It’s all over for the San Francisco 49ers. Given their tenuous position in the NFC’s playoff picture heading into Sunday, losing to anybody would have been bad. Losing to the crosstown-rival1 Oakland Raiders was even worse. Losing to them by double digits in a game in which Oakland’s win expectancy never dropped below 80 percent after the fourth quarter began was unconscionable.
I know Santa Clara isn’t exactly crosstown, but humor me here.
Of course, it’s not just that the 49ers lost comfortably to a bad football team. It’s how they’ve looked in past few weeks. They’ve won just two football games by more than a touchdown all season and none since Week 6 against St. Louis. Narrow victories over the lowly trio of the Saints, Giants, and Washington got them to 7-4, but defeats by the Seahawks and Raiders have left them on the brink of playoff elimination. And if you believe the rumors, this loss may have ended something even larger than San Francisco’s disappointing 2014 season. It might have been the game that brought a competitive end to the franchise’s Jim Harbaugh era.
It was ironic that Sunday began with rumors that Harbaugh’s predecessor, Mike Singletary, was likely to be offered a head-coaching job somewhere in 2015. You have to look back at Singletary to remember just how low this franchise once was. Under the stewardship of Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, and Singletary, the 49ers went 46-82 over an eight-year stretch, often failing to meet modest expectations while struggling to develop a quarterback. Alex Smith was nearly out of football by the time Singletary, whose public doubting of Smith once inspired the crowd in San Francisco to chant “We Want [David] Carr,” was fired late in the 2010 season.
Harbaugh took over with Smith as his quarterback and immediately turned things around. Even including this disappointing 7-6 season, the 49ers have gone 43-17-1 under Harbaugh, leaving them with the fourth-best record in football over that time frame. They narrowly lost one Super Bowl and came within three turnovers of making it to two more, with Kyle Williams fumbling away one NFC Championship Game with a pair of mishandled punts in 2011 and Colin Kaepernick’s three-minute drive ending with a Richard Sherman–influenced pick in 2013.
It’s Kaepernick, of course, who has joined Harbaugh as the target of San Francisco criticism this season. On one hand, it’s a reasonable complaint. Kaepernick, who I once believed could have an MVP-caliber season if things broke right for him, is actually having his worst season as a starter, with his QBR falling from 72.2 during his breakout 2012 half-season and 68.6 a year ago to just 52.2 this season. He looks unsteady and uncertain under center, always a step too early to run and a step too late to recognize his open receiver and get the ball out. The almost preternatural accuracy he exhibited during that 2012 campaign has slowly disappeared, making his throws more difficult to bring in.
More than anything, Kaepernick is turning the ball over more frequently. Sunday was no exception, as he threw an interception on the very first play from scrimmage to a team that had been forcing takeaways on a league-low 5.2 percent of drives. Kaepernick would also throw a pick to Charles Woodson in the fourth quarter to seal the game, ending up with 10 interceptions and seven fumbles in 13 starts this year. That’s already more than his combined 14 interceptions and fumbles from last season.
It’s more than Kaepernick, though. Watch that interception again. Kaepernick initially has time to throw, and while he stares in one direction, there’s more than one receiver in the area. Nobody looks open.2 He doesn’t scramble because he gets happy feet; Kaepernick scrambles because Frank Gore’s cut block attempt on Justin Tuck is fended off, allowing Tuck to easily elude the veteran running back and chase Kaepernick after a slight delay. Kaepernick tries to improvise and has Michael Crabtree head upfield past former teammate Tarell Brown, but Crabtree can’t create much separation, and when Kaepernick doesn’t see safety Brandian Ross, what looks like a sailed pass becomes a pick.
The cornerback on that side sinks right as Kaepernick turns his hips, at which point the fullback becomes open, but it’s too late by then.
All of that is to say that it’s a team problem on the San Francisco offense. The 49ers are a mess in just about every way an offense can be a mess. That starts with the offensive line, a unit that was once the cornerstone of the team. Injuries, primarily to right tackle Anthony Davis (most recently a concussion) and center Daniel Kilgore (broken leg), have forced the Niners to start six offensive line combos this season, and none of them has looked particularly effective.
Swing tackle Jonathan Martin has been physically overpowered on the right side, a problem both during his time in Miami and here in San Francisco. Rookie center Marcus Martin was inconsistent before suffering a knee injury during Sunday’s loss, leaving the Niners to insert undrafted free agent Dillon Farrell, who will likely be at the pivot in their seventh line rotation, set to debut in Seattle next Sunday. Even former Pro Bowl–caliber guard Alex Boone has been disappointing. It wasn’t a surprise when Boone struggled early in the season after returning from his summer holdout, but the expectation was always that Boone would play his way into shape and return to his dominant form as the season went along. That just hasn’t been the case.
In all, Kaepernick is being pressured more frequently. ESPN Stats & Information notes that the San Francisco offensive line is controlling the line of scrimmage on just 48.5 percent of pass plays, the 23rd-best rate in football. The 49ers ranked in the top 12 in that statistic in both 2012 and 2013. Teams have realized they don’t need to blitz the 49ers to bother Kaepernick. When defenses do blitz, Kaepernick’s QBR is 69.4, which is 11th-best in football. When they don’t send pressure and drop into coverage, Kaepernick’s 55.5 QBR is 26th-best, behind the likes of Josh McCown and Derek Carr. Oakland sacked Kaepernick five times on just 40 dropbacks and made eight tackles for loss.
You might think the blocking woes would have led the 49ers to utilize Vernon Davis’s skills as a pass protector far more often than past years, but they’ve actually used him as a receiver more frequently to try to give Kaepernick an easier target. Davis is running routes on nearly 45 percent of his offensive snaps after settling around 40 percent in 2012 and 2013. It just hasn’t worked. He’s being thrown the ball on only 16.9 percent of his routes, and he’s dropped 8.7 percent of the passes thrown to him, which would rate among the league leaders at tight end if he had enough targets to qualify.
Davis isn’t the only one struggling to get open. While it was natural to hope that Michael Crabtree would be far closer to 100 percent after rushing back from a torn Achilles last season, he has never looked like the guy who posted dominant numbers when Kaepernick first entered the lineup. Crabtree has been slowed by a foot injury, and the mix of subtle acceleration and leaping ability that marked his pre-2013 game hasn’t shown up. Stevie Johnson, who was supposed to give the 49ers one of the league’s best third wideouts after serving as Buffalo’s no. 1 receiver for years, has operated on the fringes of the offense and has yet to become a weapon. He went receptionless on two targets against Oakland.
It’s here where the disastrous 2012 draft is being felt.3 General manager Trent Baalke is rightly regarded as one of the best talent evaluators in football, but he struck out at the top of his 2012 draft in spectacular fashion. The 49ers used their top two picks on skill-position players, neither of whom are still with the team. First-round pick A.J. Jenkins was frozen out of the offense and didn’t catch a pass in his lone season with the 49ers before being traded to the Chiefs for Jonathan Baldwin, who is now out of football. Second-rounder LaMichael James never seemed to regain the trust of the coaching staff after fumbling during the Super Bowl, and he and the team agreed to part ways earlier this season. Relatively high 2013 draft picks like Vance McDonald and the sadly retired Marcus Lattimore have also failed to provide weapons for Kaepernick.
Although I can’t blame the 49ers for trading down, and there’s no guarantee they would have drafted him, fans will be saddened to hear that the 49ers allowed the Colts to trade up to the 92nd pick during the third round to acquire an under-the-radar wideout by the name of … T.Y. Hilton.
The special teams have also slowly become an eyesore for San Francisco. After posting the league’s second-best unit behind a career year from David Akers and the steady work of Andy Lee in 2011, things have slowly fallen apart. Akers collapsed in 2012. James headed a return unit in 2013 that ranked 25th in combined performance on kicks and returns. And this year, the 49ers have been bad at everything, most notably punts. Poor work on special teams helped tear them apart Sunday, with a holding penalty wiping away one Phil Dawson field goal before the veteran missed a key kick in the fourth quarter. They were even unlucky, with Sebastian Janikowski hitting a 57-yarder that would normally be beyond even his mammoth leg.
Many of San Francisco’s problems have not been obvious; they’ve stretched across places like the offensive line and special teams, where easy narratives fear to tread. Instead, the criticisms have come in for Kaepernick, Harbaugh, and their shared connection. Some have suggested that the read-option is a problem, that people have figured out all the tricks the 49ers have to offer — comparing Kaepernick to the failing dictatorship of Robert Griffin.
That’s just a false construct. The read-option is still doing just fine for teams with better offensive lines and more effective quarterbacks. Hell, you don’t even need that; Blake Bortles was awful virtually all game against the Giants last week and set up the game-winning field goal with two keeps on the zone-read. Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill and the Eagles offense are all doing fine. Andy Dalton has run for a pair of read-option touchdowns the past two weeks. Cam Newton looked great yesterday, even at far less than 100 percent. It seems silly to point to Griffin’s obvious physical struggles and try to use that as proof that it’s a tactic on its last legs. Should the NFL stop drafting tall quarterbacks because Zach Mettenberger and Mike Glennon were both bad this year?
Regardless of which tactics they try to use, the problems for the 49ers stem from the team’s lack of execution on offense. I can’t imagine that would get better by moving on from Harbaugh, but the rumor mill refuses to let up. This weekend, Michigan appeared to give up on acquiring Harbaugh, with the suggestion that he wanted to stay in the NFL. Rumors then linked him to the team he was facing, with the Raiders apparently offering Harbaugh the chance to possess the personnel power he doesn’t have in San Francisco. Harbaugh, though, had Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin at Stanford and didn’t bother to draft either, which could be an indicator of his personnel skills.
In any case, San Francisco’s playoff hopes lie in tatters. Just about everything that could have gone wrong yesterday did. Their division rivals all won, with the Seahawks handling the Eagles, the Cardinals coming up with a narrow victory over the Chiefs, and the Rams delivering an impressive shutout of Washington, making them just the fifth team since the turn of the century to pitch shutouts in consecutive weeks. The 49ers are now 7-6 and down two games on the four 9-4 teams (Detroit, Seattle, Dallas, and Philadelphia) that stand out as likely wild-card rivals.
The 49ers would win a tiebreaker with the Eagles or Cowboys after beating them both, but they’ll need to beat the Seahawks in Seattle on Sunday to stay in the playoff hunt. Some casinos in Vegas have the 49ers as double-digit underdogs for the first time during the Harbaugh era, and given that the Niners have lost by an average of more than 20 points when playing Wilson in Seattle, you can’t really blame them.
If they do lose, the calls for Harbaugh to part ways will just become louder. The compensation will be tricky; my previous estimates suggested Harbaugh could be worth multiple first-rounders, but that was in a different context, before this wildly disappointing season and with more years left on Harbaugh’s contract, which expires after next year. Given all the public chatter, it might be tough for the Niners to get even a first-rounder for their suddenly embattled head coach.
For all that’s happened this year, it would be a shame to see things end. Harbaugh has done an incredible job turning around a moribund 49ers franchise, and his success over the past four seasons is one of the more remarkable runs in recent league history. I don’t doubt the reports that he’s grating. I just doubt that the 49ers can find a better coach. The 2014 49ers were fatally flawed, albeit in more subtle ways than most are suggesting. The 2015 49ers don’t have to be, too.
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The Tank Brigade
Of course, while the 49ers had to be distraught by their loss in the Bay Area derby, the appropriate reaction for the winning team isn’t quite as clear. On one hand, the Raiders have every reason to be happy. They beat their local rivals. They exhibited signs of life months into a lame-duck campaign. They got contributions from young players like Derek Carr, Latavius Murray, Mychal Rivera, and star rookie linebacker Khalil Mack, who had two of the team’s five sacks. It’s a good sign for the future when those young players chip in, and there’s something to be said for giving them as many winning experiences as possible.
With that being said, the win didn’t benefit the Raiders in terms of the draft pick they’ll receive. Oakland went into Sunday as football’s lone one-win team, which meant it was in line to receive the first overall pick in the 2015 draft. At that point, Football Outsiders gave the Raiders a 65.2 percent chance of finishing the season with that first pick. Those chances have now dropped dramatically.
How dramatically? By my estimate, the Raiders now have just a 6.5 percent chance of claiming the first overall pick. The Raiders are now in a five-way 2-11 tie for the worst record in football. All of those teams are bad, but what separates the Raiders from the rest of the pack is the primary tiebreaker, strength of schedule.
The Raiders have faced the league’s toughest schedule, playing teams that have gone a combined 98-71 (.580). That’s helped contribute to their awful record, but it’s not useful in this draft tiebreaker, where the team that has managed to fail miserably while facing the easiest schedule comes away with the first pick. And the Raiders simply do not ever win that tiebreaker.
To calculate that 6.5 percent figure, I used a familiar method — a Monte Carlo simulation, using each team’s point differential in a Log5 equation — and ran the remainder of the NFL season 5,000 times. I found each team’s final record as well as its strength of schedule and broke all the tiebreakers, including when the simulation ended with a half-dozen franchises finishing 3-13. (That happened 0.3 percent of the time.)
So now, with three weeks left to go in the season, the new favorite to come away with the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft is …
… somebody in Florida! The cellar dwellers from the Sunshine State combine to come away with the first overall pick 64.3 percent of the time, with the Buccaneers narrowly beating out the Jaguars. That comes thanks to a dismal performance against a soft, comfortable schedule, as the Buccaneers have faced the seventh-easiest slate of opponents in football.
The Buccaneers all but control their own destiny of failure, which seems like it would have been a great name for a hair-metal album in the ’80s, which also makes it seem like a good fit for Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers are almost sure to be underdogs in their final three games, as they travel to Carolina before hosting the Packers and Saints. If they lose all three games and finish 2-14, the simulation suggests they have a 96.4 percent chance of coming away with the first overall pick. To contrast, if the Raiders lose out, they pick first only about 9.9 percent of the time.
The identity of the team with the first overall pick naturally affects the identity of the player who will be taken with that pick, and Oakland’s win and subsequent fall down the rankings helped a few players out. When the Raiders were in position for the first pick in the draft, it seemed unlikely they would opt for a quarterback, given that they already had Carr showing flashes of competence during his rookie season. Instead, a pick like USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams or Alabama wideout Amari Cooper might have been more likely from general manager Reggie McKenzie (or his replacement).
Instead, with the Buccaneers projected to draft first, the entire calculus of the top five changes. Tampa Bay needs a quarterback badly, and the first overall pick would allow it to take the passer of its choice. Most would suggest that the best quarterback prospect in the class is Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, although the Buccaneers could also opt to stay in-state and target Florida State’s Jameis Winston. In either case, Tampa Bay would have the ability to scout and choose whichever quarterback it wanted.
It also makes a big trade less likely. If a team like St. Louis or Houston fell in love with Mariota and wanted to deal up to the top of the draft to acquire its quarterback of the future, the Raiders likely would have been willing to listen. Jacksonville, with Blake Bortles in the middle of his development process, would also probably have listened to trade proposals for the first overall pick. Instead, with the Buccaneers needing a passer, there’s very little chance they’ll pass up taking the quarterback they prefer, leaving the midtable teams out of luck.
I think the Jaguars would be the team most likely to trade out of the first overall pick, if only because this draft doesn’t really fit their needs. They’re not going to draft one of the two quarterbacks. They’re set at wideout, which leaves Cooper off the table. They’re probably not ready to move disappointing second-year player Luke Joeckel from left tackle, which would remove the draft’s top offensive linemen from consideration. That mostly leaves talent along the defensive line, like Nebraska’s Randy Gregory and USC’s athletic lineman Leonard Williams, but Jacksonville is weakest at linebacker and in the secondary, and wants badly for depth at virtually all positions. They could fall in love with a given player, as they have with Joeckel and Bortles over the past two seasons, but they would have the most logical case for trading down.
Oakland may very well have sapped its chances of ending up with a premium lineman like Williams or a dynamite playmaker like Cooper. Should the Raiders have tried to lose?
The tougher question, to be honest, is whether it’s even possible to lose on purpose to procure a high draft pick in the NFL. Tanking is all the rage in the NBA and comes up as a viable strategy in baseball and hockey, but I’m not really sure it works quite as effectively in professional football. NFL games are subject to more variance than NBA games by virtue of the relative lack of possessions. A typical NFL game might give a team 12 possessions and 65 plays to exert its lack of dominance, while an NBA game typically sees about 95 possessions per team.
Even more notably, the NFL’s small schedule creates far more randomness than in any other major American sport. A team’s true talent level is far more likely to exhibit itself over a longer season because there are simply more chances for that talent to perform. The Arizona Diamondbacks were the worst team in baseball last year, finishing 64-98. However, they had several 16-game stretches when the fates aligned and they somehow managed to go 9-7. The worst team in baseball looked like an above-average team in that small sample. In baseball, that’s a streak. In football, that’s a season.
In football, even if you have a team that’s designed to lose, you might still get “lucky” and somehow manage to come away with wins. We can prove that a different way. Pretend for a moment that we have three teams with a totally defined true talent level. We know that, over an infinite amount of games, Team Awful will win 25 percent of its contests, equivalent to a 4-12 team in football, a 40-122 team in baseball, and a 20-62 team in basketball. Team Bland wins 45 percent of its games, leaving it around 7-9, and Team Successful will win 65 percent of its games, roughly making it a 10-6 team.
Typically, Team Successful will win more games than Team Awful or Team Bland. That’s obvious. But how often will we get fooled and see a season in which Team Successful or Team Bland finishes with a worse record than Team Awful? And how much more likely is that to happen in football than baseball or basketball? Again, we can turn to a Monte Carlo sim. We’ll do 5,000 simulations of each team’s season in each sport and see how likely the trick is to occur:4
We’re counting two-way ties as a half-instance and three-way ties as a third of an instance for all three teams.
In baseball, the cream rises to the top and the chaff falls by the wayside almost every time. There was just one simulation in 5,000 when even the mediocre Bland Team managed to trick us into thinking it was the worst team in the sport. In the NBA sample, over about half as many games, the mediocre team fooled you into thinking it was the worst in basketball in 16 of the 5,000 samples.
In the NFL, though, variance can swamp everything. Even a truly great team, the team that would typically post a .650 winning percentage, would finish with an even or worse record than the awful .250 team 23 times in 5,000 simulations. The difference between an awful team and a bland team, which was made very clear over an 82-game sample, was nowhere near as clear in the 16-game season; 12 percent of the time, just by chance, the nearly average team was worse than the awful team.
That’s why it’s difficult to tank in the NFL, and why I can’t be mad at the Raiders for winning. They weren’t planning on being awful this year, especially given how much they invested in veteran free agents in the hopes of building at least a competent pair of lines on offense and defense. Even if they had just turned things over to replacement-level talents up and down the roster, there was still a decent chance that a team that was really trying would actually end up looking worse. The Raiders deserve their plaudits, even if it may have cost them their shot at the first overall pick.
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The Power of the Red Flag
Elsewhere, a pair of successful challenges helped change the course of the playoff picture on Sunday. The two successful challengers didn’t win the game specifically because of their challenges, but it helped each make huge strides during wins that solidified their possibly shaky playoff positions. The two losers, undoubtedly feeling like they’ve been done wrong, are very likely out of the playoff race. And it’s unclear whether at least one of the challenges should have actually resulted in an overturned call.
You’ve likely already seen and heard about the more notable challenge. Bruce Arians seemed downright desperate in Arizona when he challenged that Travis Kelce’s long catch and run near the Arizona red zone had ended with Kelce fumbling before a clear recovery by the Cardinals. The Twitter reaction to the challenge was mostly mockery; Arians had used what would have been his last timeout to challenge a play during which Kelce had basically done a forward roll onto his back before the ball bounced away from him. There was no hint from the commentators5 or reaction from the players that a fumble had occurred.
The announcers were so confused by the challenge that they initially started evaluating the replays as if Arians had challenged the fact that the pass was complete, not that there had been a fumble.
Of course, a review overturned the play and turned it into a fumble with a clear Cardinals recovery. The referee said afterward that Kelce had lost control of the football and never regained it while establishing possession on the ground, which seems difficult to establish, given that a good chunk of Kelce’s tumble to the ground is absolutely invisible to replay. It’s certainly possible that Kelce had the ball slip, reestablished possession, and then had the ball bounce out again after hitting the ground. I could understand the call if it had been ruled a fumble on the field and then upheld on review, but I don’t know how that represented the conclusive evidence that justified an overturn.
The takeaway represented an enormous swing for the Cardinals. Kansas City was about to begin a new set of downs on the Arizona 22-yard line down three points with 5:23 to go. The Advanced Football Analytics win probability calculator suggests the Chiefs would have had a 44 percent chance of winning the game from that point, a figure that instead stood at 21 percent after the fumble. Given the continued ineffectiveness of Drew Stanton, those estimates are probably low, given that the Cardinals would have needed to respond to a Chiefs touchdown with one of their own.
We all know how it ended. The Cardinals won 17-14 to get to 10 wins and basically ensure they’ll end up with a playoff spot in the NFC, given that they hold tiebreakers over the Lions, Cowboys, and Eagles. A one-game lead with three games to go — 1.5 games with the tiebreaker — is pretty powerful. The Chiefs, meanwhile, fell all the way to 10th in the AFC’s wild-card race. They’re now in a five-way tie at 7-6, one game out of a wild-card spot, but their middling record in the AFC (5-4) and AFC West specifically (1-3) will make tiebreakers tough to win. They get to play the Raiders next week, which should push Kansas City to 8-6, but they’ll need to win out against the Steelers and Chargers to have a shot at January football.
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Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the Browns saw their slim playoff hopes evaporate with a crushing loss to the Colts. The game-winning 12-play drive from Andrew Luck started with 3:46 to go, culminating in a narrow fourth-down conversion by Boom Herron with a spin move past Donte Whitner, which then set up a touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton. That drive started after a Browns punt, which came only after a Chuck Pagano challenge took away a Josh Gordon third-down conversion.
That play, on third-and-7, might have taken a win away from the Browns. Nobody will accuse Brian Hoyer of making good throws these days, and this was another subpar effort, an underthrown pass that Gordon tried to trap to his body. The play was ruled a catch on the field, only to be overturned on review from Pagano’s challenge. If the Browns hold on to the football, they pick up 14 yards and have the ball on Indianapolis’s side of the field with 3:56 to go, forcing the Colts to start using their timeouts. Up five, the Browns would have had an 85 percent chance of winning.
Instead, they were punting and had a 76 percent chance of winning, and even that’s underestimating the power of Luck. The Colts needed a 35-yard pass interference penalty to move the ball downfield, but shortly after Herron’s conversion, the Colts took the lead.
It was a surprisingly important win for the Colts, who were very close to turning next Sunday’s Colts-Texans game into a division-decider. Had the Colts lost, they would have been one game ahead of the Texans with three to go. If the Texans responded with a victory in Indy next week, they would have been neck-and-neck with the Colts for the AFC South’s spot in the playoffs, down to a number of close tiebreakers.
The Browns are now another one of those teams at 7-6, but they’re hanging on to their playoff hopes for dear life. They already lose tiebreakers to the Texans, Colts, and Ravens, although they can even that last one by winning in Baltimore in Week 17. They would need to win out to have much hope of getting in, and with the Bengals and Ravens still to come, that’s going to be exceedingly difficult.
So, you know what that means! It should be Johnny Football time in Cleveland. I suggested last week that the Browns should give Brian Hoyer one more week while the team was competitive, if solely because they could try Johnny Manziel under center and find that he was actually worse than they expected. That aspect is now out of the window. Hoyer has collapsed in spectacular fashion, throwing eight interceptions over his last four games while often delivering scattershot, easily tracked throws. He’s better than he has looked recently, but now that the Browns are all but out of the playoffs, it’s time to start seeing what they have with their first-round pick. I would be shocked if Manziel wasn’t making his first NFL start this Sunday against the Bengals.