Can the 49ers’ passing game finally break out?


Depending on who you ask, the San Francisco 49ers offseason has either been horrible, terrible, or just plain awful.

I guess it’s hard to argue with that sentiment, after all I don’t think any team in the history of the NFL (or at least none that I can think of) has had four prominent players retire at once, three of them abruptly while still playing at a high level. When you add in the coaching change and roster turnover…yeah…it’s been rough.

But despite what’s transpired, can you really say that the 49ers are a bad team?

At the end of the day, the 49ers will probably be closer to mediocre than poor, but there are some factors that can sway them back towards the playoffs. One of the biggest may be the passing game finally breaking out.

That’s not to say that San Francisco will be the type of squad that drops back 40 times a game. They’re not built that way, and under Trent Baalke and Jim Tomsula, they will always want to play a run-first approach. But that doesn’t mean they can’t improve through the air by leaps and bounds.

In the four seasons under Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman, the 49ers ranked 31st, 31st, 32nd, and 29th in passes attempted. They were also in the bottom four in the league in total passing yards in three of the four years.

While it would make sense that a team who attempted so few throws would have some of the lowest passing yards, if you look closer, you’ll see that offensive line play (and/or the quarterbacks holding the ball too long) also played a part.

During the Harbaugh era, the Niners consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in sack percentage, finishing sixth worst in 2011 (8.9 percent), third worst in 2012 (8.6 percent), fourth worst in 2013 (8.6 percent) and third worst in 2014 (9.6 percent). 

What new offensive coordinator Geep Cryst and his staff will look to do is speed up the tempo and simplify things in an effort to put their weapons in a better position to make plays. The question is, will it make a difference?

While the offensive line will certainly have to do their part (and that’s a big question mark right now), quarterback Colin Kaepernick will also need to play better. The veteran signal caller recognized that he needs to work on his flaws, and enlisted the help Kurt Warner in an effort to improve his delivery as well as the mental side of the game.

It’s important to note that the skill players surrounding Kaepernick may be the most well-rounded group he’s ever had, in the sense that they will all play a role.

At receiver, Torrey Smith will be the deep threat the team has so sorely needed, and is the perfect compliment to Anquan Boldin‘s underneath game. Bruce Ellington is a jack-of-all trades kind of player, and can be used in a variety of different formations. Jerome Simpson is another option who can get deep, while Quinton Patton looks to finally step up in his third year.

Vernon Davis, if healthy, should return to at least close to his previous form, and when he’s right he’s as complete of a tight end as there is in the league.

Another big factor that will help Kaepernick is the fact that it appears Cryst will now incorporate the backfield into the attack. The 49ers only attempted five screen passes to their running backs in 2014, and the unit only totaled 44 receptions.

With Reggie Bush now in the fold, and Carlos Hyde and Kendall Hunter (and apparently Mike Davis) being more than competent receivers, it will give the 49ers an added dimension that was missing. After all, isn’t a 2nd-and-five much more manageable than a 2nd-and-13 because you took a sack instead of checking down to a back?

While all of this sounds great on paper, it remains to be seen if the 49ers can make it work on the field. The pieces are there though, and despite what many doomsday pundits have said, the 49ers have a chance to be a more complete offense.

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Al Sacco

Al Sacco is sports expert who knows football, baseball, basketball and hockey. He has spent his time as a sports journalist covering the San Francisco 49ers as a contributor to 49erswebzone.com and Ninerfans.com. He's been a guest on numerous podcasts and has had his work used on ESPN NFL Insiders and USA TODAY.


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