Randy Moss still appears to be an afterthought in this offense. Is that because he is not the threat he once was, or is he being underutilized?
SP: I think Moss is still essentially the same threat that he was in previous seasons. The bigger issue is that he is somewhat miscast in Harbaugh’s offense. No matter the quarterback, Harbaugh’s scheme is predicated on running the ball. Even in the game against New England, which is seen as a “shoot out,” the 49ers ran the ball 40 times and threw only 25. This isn’t an anomaly. As a run-first offense, any and all non-running backs inevitably become afterthoughts. Michael Crabtree proves to be the exception because of the type of receiver he is. He runs mostly slants and hitches, two routes that are relatively low risk. And, if I know anything about Harbaugh it is that he prefers low-risk. As a whole, the team has attempted just 20 passes of 20 yards or more this season. In contrast, Randy Moss had 32 targets of 20 yards or more in 2009 as a member of the Patriots. So, yeah, Randy is afterthought, but he’s still making straight cash, Homie.
Vernon Davis is one of the most talented tight ends in the NFL. It looked like Kaepernick had rediscovered him against Chicago, only to see him go back into hiding. What’s going on with Davis?
SP: Davis recently blamed his production woes on a lack of “chemistry” with Colin Kaepernick, something, he claims, that was had by him and Alex Smith. I think this is something of a red herring. A lack of chemistry didn’t prevent him from getting six receptions on eight targets against Chicago, nor from getting four receptions on five targets in Kaepernick’s first game against St. Louis. The bigger reason for Davis’ drop in production over recent weeks is that teams are deliberately taking him out of the game. When Alex Smith ran the offense, defenses schemed to take away his strength: Short, quick passes. And so, they stacked the box and tried to take away the shorter routes. In essence, defense dared Smith to throw downfield by leaving Davis in single coverage. To Smith’s credit, he often took advantage of those match ups. Since Kaepernick has taken over, defenses are taking away deep options, forcing Kaepernick to be more methodical, to be more Smith-like. Such scheming necessarily takes Davis–and Moss, to an extent–out of the picture.
Frank Gore is one of the most courageous runners in football, and sacrifices his body every season. He also tends to wear down late in the year. Are you seeing signs of that this year?
SP: I don’t believe we’ve seen signs of wear on Gore, yet. Against Miami’s strong run-defense, Gore had arguable on of his better performances of season. That said, I think the threat of Gore wearing down is very, very real. The 49ers saw as much last season when Gore averaged only 3.21 yards per carry and 1.8 yards per carry after contact (nearly one-full yard lower than his current average) over the final eight games of the season. Of course, the 49ers tried to mitigate this risk by having Gore share carries with Kendall Hunter, but plans have since changed.
Kendall Hunter was a great compliment to Gore, and could run, catch and block. How is LaMichel James in comparison to Hunter? How big of a loss was Hunter?
SP: The loss of Hunter is not easy to quantify. As a whole, the 49ers have seen a decrease in run productivity since losing Hunter. Prior to Hunter’s injury, the 49ers averaged a league-best 5.5 yards per carry. Since losing him, they’ve average 4.7. Though this isn’t a drastic change, it is telling of his effect in the run game.
James has certainly done well in Hunter’s absence. He’s proven to be more elusive than Hunter, according to Pro Football Focus’ Elusive Rating, anyway. With that said, James hasn’t produced on a consistent basis. I mean, he hasn’t even had the chance to. Hunter was a proven commodity. James is still something of an unknown, which is both exciting and terrifying.