart in a hurry, and in every important way:
Front office: The 49ers have a few good, young pieces on defense, but the missteps have been plentiful. The team went into free agency this past offseason with about $60 million in salary cap space and did nothing with it. They signed guard Zane Beadles and quarterback Thad Lewis, who is on injured reserve but wasn’t going to start anyway. The drafts haven’t been great. This year the team traded back into the first round to make the surprising pick of Stanford guard Joshua Garnett, who seemed like a bit of a reach. Garnett couldn’t crack the starting lineup until last week. It could work out eventually, but right now it looks like the type of move a bad team makes.
The 49ers’ drafts in general haven’t been great. In 2014 the team had 12 draft picks, and only three are starters right now. Free agency hasn’t produced much. Torrey Smith was the biggest recent signing and he can’t do much without a quarterback. Safety Antoine Bethea has been good, but he’s 32 years old and now he’s just blocking 2015 second-round pick Jaquiski Tartt. Tartt is playing about 40 percent of the defensive snaps on a bad team. General manager Trent Baalke won a power struggle with Jim Harbaugh, and he hasn’t done much to justify it since.
Coaching: The 49ers pushed Harbaugh out and gave the job to Jim Tomsula. Historians will look at that move years from now and not have any idea how or why that happened. While Harbaugh is off at Michigan (you might not have known that, considering he rarely gets any press), Tomsula is out of football and Chip Kelly is San Francisco’s second post-Harbaugh coach. I don’t have any idea if Kelly is doing a good job, considering the roster he has to work with is terrible. However, it’s safe to say that Kelly doesn’t appear to be maximizing the talent on hand. Would it surprise anyone if he’s back in college in a year or two?
Quarterback: It’s amazing the 49ers talked themselves into Blaine Gabbert this past offseason. That didn’t work out. Shocking. They were stuck with Colin Kaepernick after awkwardly failing to trade him, then had to start him after Gabbert was so bad. Kaepernick did not look like the answer during his first start of the season on Sunday. Even if Kaepernick does play well the rest of the way, the 49ers just restructured his deal so he can become a free agent in 2017. So there seems to be almost no chance Kaepernick enters 2017 as a viable starter for San Francisco. Either he’ll be bad, or he’ll play well and cash in somewhere else. The other quarterback on the active roster is Christian Ponder. Yeah.
Kaepernick’s sudden decline was probably the single biggest reason the 49ers fell off so hard, more than even Harbaugh’s messy departure. It’s hard to win with a bad quarterback situation, and the 49ers have absolutely nothing at the most important position in the NFL. They need to land the right guy in the draft next season.
Blue-chip talent: There aren’t many players to build around, especially with linebacker NaVorro Bowman done for the year with another devastating lower-body injury (this time an Achilles tear). Carlos Hyde is a good running back, but will he still be effective by the time the 49ers are good again? Joe Staley has been a fine left tackle but he’s 32.
Maybe young players like cornerback Rashard Robinson (a 2016 fourth-round pick who has played well), cornerback Jimmie Ward, defensive end DeForest Buckner, outside linebacker Aaron Lynch or a few others develop into blue-chip players. But the 49ers might have less top-end talent than any other NFL team. The Colts might be thinner, but at least they have Andrew Luck.
Not all of this is the 49ers’ fault. They had a crazy 2015 offseason, perhaps the worst in NFL history. There were surprise retirements and other defections that ruined a very talented starting lineup. But some of it clearly is the 49ers fault, probably dating back to the uncomfortable 2014 season when it seemed the organization’s focus was on trashing Harbaugh in the media and getting rid of him for whatever reason.
It has all led to this. The 49ers are the worst team in the NFL. They might hold that title for a while.
Here are the NFL power rankings following Week 6:
32. San Francisco 49ers (1-5, Last week: 29)
To say something positive about them: Rookie first-round pick DeForest Buckner had a dominant game against the Bills with five tackles, four assists and two sacks. He’s a good building block for the defense.
31. Cleveland Browns (0-6, LW: 32)
I’m very surprised at how good Cody Kessler has looked. Then there are two questions: Does an 0-6 team give 37-year-old Josh McCown the starting job back? And can Kessler do enough over the last 10 games to convince the Browns to not draft a quarterback with the high pick they’ll have in 2017?
30. Chicago Bears (1-5, LW: 30)
The NFL Media Research Group said Brian Hoyer is the first Bears quarterback since at least 1960 with 300 passing yards in four straight games. Hoyer has played 16 regular-season games the last two seasons, and here are his stats: 4,002 yards, 25 touchdowns, seven interceptions with a 63.4 completion percentage. That’s a 94.5 rating. He’s a free agent after this season.
29. Miami Dolphins (2-4, LW: 31)
Between his promising two-game debut last season and Sunday’s 204-yard outburst, Jay Ajayi had 215 yards on 69 carries in 11 games — a 3.1-yard average. He’ll get more chances to prove his big game Sunday wasn’t a fluke.
28. New York Jets (1-5, LW: 24)
I like Todd Bowles as a head coach, and a bad start this season doesn’t change that. But if he is serious about starting Ryan Fitzpatrick next week, as he said was the plan, he’s making a big mistake.
27. Carolina Panthers (1-5, LW: 22)
The Panthers have given up 503 yards to Matt Ryan and 465 yards to Drew Brees this season. According to pro-football-reference.com, via Chris Kroeger of WFNZ, the Panthers are the first team ever to give up 450 passing yards twice in a season. There are still 10 games left. No matter what your scheme is, you still need good cornerbacks in it.
26. Indianapolis Colts (2-4, LW: 23)
As flawed as the Colts are, they led Sunday night by 14 points with three minutes left, and a win would have put them in a first-place tie in the AFC South. Now they’re two games back of the Texans and Houston has the tiebreaker for now. Every team has regrettable losses over an NFL season, but the Colts’ loss to the Texans was one of the worst.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-3, LW: 28)
Where has Allen Robinson been this season? He has four games between 49 and 57 yards and one 74-yard game. His average is down from 17.5 yards per catch last season to 12 this season. Everything about the Jaguars’ offense has been uneven, but Robinson’s quiet start is surprising.
24. New Orleans Saints (2-3, LW: 26)
The Saints gave up 32 first downs, 406 yards, 38 points and won. Every game will be an adventure for them this season.
23. San Diego Chargers (2-4, LW: 27)
It usually takes tight ends a while to adjust to the NFL, so what rookie Hunter Henry is doing is impressive. Over the last four games he has 18 catches, 290 yards and a touchdown in San Diego’s last three games. The future is bright.
22. Tennessee Titans (3-3, LW: 25)
The Titans’ .500 record is a bit surprising. It had been way too long since the Titans had even won two in a row. And if you watched Sunday night’s Colts-Texans game, you’re aware that nobody is running away with the AFC South. Keep an eye on Tennessee.
21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-3, LW: 21)
Doug Martin wasn’t back at practice on Monday. If he can’t play due to a hamstring injury, and others like tackle Gerald McCoy are still out with injury too, Sunday’s game against the aforementioned 49ers might be tough.
20. Los Angeles Rams (3-3, LW: 19)
Kenny Britt’s resurgence has been an unexpected story. Britt has had his moments, but his rookie year was 2009 and has never posted more than 775 yards in a season. Through six games this year he’s at 492 yards. How many people figured Britt would have more yards from scrimmage than Todd Gurley at this point?
19. Detroit Lions (3-3, LW: 20)
The Lions’ six games have been decided by 4, 1, 7, 3, 1 and 3 points. The coin has flipped on their side the last two games.
18. Cincinnati Bengals (2-4, LW: 14)
This might just be who Jeremy Hill is. Forget the impressive rookie season. He averaged 3.6 yards last season. He’s averaging 3.6 yards this season. He has had one productive game all season (strangely enough it came against the Broncos’ great defense). But it’s probably time to throw in the towel on the possibility of Hill becoming a special back.
17. Baltimore Ravens (3-3, LW: 17)
Justin Tucker got a nice four-year extension after getting the franchise tag this offseason, and he has been worth every penny. Tucker has hit all 15 of his field-goal attempts this season, including all eight attempts from 40 yards or more. With Stephen Gostkowski in a rare slump, Tucker is the best kicker in the NFL.
16. New York Giants (3-3, LW: 18)
Think of how much of a tightrope the NFL can be. If the Giants failed to convert on their last fourth down, they would be 2-4 with four straight losses. Instead, Odell Beckham took a slant pass 66 yards for a touchdown and everything is fine. Also, had the Giants lost, we’d all be talking about that phantom pass interference call on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
15. Houston Texans (4-2, LW: 16)
Maybe, just maybe, that final flurry on Sunday night will turn things around for Brock Osweiler. If confidence was an issue — and it’s hard to believe that hasn’t been a factor — then a phenomenal comeback win could fix that.
14. Philadelphia Eagles (3-2, LW: 9)
Don’t be confused by the Eagles losing by only 7 points on Sunday. They were dominated by the Redskins. Washington more than doubled Philadelphia’s yardage total, 493-239. The Eagles were flustered by Washington’s pass rush (the offensive line was bad without Lane Johnson, who is now one game into a 10-game suspension) and the defense was gashed by the run and pass. And now the Eagles get the undefeated Vikings at home next week. That will be a very interesting game for Philadelphia.
13. Oakland Raiders (4-2, LW: 10)
The next two games are interesting: at Jacksonville and at Tampa Bay. Those are winnable, but neither is easy. And when that two-game trip is done, the Raiders will have played five of eight games in the Central or Eastern time zone, a difficult travel stretch. If the Raiders want to be a playoff team, they have to take care of business over the next two games.
12. Arizona Cardinals (3-3, LW: 13)
David Johnson is amazing. He has quickly become one of the best players in the NFL.
11. Washington Redskins (4-2, LW: 15)
Not sure where that 230-yard rushing game came from. They hadn’t run the ball well most of the season before exploding against the Eagles, whose defense is good. If they can keep that going, the offense will be tough to stop.
10. Green Bay Packers (3-2, LW: 7)
Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is one of the best NFL writers around, and he had the best story I’ve seen on Aaron Rodgers’ dip over his past 17 games. It was harsh, but fair. Here’s a short passage:
“Just as Brett Favre fell into poor throwing mechanics later on during the Mike Sherman years, Rodgers is following suit.
“You see a lot of all-arm throws, skipping into throws, firing off balance and across his body. He sails one pass, bounces another. At times, his feet don’t work in unison with his torso. His deep-ball accuracy, once extraordinary, has improved somewhat from a year ago when it was embarrassingly bad for a player of his stature.”
The entire story is worth a read if you tune into Packers games every week expecting MVP-level Rodgers, and are wondering why it has been so long since he has played at that level.
9. Kansas City Chiefs (3-2, LW: 11)
Even with a somewhat slow start, the Chiefs are tied with the Broncos and Raiders in the loss column and are the only AFC West team that is undefeated in divisional games. That was a huge yet somewhat under-the-radar win at Oakland.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2, LW: 6)
Too bad Ben Roethlisberger is out for the Patriots game because that had some game of the year potential. His injury is the most pressing concern for Pittsburgh (and the uncertain timetable makes them impossible to rank). Second on the list is why they don’t show up a time or two each season. It’s not just the Dolphins game. Check the Eagles’ results this season, consider the level of competition in each game, and you’ll see that game is the extreme outlier for Philadelphia.
7. Buffalo Bills (4-2, LW: 12)
Beware the look-ahead game: The Bills play at Miami on Sunday, and then have the Patriots at home in what will be one of the biggest games in Buffalo in years. But they can’t afford to be thinking about the Patriots this week.
6. Denver Broncos (4-2, LW: 5)
There isn’t much reason to downgrade the Broncos. They lost on a Thursday night road game without their head coach. That’s a lot to overcome. The “Bills are the second best team in the AFC” thing is gaining steam, but the Broncos are still that team.
4. Atlanta Falcons (4-2, LW: 4)
I’m actually more impressed with them after losing at Seattle. They could have won that game. Win or lose they looked like contenders in the NFC. If a shaky non-pass interference call goes their way at the end, they probably pull off the upset against a really good Seahawks team.
3. Minnesota Vikings (5-0, LW: 3)
Vikings fans might hate me for having them at No. 3, but we can agree on this: With Green Bay’s problems, the Vikings are the favorite in the NFC North.
2. Seattle Seahawks (4-1, LW: 2)
In the third quarter Sunday, the Seahawks punted on fourth-and-inches at Atlanta’s 45. You don’t see Pete Carroll make conservative mistakes like that. It probably shows how little confidence he has in his offensive line.
1. New England Patriots (5-1, LW: 1)
Seven Patriots caught a pass Sunday, and all seven had a reception of 10 or more yards. Tom Brady is going to have a phenomenal season. The Patriots have a ton of weapons, especially when Rob Gronkowski looks healthy (as he did, gaining 162 yards against the Bengals).
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