What’s that beeping sound? Oh, Chip Kelly just saw Trent Baalke in his rear view mirror and threw his bus into reverse. Again.
This was the opening question after the 49ers lost 30-17 and were outscored 17-7 in the second half, with the 49ers’ only touchdown coming in garbage time:
Is there anything you can put your finger on why the offense seems to do pretty well at certain stages and then at some point in the second half it seems to kind of stall?
Kelly’s response, a jab at the team’s general manager, was as subtle as a 49ers fan referencing torn ACLs on Twitter.
“Well, I think in this game the third quarter was an entirely different quarter than anybody’s played all year long with the amount of rain we had on both sides of the ball. It turned into a little bit of a rain game both ways. Then when the skies opened up a little bit we were behind and we have to throw it every down. We’re not good enough to throw it every down.”
Question No. 2 brought the same response. It was almost like Kelly was planning on hammering this point from the moment the game ended.
Why does Colin Kaepernick seem to struggle in the second half?
“Well, I think sometimes we’re down and then all of a sudden it becomes a rush game and a lot of coverage, different variations. I think when we can keep people off balance with our run and our play action we’re a lot better. And, if the game is tied, close it turns into that type of game, but when you get down like we did all of a sudden it turns into a throw every down game and we’re not built for that right now.”
A little later in the press conference he was pushed to explain his “throw every down” point further. Here’s how he responded:
“That’s just not what we’re built for. Torrey wasn’t in today. We don’t have a go-to wide receiver that’s going to elicit double coverage and then all of a sudden you’re going to get single matchups across the ball and then we can line up in empty sets all day long and throw the ball all over the lot. That’s just not the way we’re built right now.”
He’s pointing out the obvious: The 49ers’ leading receiver, Jeremy Kerley, joined the team two weeks before the season. And Kerley is only open when Smith draws attention, and that’s one thing Smith (a huge disappointment since joining the team) does better than Quinton Patton, Rod Streater, Aaron Burbridge and Chris Harper. Kelly is pointing out the blatantly obvious: we can’t expect much from a receiving corps with no deep threat, no jump-ball guy and below average combined talent.
The 49ers are allowing more yards and points per game than anyone else (431.1 ypg and 31.3 ppg — 26.5 ypg and 1.8 ppg more than the Browns, respectively). Kelly was unable to lure a strong defensive coordinator. Whether that was mostly due to Kelly’s reputation as a rapid-fire play-caller or the 49ers’ front office’s reputation as a nuclear (Yorklear?) waste dump is up for debate, but everyone can agree that their defensive personnel is just as collectively rancid as the group on the other side of the ball.
Kelly was a little more subtle about that after the 49ers’ ninth straight defeat, however.
“I think I’ve seen our players develop individually. You go along you see players as the season goes along that they’ve gotten better during the course of the year. I think you’re starting to see that. I think in some situations they had to. We were forced in a lot of situations from an injury standpoint when you lose the linebackers we lost to have to have Nick Bellore out there getting the reps that Nick is getting, but I see Nick improving. I think Nick’s played better today than he did four weeks ago. So, those are the positive things that you’re building on or watching guys develop and continue to grow as players in terms of where they’re at. So, I see that.”
Bellore couldn’t help but play better than he did four weeks ago, because when he was forced into duty he was one of the worst starting inside linebackers in the NFL. Baalke may have been dealt a tough hand when the team lost NaVorro Bowman and Ray-Ray Armstrong, but their exceedingly poor performance against the run since those injuries points to a lack of depth … something Kelly has mentioned before, including his comments when he announced they were switching from Blaine Gabbert to Kaepernick.
“It’s really not, it’s not Blaine’s fault. I think it’s just as a group offensively we need to be better in a lot of ways, so we’re going to see what we can do and make a move here. It’s really one of the only maneuvers we can make based on our depth, where we are and what we’re doing.”
Kelly later backtracked and said reporters were “digging deep” if they thought that last sentence was a shot at Baalke. Uh huh.
(Update: Kelly told reporters today that he wasn’t criticizing Baalke yesterday. Once again, he didn’t sound all that convincing.)
I was driving back from the airport with my wife yesterday evening after we spent the weekend in Seattle (where everyone wears Seahawks jerseys and fan enthusiasm is about 500% higher than it is in San Francisco). My wife asked me whether Kelly would get fired, and I said it’s possible, and we talked about how the only intriguing thing about the rest of the 49ers’ season is whether Kelly, Baalke or both get fired afterward. Tim Kawakami posted a great column that stated exactly that about two hours later, which made me laugh because we probably have the same thoughts about the 49ers every single week. I have never dined at the French Laundry, however.
The 49ers will be lucky to win two games this season, let alone three. So everyone will probably spend the rest of the season in scramble mode.
“But if I know Baalke, I know his supporters will put his message out there on airwaves and blogs, and then we will see what Jed York does in January,” wrote Kawakami.
Many have called on Baalke to be more vocal, to be a spokesman for the team in the same way as we’ve so often seen from execs like Brian Sabean, Bobby Evans, Bob Myers or even Billy Beane. And Baalke might need to do more than have guys like Tim Ryan, Trent Dilfer or Matt Miller act as his surrogates, unless he’s so close with Jed York that he knows he’ll be safe even if they finish 1-15.
And if that’s true, 49ers fans should just give up hope now.
Baalke has a tough task on his hands if he wants to win the PR battle, however. If he explains why the team is so bad in a manner that paints the roster as less than crap (we’ve had a lot of injuries, our young players are really progressing, etc.) the media and fans will respond with snark unknown to mankind. And if he buries Kelly and the rest of the coaches, even York would have to realize that Baalke is poisoning any chance the 49ers might have of luring a head coach for 2017 who’s anything other than a Baalke stooge.
Kelly doesn’t look all that great in all of this either, with his historically bad team battling the Browns for the top overall pick and getting smashed after halftime on a weekly basis. Jim Tomsula could submit a DVD titled “2016 49ers Season In Review” as his resume for the rest of his coaching career (if it continues).
But Kelly knows he holds several advantages.
- Kelly has had less than a year to get a subpar roster up to speed.
- Baalke has been in his role for almost seven years.
- Baalke had 44 draft picks over the last four years to replenish the roster.
- Consecutive one-and-done coaches would be a terrible look for the Yorks.
- The going assumption is that Kaepernick is happy with Kelly and doesn’t get along with Baalke, and there’s no guarantee that the 49ers can find someone better in a relatively weak draft for quarterbacks (that’s the current opinion from draft experts, anyway).
Baalke is a cockroach who somehow survives every Yorklear winter. That could be enough so that Kelly’s not-so-subtle digs at the roster (and the one who put it together) might not matter at all, and if anything Kelly is digging his own grave. If that’s the case, Baalke may let others defend him or not defend himself at all. But if Baalke holds an impromptu press conference full of smiles and “it’s a tough league” rationale with the beat writers in the next few weeks, we’ll know he feels like his job is finally being threatened.