Coach Kyle Shanahan, widely considered one of the best offensive minds in football, has been unable to figure out the current iteration of the 49ers.
Through five games, the 49ers’ offense is lacking an identity — other than knowing wide receiver Deebo Samuel is the team’s only playmaker.
The 49ers do not have a reliable component of their offense that they can count on in difficult situations. And that lack of self-awareness accounts for the biggest reason the 49ers repeatedly come up short in crucial situations.
Blame Shanahan for not identifying and establishing something that works.
Or understand that the 49ers are in a position where they are still trying to figure out how to proceed without running back Raheem Mostert and tight end George Kittle.
The 49ers expected Mostert to be one of the league’s top rushers this season. However, he sustained a knee injury in the season opener and is lost for the season. Elijah Mitchell was next in line, and he returned to action Sunday after missing two games with a shoulder injury.
Kittle was placed on injured reserve on Saturday. He had been playing with a calf injury that severely limited his production in the passing game through four games.
The next week should be a busy time for Shanahan. He must take a hard look at his approach and what he and his offensive staff are doing. The 49ers are on their bye week, and the team’s margin for error is diminishing after three consecutive losses.
"I’m more into finding out a way to get less penalties, finding out a way to execute on some of those crucial situations and then, hopefully we’ll get some guys back here, too,” Shanahan said Sunday after the 49ers’ 17-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
Shanahan was aggressive against the Cardinals. He opted to go for it five times on fourth down.
The analytics show that three of the decisions leaned heavily toward those being the right calls. The other two were toss-ups. Basically, it is difficult to fault Shanahan’s decisions.
What can be second-guessed, however, are the actual play calls.
The best thing the 49ers had going for them on Sunday were quarterback Trey Lance’s running and Samuel’s playmaking. And that is where Shanahan seemed to lean with his crucial decisions.
The failed play calls were:
—A quarterback power on fourth and two on which Lance was stuffed for a 1-yard gain.
—A rollout pass, likely with Samuel as the first option. When Samuel got tied up in traffic, Lance decided to run. If he had gone high, instead of low, he almost certainly would not have been stopped at the goal line.
—A botched assignment when fullback Kyle Juszczyk took the snap under center and was stopped for no gain on a fourth-and-1 play.
—Another pass play that appeared designed for Samuel on which J.J. Watt swatted the pass down at the line of scrimmage.
In the immediate aftermath of the loss, Shanahan did not express any second-thoughts about his play calls. On some of the plays, there were enough options built into the designs to account for how the Cardinals’ defense approached those crucial plays.
One play Shanahan clearly wished the 49ers could have back was the Juszczyk run.
“There were a couple options on that play, and we didn’t end up doing the one that we prefer,” Shanahan said.
Someone made a mistake.
Ultimately, however, the blame goes to the head coach for not being successful in getting his message across to the players.
The 49ers were 3-of-11 (27.3 percent) on third downs and just 1-of-5 (20 percent) on fourth downs.
On the first possession of the third quarter, the 49ers had a 10-play drive in which they gained 48 yards. But holding penalties on Trent Williams, Mike McGlinchey and Travis Benjamin wasted the 49ers’ only successful fourth-down try. They eventually had to punt on fourth and 22.
The 49ers’ main issue is their offense has been its inability to capitalize on prolonged stretches of dominating play from the team's defense. It happened against Seattle. It happened Sunday at Arizona.
The 49ers' problems will not go away until Shanahan figures out what his offense does well. Right now, nobody has any answers.