San Francisco 49ers' fate rests on Colin Kaepernick-led offense

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The smartest move made by the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coaches happened when they met for the first time earlier this offseason: Nobody brought a playbook.

It was a session that didn't revolve around schemes or concepts or anyone's brilliant notion of a time-tested system. Instead, it was one that would be devoted to personnel, personalities and perspective.

"We were going to see who we had," said first-year head coach Jim Tomsula, "and then we were going to build around that talent."

It sounds like a simple act, but it could end up being the critical moment for a team that few people are expecting to thrive this coming fall.

Even before the 49ers released star outside linebacker Aldon Smith in the wake of yet another off-the-field issue, this wasn't a team that was going to be carried by its defense. That unit already had been leveled by the losses of retiring players like Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Chris Borland. Linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks are the only remaining defensive starters from the 49ers' Super Bowl team of 2012, which means it's time for the offense to pick up the slack.

This isn't solely about the maturation of beleaguered star quarterback Colin Kaepernick, either. It's about a unit that lost its identity last season -- when it ranked 25th in the league in scoring (at 19.1 points per game) and 30th in passing offense (191.4 yards per game) -- and sorely needs to establish a more effective one this year.

"You're going to see players in roles that maximize their talent," offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said, after being asked about what the 49ers' offense will look like when operating at its best. "You want to see balance, because we don't want one player to think he has to do it all by himself."

Chryst didn't say it, but that last sentence pretty much sums up San Francisco's offensive approach in 2014. That was supposed to be the year when Kaepernick made a huge leap in his development and evolved into a quarterback capable of directing a fast-paced, wide-open passing attack, instead of being an otherworldly talent mystifying defenses with his strong arm and explosive speed. The only problem with that idea? Kaepernick never became comfortable in that system, and most of his receivers never found a rhythm with him.

There was a time when the 49ers had enough weapons to make up for such a lack of chemistry on that side of the football. They could rely on a vicious pass rush and a variety of Pro Bowl defenders to win games by scores of 17-13 most Sundays. Without that luxury, they're now looking at the strength of the team being an offense that scored 20 or more points only three times in the final 10 games of 2014. The 49ers have to get back to the simplicity that made them so effective when former head coach Jim Harbaugh was leading this team.

It's promising to know that Kaepernick devoted part of his offseason to training with former NFL quarterback and current NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner to improve his mechanics. It's also just as encouraging to hear Chryst talk about the importance of Kaepernick honing his timing with a new receiver like Torrey Smith, who signed with the 49ers after four years in Baltimore, and tight end Vernon Davis, whose 26 receptions last season represented his worst production since his rookie campaign in 2006.

It's no secret that Kaepernick has been heavily criticized for inconsistency in both his accuracy and overall play. Allowing him to play with a more streamlined receiving corps (the 49ers had four wideouts heavily involved in the offense when last season began) and a simpler approach should help.

Said Chryst: "We're happy to have Kap back with us, because some of the things that work on the field come down to non-verbal cues and body language (with receivers). I can see that he's starting to feel the game better, but he also has to do that for the entire season."

In the past, this offense was always most dangerous when it could pound the rock and let Kaepernick attack with his impressive athleticism. The 49ers would do well to return to those days under the new regime. Chryst already believes second-year pro Carlos Hyde is ready to step into the job vacated by veteran Frank Gore, who is now with the Indianapolis Colts. The team also sees offseason addition Reggie Bush providing valuable skills as both a runner and receiver and a mentor to his younger backfield partner.

Of course, San Francisco's ground production hinges on a revamped offensive line. That unit had been the heart of this team for most of the Harbaugh era, but left tackle Joe Staley is now the only returning player who started in the same spot last season. Last year alone, the 49ers had 10 different O-line combinations over 16 games. Now they've moved Alex Boone from right to left guard (taking the spot vacated by Pro Bowler Mike Iupati, who left in free agency), inserted free-agent acquisition Erik Pears at right tackle (after the surprising retirement of Anthony Davis) and spent most of training camp trying to determine what they have at center and right guard.

The upside here is that the 49ers have some built-in motivation. They know that all the departures and the recent release of Aldon Smith have only created more doubters amongst the general public. They also understand that last season -- when San Francisco finished at 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010 -- was a disappointing campaign for a potential Super Bowl contender.

"We've had a lot of stuff happen over the offseason," Vernon Davis said. "But just like everything else, you shake it off and move forward. The next man has to step up."

That sounds like the kind of bravado one would expect at this time of year. It's an attitude that is based in the eternal hope of a season that has yet to begin and the belief that anything can happen. The reality is that the 49ers don't have nearly as much margin for error as the rest of an NFC stocked with contenders. Their only real hope rests in their offense being far more reliable than it ever was a year ago.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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