A little more than a year ago, after an embarrassing 19-3 loss the the Seahawks on Thursday Night Football which dropped the 49ers to 7-5, owner Jed York tweeted the following: “Thank you #49ersfaithful for coming out strong tonight. This performance wasn’t acceptable. I apologize for that.” After Thursday’s 20-3 loss to those same Seahawks the 49ers record now stands at 2-5, a clear step below even that “unacceptable” level that York apologized for. As things fall apart in Santa Clara, 49er fans have started to wonder, just how bad of shape is the franchise in?
The 49ers are a rebuilding team, but it’s still unclear if management realizes that. They certainly didn’t this offseason, when they signed a number of over the hill free agents that have almost universally disappointed. Darnell Dockett was signed to replace retired star Justin Smith, and he didn’t even make the roster. Reggie Bush, despite being treated like a china doll for the entire preseason, can’t stay on the field for more than a half at a time. Torrey Smith is the only player Baalke brought in this year that’s had a meaningful impact, but he looks miserable already, and I’d be surprised if he was on the team at this point next year. This was the free agent class of a team that fancies itself a Super Bowl contender, not one in a transitional phase.
The 49ers complete lack of a long term plan can be seen most obviously in their coaching hires. They promoted Jim Tomsula to head coach despite him having no experience or qualifications to suggest he could handle that role. He’s never even interviewed for a coordinator position. To revamp the offense, they promoted quarterback coach Geep Chryst, fresh off a season coaching the rapidly regressing Colin Kaepernick, to offensive coordinator. His scheme has been completely tailored to try to minimize the weaknesses of Kaepernick, and necessarily so, but it has left the 49ers with no offensive identity. The 49ers are trying to cover up their own vulnerabilities instead of attacking the opposing defense’s. If anything, the 49ers offensive identity seems to be their limitations, what they can’t do.
The 49ers tied their chances for short term success to Colin Kaepernick. They designed an offense specifically for him, brought in weapons that fit his skill set, and invested nothing in a young quarterback either through the draft or free agency. That has proven to be a borderline franchise-crippling decision, setting the 49ers back at least a year and probably two. The Kaepernick era in San Francisco is over. He’ll probably start most of it not all of the rest of the games this season, but the time when anyone can expect him to develop into a good quarterback has passed. He hasn’t improved in any discernible way since his first game as a starting quarterback. His accuracy, always a concern coming out of college, has become more erratic every season. He just doesn’t see the game like a quarterback. Good quarterbacks beat the defense the before the ball is even snapped, they know what the defense is trying to do on a given play and how to best manipulate it to their advantage. Kaepernick has no idea where he’s going with the ball until he actually sees his receiver running open. His pocket presence is abysmal. The 49ers offensive line hasn’t been great the last couple of years, but the number of sacks they’ve given up is far more on Kaepernick than it is them. Kaepernick moves into pressure almost as often as he moves away from it, and as soon as he takes his vision off of his receivers and focuses on the rush the play is over. The bottom line is, going on six years into his career, Colin Kaepernick can scramble for time, and he can look to throw the ball downfield, but he can’t do both of those at the same time, and you just can’t function as a quarterback in the NFL that way.
It’s hard to win without a quarterback, and it’s abundantly clear to everyone that Tomsula is in way over his head, but the failures of general manager Trent Baalke in contributing to this carnival of incompetence can’t be overlooked. It’s too early to judge this year’s class, but since 2012, Baalke has drafted the following starters in the first four rounds:
- Eric Reid (1st round)
- Carlos Hyde (2nd round)
- Jimmie Ward (1st round)
He has drafted the following players that are no longer on the team or only play in a rotation role:
- AJ Jenkins (1st round, not on team)
- LaMichael James (2nd round, not in NFL)
- Joe Looney (4th round, not on team)
- Tank Carradine (2nd round, backup DT)
- Vance McDonald (2nd round, third string TE)
- Corey Lemonier (3rd round, backup OLB)
- Quinton Patton (4th round, slot receiver)
- Marcus Lattimore (4th round, retired)
- Marcus Martin (3rd round, backup C)
- Chris Borland (3rd round, retired)
- Brandon Thomas (3rd round, not active)
- Bruce Ellington (4th round, backup WR)
- Dontae Johnson (4th round, backup CB)
Carlos Hyde looks like a star, Reid has been good not great, and Ward has shown flashes but looks overmatched in the slot where he was picked to play. The rest of Baalke’s picks range from mild disappointments (Tank Carradine, Marcus Martin) to complete whiffs (AJ Jenkins, LaMichael James, Marcus Lattimore). Before the season, the 49ers traded a tight end who was about to be cut for Jordan Devey, who they immediately made the starting right guard. That is not something a team that drafts well does, and it shows how thin the team has become with any real influx of talent the last several years. Jarryd Hayne is a cool story, but there have been times this year when Carlos Hyde went down and he was the only healthy running back available. The 49ers, who have drafted 5 running backs in the first 4 rounds since 2011 (Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Marcus Lattimore, Carlos Hyde, Mike Davis) had no choice but to play a converted rugby star playing his first year of football at any level. They traded perhaps the best punter in the league, Andy Lee, in order to burn a fifth round pick on a mediocre one when clearly there were other areas of the team that needed to be addressed. The 49ers used to be the envy of the NFL, now they’re a laughingstock. Trent Baalke has just overseen one of the most drastic and rapid roster deteriorations in football history, why should anyone think he can rebuild a team? He can’t keep a sturdy one standing.
And now we’ve arrived at the crux of the problem, the heart of the hopelessness, the black hole of failure from which the light of success can’t escape: Jed York. The 49ers need a complete franchise overhaul, a total regime change. The problem is the man who will be in charge of that is the guy who just fired Jim Harbaugh in favor of Jim Tomsula. It is one thing for an owner to make mistakes of aggression and optimism, like how Vivek Ranadive has screwed up the Sacramento Kings in his impatience to be relevant. It is quite another for an owner to orchestrate a smear campaign to run a historically successful head coach out of town so he can hire an incompetent yes-man. To so transparently place pettiness and egotism in front of the future of his franchise. Winning clearly isn’t very important to Jed York, he’s demonstrated that through his actions. It’s telling that the 49ers had to promote almost entirely from within to fill their coaching vacancies, they couldn’t convince anyone from outside to join their wayward organization. Levi’s Stadium, Jed York’s personal project, is a disaster. As a 49er fan I am embarrassed by it. My first thought when I heard about the new stadium project was “awesome, now the 49ers will have a stadium and home-field advantage to rival the Seahawks.” It could not be farther from that. Levi’s is half empty for most of the game, and two years after moving into their state of the art new facility, they still can’t figure out how to grow a lawn in it.
To get from playing in the Super Bowl in 2013 to where the 49ers are now takes a special and aggressive kind of stupidity. To win in the NFL you need to have a quarterback, a head coach, and a general manager. The 49ers have none of these, and haven’t even come to that realization yet. They don’t know who they are or who they want to be. This franchise is as lost as it has been since J.T. O’Sullivan was taking snaps, and they’ve been willfully led there by their selfish and misguided owner, who isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So how bad is it? Really bad, because when these were your plans to be good, it’s hard to believe in whatever your plan will be to get better.