He is the National Football League’s most famous nobody on a San Francisco 49ers team that has lost four games in a row and sits at the bottom of the NFC West Division. Running back and punt returner Jarryd Hayne has just eight carries for 25 yards on the season, but he is slowly becoming quite an enigma around the league for the 1-4 49ers.
Hayne is a native Australian who was one of the country’s top rugby players. In fact in 2009, Hayne was the Rugby League International Federation’s Player of the Year. That’s a pretty big deal in Australia. The fact that he made the San Francisco 53-man roster prior to the start of the 2015 season is a big deal here.
The former rugby star had his most meaningful opportunities in last Sunday night’s game against the New York Giants. Facing a third-and-one deep in Giants territory, Hayne was called upon and delivered with an eight-yard run that set up a 49ers touchdown. San Francisco would end up losing, 30-27, but Hayne proved himself worthy of more opportunities to touch the ball. Niners head coach Jim Tomsula is going to have to give the 27-year-old rookie more touches. Reggie Bush can’t seem to get rid of his nagging injuries and Mike Davis has been listed behind Hayne on the depth chart for most of the season. Starter Carlos Hyde took himself out the Giants game just prior to Hayne’s third down carry. Hyde will need spelled from time to time and Hayne appears to be the answer.
After the loss on Sunday, San Francisco finds itself not in contention for a playoff berth but more likely in the mix for the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. The 49ers face consecutive games against Baltimore and Seattle and while neither is having the type of season one would expect, they are both teams that could come into Levi’s Stadium and put a hurting on the Niners.
Less than a month later, San Francisco will face a stretch where they play Atlanta (currently 5-0), Seattle again, and then NFC West Division-leading Arizona (4-1). There are still several winnable games on the schedule, but the anemic San Francisco offense is going to have to get more production from quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the passing game.
While the running game is producing 129 yards per game, fifth best in the NFL, the passing attack is atrocious averaging just over 178 yards a game, 31st in the league. The offense is dead last in the league in scoring at 15 points per game. The Niners had scored just 10 points in the two prior games before scoring a season-high 27 in the loss to the Giants.
Much of the offense’s success, or lack of success thus far, rests on the shoulders of Kaepernick. The fifth-year pro is near the bottom of the league in quarterback rating. His 76.8 rating is just a few points better than Detroit’s Matthew Stafford. The Lions are 0-5 and their offensive woes are tied to Stafford’s poor performance. Kaepernick has thrown just four touchdown passes, two of them in the loss to the Giants.
Kaepernick, known for ability to run, has been sacked 16 times and has thrown five interceptions so far this season. If he continues to be pressured, those sack and interception totals will increase. As those numbers increase, the likelihood of the 49ers winning many games drops. Even though Kaepernick has seemingly been running for his life, he is still the team’s second-leading rusher with 218 yards. Hyde has a team-leading 375 and has averaged 4.5 yard per carry.
On the other side of the ball, the defense is not much better. The Niners defensive unit gives up 28 points per game. When you give opposing offenses four touchdowns a game, not many good things are going to happen. The early retirements of linebackers Chris Borland and Patrick Willis in the offseason didn’t help, but the Niners still have Navarro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks. Eric Reid is one of the league’s better free safeties. Still, the 49ers have found a way to give up 40-plus points twice this season.
Some of the defense’s problems may be related to adjusting to new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini’s scheme. Mangini likes to disguise what the 49ers defense is doing and that can lead to some blown assignments and coverages. The Pittsburgh Steelers and QB Ben Roethslisberger repeatedly beat the 49ers secondary to the tune of 43 points. Carson Palmer and Arizona did it a week later and scored 47.
While Tomsula and the 49ers struggle, they may have found something, namely someone that can help with the turnaround. Australian running back Jarryd Hayne could provide the spark that the 49ers need to salvage their 2015 season. Even if the Niners cannot get things turned around, Hayne will at least have transformed himself from nobody to somebody.