By Sam McPherson
The San Francisco 49ers are headed towards their worst season in a decade, and a big part of that is the lack of competitiveness on the road away from Levi’s Stadium. At home, the 49ers have posted a minus-14 scoring differential in six games, while on the road San Francisco has been outscored by 105 points in five games. Numbers like that come more than mere scheduling coincidence.
The home schedule has featured five potential playoff teams, but the 49ers still managed three wins in six games. The road schedule is highlighted by four potential playoff squads, yet S.F. is winless away from Levi’s Stadium. Are the players really missing their families and personal residences that much? Doubtful, as in four years under former coach Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers posted a 24-11 record away from their home fans—including a 3-0 mark in postseason play.
Of course, this team is clearly not the same as the Harbaugh years, thus, somehow, this drastic disparity between home and road performance has to fall on the current coaching staff. If Head Coach Jim Tomsula can’t get his roster ready for road games consistently, he may not be the coach for this organization heading toward the 2016 campaign.
The 49ers have trailed at halftime in each of their five road losses, four times by at least two touchdowns. Three times, the San Francisco offense has been shut out in the first quarter while on the road, although the 49ers haven’t scored a first-period TD all season—home or away. The slow starts just have been much worse on the road, with halftime scores like 29-3, 31-7, 20-6 and 20-7 giving the offensively-challenged S.F. squad little chance of recovery.
If Tomsula wants to make a positive improvement, he would find a way to get the offense rolling to first-quarter TD drives in the remaining five games—three of which are on the road, starting with this weekend’s game in Chicago. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert has had enough time now to get comfortable behind the wheel of the offense, and he has receiving tools to use. Tomsula and offensive coordinator Geep Chryst have to open up the playbook and take some chances so the 49ers don’t find themselves buried by halftime again in unfriendly territory.
It hasn’t just been the offense, of course, that struggles on the road. Even though offensive ineptitude has put the defense in a bad place, somehow the defense has been able to hold better at home than on the road. That’s just unacceptable for a professional football team. We know the offense isn’t scoring TDs early, whether at home or on the road, so why has the defense been able to hang tough at Levi’s? The crowd?
When QB Colin Kaepernick threw two pick-six TDs for the Arizona Cardinals in Week 3, that surely wasn’t the defense’s fault. However, the other 17 points the Cardinals scored in the first half were on the defense. Considering the defense managed to hold the Green Bay Packers to 17 points total in a Week 4 loss at Levi’s Stadium, the defense just hasn’t shown up on the road this season—and that’s on Tomsula and defensive coordinator Eric Mangini.
The 49ers are coming out of the locker room on the road unprepared, and as a result, they’ve been blindsided four times on the road. The fifth game was a close one, yet it was still a loss nonetheless. That kind of game would be an improvement, considering the last two road losses were by a combined 37 points. The close loss happened in Week 5 on October 11 against the New York Giants.
It’s now December, and with three road games, the 49ers need to figure out how to win on the road—or at least be consistently competitive. It doesn’t matter that the team is just 3-8 this year. The checks may be in the mail, but pride is at stake for this once-proud organization that basically has had just three good seasons in the last 13 years. A couple more years like this, and the 49ers will become the Jacksonville Jaguars, and nobody wants that to happen.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.