It’s a familiar story to most NFL fans. The cycle of success and failure that comes with such a competitive league. The San Francisco 49ers are a better example than most. Within a completed pass of winning a Super bowl 5 years ago. An NFC Championship game the next year. Then a startling decline, 3 changes of coach in 3 years, and a heavy losing record in the last 2. The Faithful, as Niners supporters are called, are really having their Faith tested.
But to put all this in greater context, you need to look at the past, and the expectation that instils amongst supporters. I started watching the NFL in the early-mid 1980s. I remember the team of the great Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, the exciting hitting of Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig’s athleticism, the underrated John Taylor, and the bruising runs of Tom Rathman. We added Charles Haley, and later Deion Sanders and Ken Norton Jr, and plucked Steve Young from obscurity in Tampa. Hall of Famers and team legends under the immortal Bill Walsh and his successor George Seifert. They played stylish and fearless football, taking no prisoners and with an inner belief they would win. The result was 5 Super Bowls; 1981, 1984, 1988, 1989 and 1994.
Only the Steelers (6 Super Bowls) have won more than we have, so quite rightly there is an expectation that we’re challenging and at least there or thereabouts.
However, the cold light of day shows that we’ve won nothing since that 1994 title. We rarely threatened in the rest of the 90s, and fell to pieces with a series of draft, QB and coaching debacles in the 2000s (let’s just forget those entirely). We appointed Jim Harbaugh in 2011 and the first half of the 2010s began to look promising. Until he fell out with the General Manager Trent Baalke and left under a cloud; Baalke appointing Jim Tomsula in his place, a man with no head coaching experience but just happy to be there. He didn’t even last a dreadful year, and was followed by the expectation of the Chip Kelly circus that flamed out even more miserably.
And it’s here that we find ourselves. A brave new dawn for the San Francisco Franchise. Baalke fell on his sword after 2 disastrous coaching appointments. We pursued and appointed one of the brightest young minds in the NFL as head coach. Kyle Shanahan is fresh from coordinating the stellar Atlanta offense all the way to the Super Bowl. And he also has San Francisco pedigree. His father Mike was Offensive Coordinator under George Seifert in the 90s, and young Kyle grew up around the Bay Area with the last great teams of that era.
It’s also important to look at the front office; with the appointment of a complete novice as General Manager, the Niners ownership raised eyebrows. But John Lynch has a football background; a Super Bowl winning Safety with the Buccaneers and latterly as a respected analyst on Fox.
Shanahan and Lynch both received 6 year contracts, tasked with the long term rebuilding of the Franchise. And optimism began to raise its head again.
Lynch and Shanahan’s immediate test was the Draft and Free Agency. Baalke had an entrenched strategy where he would only build in the Draft and ignore most Free Agents, garnering additional picks and spending them on the Defensive side of the ball. He had several high-profile busts, including players who never even laced up a boot for us, but has also left us with some monstrous looking Defensive linemen. Sadly they have been spending far too much time on the field in recent seasons and have been ground down. Their ineffectiveness against the running game has been a major issue, and we look enviously to our NFC West rivals in Seattle who have kept hold of their star defenders whilst we lost the spine of our dominant 2012/13 Defense; Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks.
But on the Offensive side, we had no Quarterback since the Colin Kaepernick furore and the Blain Gabbert debacle left town. We had a toothless receiving corps; in Carlos Hyde a star running back who missed almost as many games as he played since coming into the league; Joe Staley, an All-Pro star Offensive Lineman who might retire at any time and Tight Ends who not even the Faithful thought matched up to any in the league.
So we needed to prioritise. Everything. That’s why it’s a wholesale rebuild, and that’s why the 49ers have a documentary series about all of this called Brick By Brick. It won’t be a quick fix.
To start with, Shanahan and Lynch have turned over 55% of the 49ers roster since last season. That is just incredible. More incredible is that there are just 5 players left on the roster from the team that narrowly lost the 2013 NFC Championship game to Seattle – NaVorro Bowman, Joe Staley, Eric Reid and Daniel Kilgore are starters, but Garrett Celek faces a battle for the Tight End spot with rookie George Kittle.
So we have a transitional year.
We drafted well, getting another impressive and hulking Defensive lineman in Solomon Foster with the 3rd overall pick, and in Linebacker Reuben Foster have a dark horse for Defensive Rookie of the Year in my book. His college tape, and pre-season performances show an impressive athlete who operates side-line-to-side-line like Luke Kuechly, but with more speed. and dare I say it more aggression in his hits. If he doesn’t damage his shoulder again, he could be special. Akhello Witherspoon, the rookie Cornerback has all the attributes needed, but maybe lacks a bit of devilry. He’d do well to watch some Josh Norman or Richard Sherman tape.
CJ Beathard was a lower ranked QB, but seemed to fit the Shanahan mould. He’s looked good in pre-season, knocking off the Free Agent recruit Matt Barkley to be the back-up to Brian Hoyer. Joe Williams was a well-regarded and rapid RB; but he fell down the draft due to some personal issues which seem to have been a little misunderstood. He’s been hit and miss in pre-season and is currently on IR. He seems to have been jumped in the depth chart by Matt Breida, a crunching yet evasive runner signed as an undrafted free agent. Watch out for him during the season, he’ll certainly make some highlights.
Brian Hoyer as a Free Agent QB is unspectacular, and prone to the odd meltdown (google “brian hoyer preseason random fumble”) but he will run the Shanahan offense efficiently until a better candidate comes along. Hopefully Kirk Cousins next year, but potentially Beathard at least for parts of this season. The Offensive Line has barely changed from last year which is a positive. We did manage to protect the passer reasonably well last year. And we’ve added OT Gary Gilliam from Seattle to provide a bit more grunt.
Kyle Juszczyk was a high-profile recruit as the highest paid Fullback in the league, and it seems he will be a short-range passing weapon as much as a go-ahead runner. So there seems to be a plan taking shape.
The receivers are a mixture of rookies and journeymen; Pierre Garcon is a great addition offering stature, pace and know-how rather like Randy Moss and Anquan Boldin did. Marquise Goodwin is a walking highlight reel but needs to be more consistent to keep his place. Trent Taylor made a name for himself with some great plays in preseason, but needs to keep it up in the chances he’s earned in early games. Victor Bolden and Kendrick Bourne are both undrafted free agents who do seem to have the X Factor. Bolden will be primarily returning kicks (a long way) but Bourne has good hands and pace to burn so perhaps filling the Taylor Gabriel role in the Offense.
Defensively I still have concerns over the secondary, but with Eric Reid and Jimmie Ward we have two better performers in the Safeties who can perhaps drag the rookies along with them. Cornerback is a weakness; I think we need a veteran in there, but we do have some guys who will have chance to learn and improve if they don’t get their confidence destroyed in the coming year. It will all depend on if we can rush the passer better than we have recently, rather than allowing them time to pick us apart – and with the front 7 we have assembled I feel this is the area we have improved the most.
In terms of expectation for the season, it is pretty low by 49ers standards, but I would hope that we’d beat some of the other teams in transition and our schedule offers up some opportunities for a win; Rams (x2) Bears, Jaguars – plus maybe an Eagles and Texans who are still unsure offensively. My shock prediction would be to beat the Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium. Bearing in mind we finished last season 2-14, only beating Jeff Fisher’s appalling Rams, anything above that is moving forward. But with a cohesive Offensive plan, and a drastic improvement in Defense, I think an improvement to 5 or 6 wins is easily possible. This would give the Faithful some progress to appreciate. And at a stretch if we could achieve a .500 record with some shocks we’d be ecstatic. So a 3rd place finish in the NFC West, behind the Seahawks, who I think will go all the way to the Superbowl, and close to the failing Cardinals, but above the Rams.
In Kyle we trust.