San Francisco 49ers 2015 Year in Review: One Era Ends and Another Begins

The departure of Jim Harbaugh and many key players led to a season of disappointments. What went wrong?

The San Francisco 49ers' sudden stint with success from 2011 to 2014 was very fun to watch.

The 2015 49ers were a relic of those teams.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh led the 49ers to a 44-19-1 record during his four-year tenure. He also led them to a Super Bowl appearance.

After a falling out with ownership, Harbaugh left to coach the Michigan Wolverines at the collegiate ranks. The 49ers replaced him with their defensive line coach, Jim Tomsula.

Tomsula led the depleted 49ers to a 5-11 record. He was fired hours after the season finale.

I don't know about you, but I will really miss seeing Tomsula on Sundays.

There is plenty of bad that happened in the past year for the 49ers organization, but let's first take a look at where they had success.

What Went Right?

The 49ers were underdogs at home in Week 1 versus the Minnesota Vikings. The media had been dragging them through the mud for months, but the 49ers persevered and won 20-3.

Carlos Hyde went bonkers and racked up 168 rushing yards to go along with 2 touchdowns, flashing signs of brilliance.

Unfortunately for Hyde and the Niners, he played only seven games in an injury-shortened season.

Shaun Draughn eventually replaced Hyde and produced well in the passing game. In his six starts, Draughn collected 27 receptions for 176 yards and became a valuable asset for fantasy owners in point-per-reception fantasy leagues. Draughn signed a one-year extension in March.

Linebacker  Navorro Bowman missed the entire 2014 season after suffering a gruesome knee injury in the previous year's playoffs. The Penn State alum returned and had a Pro-Bowl season. He led the entire league with 154 combined tackles.

Wide receiver  Anquan Boldin was named the Walter Payton Man of the Year.

Sadly for the Niners' faithful, 2015 was mostly a year of losses.

What Went Wrong?

Losing Harbaugh as head coach was bad enough, but the 49ers also lost some very notable players entering the season.

Player Name Position Notes
Chris Borland LB Retired after rookie season
Perrish Cox CB 5 INTs in 2014
Chris Culliver CB 4 INTs in 2014
Frank Gore RB 5x Pro Bowl, 15th all-time rushing leader
Mike Iupati OL 4x Pro Bowl
Patrick Willis LB 7x Pro Bowl, 5x 1st Team All-Pro

Replacing this talent was going to be nearly impossible.

Their quarterback play was a nightmare.

Colin Kaepernick
started the season at quarterback. Blaine Gabbert started the second half of the season after Kaepernick's ended with an injury. 

There were 34 quarterbacks who dropped back to pass 270 or more or more in 2015. Out of those 34, Gabbert and Kaepernick finished 32nd and 33rd, respectively, in our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which you can read more about in our glossary.

Here were the bottom four in the league for reference.

Quarterback Passing NEP   Passing NEP per Drop Back
Peyton Manning -7.95 -0.02
Blaine Gabbert -9.15 -0.03
Colin Kaepernick -9.49 -0.03
Nick Foles -59.52 -0.17

The running game was below average once Hyde was slowed by injury. Pierre Thomas made a cameo appearance with the Niners. Shaun Draughn averaged a meager 3.5 yards per carry. Overall, however, the team finished 12th in the league in Rushing NEP per play once adjusting for opponent strength.

The Niners signed Torrey Smith before the 2015 season, and he finished the year with only 33 catches, which played part in the Niners' 27th-ranked passing offense, per our metrics.

On the defensive side, the 49ers regressed badly, according to NEP. When adjusting for opponent and controlling for volume (i.e. looking at things on a per-play basis), they got worse across the board.

Year Adj. D NEP/P Adj. D Passing NEP/P Adj. D Rushing NEP/P
2014 0.03 (13th) 0.06 (14th) -0.03 (12th)
2015 0.11 (27th) 0.19 (26th) 0.03 (25th)

Whether rushing or passing, the team took a drastic step backward. Combined with their offensive struggles, their 2015 campaign wasn't surprising.

What's Next?

Former Philadelphia Eagles coach, Chip Kelly, was named the 49ers coach in January. 

In free agency, the 49ers signed tight end Garrett Celek to an extension. They also signed guard Zane Beadles

Kaepernick has been mentioned in trade rumors over the past few months, but no deals have been made through early April. According to Dianna Russini from ESPN, Kelly does not want Kaepernick as his team's quarterback.

On the bright side, Carlos Hyde looks like a player destined for a breakout in 2016.

The 49ers are in the midst of a rebuilding phase and are unlikely to reach the playoffs next season. It doesn't help being stuck in a division with the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks. 

Chip Kelly was the coach and unofficial general manager during his tenure in Philadelphia. Hopefully this time around, he is only the coach. If he cements his focus on coaching and the 49ers can bring in some young talent, this team could be fun to watch sooner than later.