To answer those questions, and to get you ready for the Kansas City Chiefs visit to San Francisco on Sunday, Niners Digest Publisher, Chris Biderman, takes on the tough questions from Warpaint Illustrated Publisher, Nick Athan.
Nick Athan - Chris, with all the rumblings being circulated by the national media about the state of the 49ers locker room, and the unrest that seems to be surrounding Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, how has the team responded this week in practice?
Chris Biderman - The players themselves, when on the record, have refuted all those reports. Sure, there are probably a few players that don’t love dealing with Harbaugh’s brash style on a daily basis. But it seems far more likely the discontent chatter is being generated by either someone in the front office or someone outside the organization. There are plenty of reasons to start developing an anti-Harbaugh narrative now in year four of his five-year contract knowing he wants top dollar if/when he signs a new deal. If things don’t work out, and Harbaugh is let go, the organization will point to all this chatter as the reasoning. Without knowing for sure, it reads a lot like the front office is creating a public relations contingency plan in case they have to let their extremely popular coach go.
Considering all the success he’s had over the last three seasons, it would appear it’s Super Bowl or bust when it comes to Harbaugh’s future with the team. But, as we know, winning is the best deodorant. And the players continue to play hard. We’ll see if that continues if the 49ers lose a few more games.
Nick Athan - Colin Kaepernick received a mighty contract extension in the off-season. Was it warranted or do you think the organization should have waited another year to give him such an abundance of riches?
Chris Biderman - The reported numbers of Kaepernick’s deal are misleading. It’s more like a year-to-year deal that allows for renegotiation each spring to help the team figure things out with their salary cap figure. It’s a lot like what the Patriots have done over the last few seasons with Tom Brady. The sticking point with Kaepernick’s deal, which has the 49ers coming out of this smelling like roses, is the teeny tiny $13 million guarantee. It gives them maximum flexibility when it comes manipulating his cap figure going forward.
The 49ers wanted to sign the deal now in case he happened to win a Super Bowl in 2014 and be worth drastically more on the open market. And, of course, there’s the inherent risk of letting your star quarterback hit the open market. Without a contingency plan or likely a top-10 draft pick, it would have been an incredible risk to let Kaepernick enter free agency
Nick Athan - What do you think the overriding factor was last season that ultimately led to the trade of Quarterback Alex Smith to the Chiefs?
Chris Biderman - Harbaugh really loved Alex Smith, and he still does. But it’s clear San Francisco believed their ceiling as offense with Kaepernick is higher. To an extent, that’s probably true. Smith never proved he could win a game on his own when things were going against the team, and the defense in particular. As we’ve seen with Kaepernick, he’s capable of winning games on his own. And he’s certainly more capable of beating a team like the Seahawks given his ability to break big plays with his legs.
The example - although the 49ers didn’t win the game - is the first three quarters of the NFC title game in Seattle, when Kaepernick was largely taking it to the Seahawks’ defense with running plays they didn’t run during the regular season. Part of that was due to a foot injury he was playing through, but the Harbaugh and coordinator Greg Roman love to keep bold plays in their back pocket as late as possible. That happened when they unleashed Kaepernick to the tune of 130 yards on 11 runs. With Smith, they didn’t have that capability.
Nick Athan- After there loss in the NFC Championship game last season, it would appear the 49ers have lost some of their swagger. In your opinion, is that true?
Chris Biderman - I’m not sure how to quantify swagger. But more than anything, the 49ers are playing like team still finding out what it’s good at, especially offensively. Defensively, they’re trying to figure out who they are without All-Pro linebackers Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman.
On offense, the team is largely remade from last season. Michael Crabtree is healthy (although he’s currently dealing with a minor foot injury) after missing 11 games last year with an Achilles tear. The team added players like Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and Carlos Hyde to bring depth and versatility to the offense. So far, it’s been a mixed bag. They’ve been able to move the ball effectively, but Kaepernick’s still playing catch up now that he’s asked to do a little bit more. In his first two years, the team was always run heavy. But they became predictable and easier to defend with eight and nine-man boxes forcing them to adjust this offseason with their new batch of weapons.
Defensively, they are coming off an outstanding performance against the Eagles. They didn’t allow any offensive points. Philadelphia scored touchdowns on a blocked punt, interception return and punt return. After the two-game losing streak, the defense was close to crisis mode, but turned in a really strong performance last week. Obviously they aren’t as good without Bowman and Smith, but they still have Patrick Willis and Justin Smith holding down the fort until they get back. The 49ers are just hoping to be in the playoff discussion when those guys return, and when they do, they will be an extremely tough test for any team, as they have been the last three years.
Photos: Colin Kaepernick (Joe Nicholson USA Today Sports) & John Harbaugh (Robert Stanton USA Today Sports).
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