The San Francisco 49ers lost an unusually high number of players to retirement and even more to free agency this offseason, but none of those departures can explain why quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw four interceptions, including a pair of pick-sixes, in the team's 47-7 loss to the NFC West rival Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
It's true that the 49ers lost Anthony Davis and now use journeyman Erik Pears at the right tackle position. And yes, current Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree was nothing if not a reliable target, while Frank Gore -- now with the Colts -- is considered the best running back in 49ers history.
But Kaepernick was completely off target in Week 3, throwing for just 67 yards without a touchdown and finishing with a paltry 16.7 quarterback rating. His mechanics have been in steady decline since the beginning of last season. He wasn't hurting for a lack of targets in the game. And he wasn't under much pressure, either, getting sacked just twice. He also had some help from new starting running back Carlos Hyde.
So when the 49ers' defense forced a punt on the opening drive and Kaepernick rewarded them by throwing a pick-six to Justin Bethel on his first pass of the game, 49ers fans were right to groan. When he immediately threw another one on the ensuing drive to Tyrann Mathieu, the game was already out of hand.
How did Kaepernick, who helped lead the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance just three seasons ago, regress so much so quickly? And how can his problems be fixed?
What's wrong with Kap?
On Sunday, it could be argued that the 49ers' running game wasn't entirely effective, or that the offensive line wasn't giving Kaepernick a lot of time. Quite simply, though, Kaepernick was flat-out missing his receivers, and the offense as a whole seemed rather predictable. Just ask Mathieu, who snared two interceptions on the day.
"We knew going into this game that the focus for them was to run the football," Mathieu said after the game. "Their passing game has been simplified so much. It was easy for us to anticipate routes, get some good breaks on the ball."
NFL players are usually confident in their own abilities, but you rarely hear someone more or less say that "getting four interceptions was easy."
Kaepernick's first two picks weren't egregiously bad throws -- the defenders effectively jumped the receivers' routes:
After that, the Arizona defense seemed to get into his head and he started missing his teammates by wide margins. If what Mathieu said is accurate and the 49ers' offense is so simplified that defenses can predict the routes with such ease, then it won't matter if Kaepernick is on target early on in games. He'll still throw interceptions and he'll still be shaken into making more mistakes.
What's wrong with the 49ers?
Kaepernick isn't solely to blame for his own struggles. He's not the reason players like Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Chris Borland retired in the offseason. He's not the only player at fault for the team getting blown out twice in row by allowing 90 points in back-to-back games for the first time since 1980.
When the team ousted Jim Harbaugh after last season, they lost a coach who had taken the team to three consecutive NFC Championships. His replacement was former defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who had only ever coached one game in the NFL.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio also left and in came Eric Mangini, a failed head coach in his own right. At offensive coordinator, Greg Roman moved on to the Buffalo Bills and Geep Chryst took over. Chryst had spent the last several seasons as the quarterback coach in charge of Kaepernick, who looked like he was steadily forgetting all of the proper mechanics that make a good quarterback last season.
Chryst's offense, through three games, has been unimpressive. The running game went off against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1, but the passing game is currently the third-worst in the NFL with an average of 172 yards per game. Kaepernick has been unable to reliably find his receivers -- they're not getting open, the blocking schemes aren't working -- and Kaepernick rarely looks like he's going through his reads at all.
It's hard to put everything on Chryst when Mangini's defense is also allowing touchdown after touchdown. But the offense has to give the 49ers' defenders a chance to breathe rather than force them back to work after another three-and-out or interception.
Can the 49ers be fixed?
Both Tomsula and Kaepernick took credit for the terrible game when they met with the media on Sunday night. Tomsula said that the bad game "starts and ends with me."
"[It's] very hard for me to deal with," Kaepernick said after the game. "Very hard to see myself go out and play like that and hurt this team the way I did. I nullified all the efforts of every other player on that field today."
On the surface, accountability isn't an issue with either Tomsula or Kaepernick. That's encouraging, at the very least, but the talk needs to translate to something tangible on the football field. They have to figure out a way to diversify the offense and make sure Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Vernon Davis aren't running predictable routes.
On top of that, they need to go with shorter routes that develop much quicker. Boldin is a possession receiver who is underutilized in the slants. Davis doesn't run the seam route that much anymore and by the time these guys are getting open 20 yards down the field, Kaepernick is getting pressure from the poor offensive line play.
It hasn't been completely awful beginning to the season, even if the last two games wiped out most of the momentum from the 49ers' Week 1 win. But even if NaVorro Bowman and Antoine Bethea can scrape together a solid defense, Kaepernick can't keep turning the ball over and the offense needs to stay on the field longer and put together productive drives.
It's not going to be an easy fix, but it doesn't just start with Kaepernick. It also starts with Tomsula and Chryst. In short, the 49ers have to be less predictable.
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