SANTA CLARA, Calif. - At the start of the season, the San Francisco 49ers had only four offensive starters carry over from the Super Bowl loss to the Ravens three years ago.
The way San Francisco's roster has devolved since that game has played a significant role in the overall regression of the offense, according to the team's current offensive coordinator Geep Chryst, who was the quarterbacks coach during that Super Bowl run.
"Like almost every drive, there were ample opportunities to make plays and you get to 2015 here, it seems like the margins seem smaller because of just where we’re at as an offense, and where we’re at as a team," Chryst said. "As a result, you have to feel like you’ve got to hit your mark a little bit more often. And when you don’t, you become frustrated because when you look at the scoreboard, you’re behind. And that creates frustration too."
Of course, Chryst's offense has been the worst in the NFL during San Francisco's 2-6 start, ranking last in both scoring and yardage by wide margins. This week, the offense's lack of production led to the benching of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took the league by storm in 2012 when he helped guide the team to a Super Bowl while running a dynamic offensive attack.
With the departure of seven starters, and the shift of Alex Boone from right guard to left, the 49ers offense this season looks vastly different and hasn't been nearly as effective.
"We’re not blocking well at the point of attack in the running game," said Chryst bluntly. "The opportunity to throw from a clean pocket, we did that an awful lot in 2012. And again, it’s not unfamiliar to other quarterbacks that are challenged throughout the league from year to year. It’s just, when you play more and more football from year to year, you’re going to have good years. (And) you’re going to have years where you’re challenged to do so."
Lately, the dissolution of the offense has continued. The 49ers last week were without their top running back Carlos Hyde and receiver Anquan Boldin, who remain up in the air headed into Sunday's game against Atlanta after missing practice this week. Additionally, they traded tight end Vernon Davis, who was Kaepernick's most targeted pass catcher in the last two games.
As the play caller and presider over the offense, Chryst feels responsible for the unit's shortcomings which have been central to the team's disastrous first half of the season.
"You feel like you bear it every call that you make. You feel like you bear it every practice that you do. You try to get under the hood, and say, ‘what is it that we’re failing on?’ Yet, at the same time, as a coach, you know the hand that you’re dealt," Chryst said.
The hand Chryst has been dealt includes an offensive line that lost two former first-round picks in the offseason, when left guard Mike Iupati bolted for Arizona in free agency, and right tackle Anthony Davis abruptly retired after the draft and the hot period of free agency. Those two were key figures on an offensive line in 2012 that started the same combination in each game leading up to the Super Bowl. That offensive line was considered one of the best in the NFL.
This year's unit, according to Pro Football Focus, is the NFL's worst in run blocking and 16th in pass protection. Although, through eight games, the 49ers have allowed 28 sacks, tied for the third most in the league.
As head coach Jim Tomsula was quick to point out this week, he doesn't view benching Kaepernick as a referendum on him as a player. Rather, it gives Kaepernick a chance to, "step back and breathe and look at things through a different lens."
Chryst said, "Whether you called a run or a pass, if you’re getting penetration up the middle it really matters because we’re getting whipped at the point of attack...If you’re blown up and you’re backed up in the interior it’s not going to turn out alright. It just won’t.”
Chryst wouldn't disclose if he plans on making any changes to San Francisco's offensive line. At right guard, Jordan Devey and Andrew Tiller continued to rotate in the Rams game, as they have for the last four weeks.
Blaine Gabbert is slated to start Sunday for the first time since 2013, when he threw one touchdown and seven interceptions in three games for the Jaguars before being benched.
The 49ers acquired Gabbert in a low-risk trade before the 2014 season, and signed him to a two-year extension last spring. Chryst said they saw some similar traits to former starting quarterback Alex Smith, who also struggled after being taken with a high first-round pick.
"Alex came here, was very young and played, had to slug out a lot of tough situations. And we felt like Blaine had all this talent and as a young player maybe a change of scenery would be good for him," said Chryst. "He’s really applied himself well in the classroom learning it. He’s engaged and active. He’s a really bright guy."
If Gabbert has the same fate as Smith, then Kaepernick might not have taken his last snap with the 49ers this season.
Chris Biderman is the Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest and covers the 49ers from their headquarters in Santa Clara. Chris has been writing about the team since the spring of 2013. The Ohio State alum received his Journalism degree in 2011 and has been working in sports media since 2008. Chris, a Santa Rosa, Calif. native, is also a contributor to the Associated Press covering sports throughout the Bay Area. You can follow Chris on Twitter here.
E-mail Niners Digest: NinersDigest@gmail.com