A horrendous 2015 offseason all but destroyed the San Francisco 49ers. Despite some moves in the right direction, the Niners have a long, long way to go before making any semblance of a full recovery.
2015 set the San Francisco 49ers a good seven or eight years. And the team is only beginning the long road to a full recovery.
49ers fans know the story too well. Cracks began to show in then-head coach Jim Harbaugh’s reign during 2014. He wasn’t getting along with general manager Trent Baalke, and both parties found themselves embroiled in a power struggle atop the franchise.
This problem had a trickle-down effect. The 49ers, who had appeared in three consecutive NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl, finished with an 8-8 record that year.
Harbaugh and the 49ers “mutually” parted ways, and San Francisco’s 2015 offseason began.
And what an offseason it was. One which forever will stand in Niners infamy.
A slew of retirements and notable free-agent departures hit the 49ers hard.
Gone were stalwarts like defensive ends Justin Smith (retirement) and Ray McDonald (legal issues). Perennial All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis retired. So did up-and-coming linebacker Chris Borland. Right tackle Anthony Davis also elected to retire for a season.
The franchise’s all-time leading rusher, running back Frank Gore, departed via free agency. So did wide receiver Michael Crabtree, cornerback Chris Culliver and left guard Mike Iupati.
Bam. Just like that, the Niners lost a major chunk of the roster which helped the team get so deep in the playoffs.
To make things worse, San Francisco tabbed then-defensive line coach Jim Tomsula to be head coach entering the 2015 season. Sure, Tomsula might have been one of the better positional coaches in football, but the 5-11 season and overwhelmingly low statistics on the year speak for themselves.
General Manager Trent Baalke and the NFL Draft
It’s impossible to chronicle the 49ers’ downfall without pointing a finger at Baalke.
We can argue endlessly whether or not Baalke is the sole reason behind San Francisco’s demise, but one can’t dismiss the reality behind some of Baalke’s gaffes during NFL Draft years stemming from 2012 through 2014.
Namely, the risk to select players entering the league with collegiate injuries.
OK, so Baalke’s 2012 draft selections didn’t help. First-round draft bust A.J. Jenkins is all one needs to consider when evaluating this particular year. But all general managers have their hiccups at various points. If they didn’t, well, you’ve found the perfect NFL franchise. The last we checked, one doesn’t exist.
But the big problem was Baalke’s risk-taking on injured players. The approach made sense at the time. San Francisco’s roster was laden with talent, and going after a player recovering from, let’s say, an ACL tear likely meant the Niners got their hands on some real talent at a great bargain rate, right?
Eric Branch of SF Gate pointed out why this became a problem quickly:
"It was a strategy few teams could afford to adopt because they needed their draft picks to contribute immediately. The 49ers, however, could grab injured prospects at least a round later than they would have been selected if healthy and start reaping the rewards a year later.It made sense.And it hasn’t worked.Consider: From 2013-14, Baalke used five of his 23 picks on players coming off significant knee injuries, spending second-, third-, fourth-, fifth- and seventh-round selections on those rehabbing prospects. Last year, two of those players (RB Marcus Lattimore and FB Trey Millard) weren’t in the NFL and the remaining three (DL Tank Carradine, G Brandon Thomas and CB Keith Reaser) played an average of 103 snaps for the 49ers."
These were the players intended to step in and fill the eventual voids left by retirements and free-agent departures.
Granted, not even Baalke could have predicted the en masse exodus of San Francisco’s top talent. But these players came nowhere close to filling the needs the 49ers suddenly had.
And so, the Niners had to start from scratch.
Forgetting the 2015 Season
2015 was a lost year under Tomsula. The Niners efforts that year did almost nothing to develop the franchise except for convince Baalke and the front office their plans were mistaken.
Correctly so, Tomsula was dismissed and the 49ers elected to sign Chip Kelly as head coach following his own dismissal from the Philadelphia Eagles towards the end of that season.
And, admirably so, Baalke decided to focus his draft efforts on reinforcing the two areas upon which a franchise should be built — the offensive and defensive lines. In came defensive end DeForest Buckner and offensive guard Joshua Garnett. Rookies Fahn Cooper and John Theus also added O-line depth, and former Appalachian State defensive lineman Ronald Blair helped out the D-line.
Good. These were the right moves to make.
But they don’t immediately solve the problems San Francisco has. These won’t simply point the 49ers in a complete 180 degree direction opposite what happened to kick off 2015.
Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports described it further:
"Here’s what is predictable about the 49ers right now: they are in a rebuild.Baalke isn’t a big fan of that term, of course. Nor is the coaching staff or roster. But there’s a simple deduction in the NFL that goes something like this: if a team is still working a basic staple like starting quarterback and measuring significant pieces of the offensive and defensive lines, then it’s likely in some early stage of a rebuild.San Francisco is there. And this is going to require some endurance from everyone involved."
Yes, a rebuild.
Some components are still there — like a demolished building — and the Niners should benefit from bringing in key players like Buckner and Garnett to complement returning talent, such as running back Carlos Hyde and linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
But the building was still demolished. And few buildings go back up overnight.
Concerns Under Center
Like it or not, the NFL is still a quarterback’s league.
While one could make the argument the 2015 Denver Broncos proved a Super Bowl championship isn’t entirely contingent on having an elite-level quarterback (sorry, Peyton Manning), the reality is this method is the exception. Not the rule.
Above-average to excellent quarterback play is almost a necessity for success in today’s pass-happy league.
Finding the right quarterback, especially via the draft, can set up a franchise for years’ worth of success. Missing on one can set back the same franchise for a very long time.
Sadly, the 49ers appear closer to the latter right now.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is nowhere near the type of impact player he was when he took the league by storm back in 2012. Simply put, the league caught up to him. Kap hasn’t made his next adjustment. At least not yet.
But fellow QB Blaine Gabbert doesn’t exactly ring out like a blossoming possibility either.
So the 49ers continue through the 2016 preseason with an open quarterback competition — not one necessarily featuring two above-average starters, but rather a controversy in which the Niners have to simply evaluate the best available option.
It’s less than ideal, but San Francisco doesn’t have any other choice right now.
On a positive note, the Niners do have some pieces in place. This isn’t like the 2004 49ers, who were downright awful and lacking any sort of direction whatsoever. Instead, this cast emulates more of the 2007 or 2008 49ers, albeit with some major differences.
Kelly is a plus. At least according to ESPN’s John Clayton and Field Yates.
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And there are some good pieces in the mix too, especially in the trenches and within the defense.
That’s good. But it’s impossible to overlook the likelihood San Francisco is nowhere close to being on par with what the team used to be not long ago.
Sit back and try to relax, 49ers fans. This rebuild is going to take a while.