The Path the 49ers Should Take for the Remainder of the Season.
As I write this article the 49ers are currently 1-8 and are in the midst of an 8 game losing streak with a home game against the New England Patriots before heading on the road for back to back games against the Miami Dolphins and the Chicago Bears. It has become painfully obvious to all of those involved that the only thing they will be competing for this year is a top pick in the 2017 NFL draft. ESPN just recently unveiled their “Ultimate Standings”, which is meant to be an overall evaluation of every team in the 4 major North American team sports. Because of the last few seasons and the general perception of the team the 49ers ranked 122nd, which was last. The once proud and distinguished organization that was held up as the standard by which all teams should operate is now viewed as the worst. Now I understand that many fans are completely disheartened by this fact and I do not begrudge them from feeling this way, but I contend that hope can be found not just for fans but the organization. The 2nd half of the season for a team like the 49ers is usually spent looking towards and planning for the future. Of course winning games is always important because at the end of the day (well at least in most cases…) it is what determines whether or not people keep their jobs. By reassessing their priorities, they can begin to operate with the long term perspective in mind. With that they will be that much closer to being a team that is in serious consideration again for that elusive 6th Lombardi trophy and regaining their status as one of the premier organizations in North American team sports. It is vital for the future of the team and the franchise that these next 7 games are spent wisely.
Although Head Coach Chip Kelly is a highly competitive individual he is also incredibly intelligent and very perceptive, he understands where this organization and this roster current stands and how far away they are from competing on any substantial level. He also knows that it is highly unlikely that General Manager Trent Baalke will keep his job past this season, unless you want to believe the often dubious reporting of one Mister Jason Cole. In contrast his job is highly secure given that he was primarily the hire of 49ers C.E.O Jed York and the remaining years and salary left on his deal in combination with the salary that the 49ers are already paying former Head Coach Jim Tomsula make it a difficult proposition that Chip Kelly will be a “One and Done” in San Francisco. Recently Jason La Canfora reported that he had spoken with several coaches and at least one NFL executive and they indicated to him that their belief was that Chip Kelly might leave the 49ers and return to coach in the college ranks. Chip Kelly is too competitive to admit failure, his drive would not allow him to give up on succeeding at the highest level and that is exactly what would happen if he left the 49ers after one season at the helm. He is going to exhaust this opportunity to its fullest, if the 2017 season is anything like 2016 the conversation could be had then. With this in mind he and his coaching staff should operate with the mindset that they are working beyond the 2016 season. What I mean by that, is that the rest of this season should be an audition for next year and beyond and that is just not limited to the players, the coaches are included in this audition (here is looking at you Defensive Coordinator Jim O’Neil).
The beginnings of this process are already being felt by the integration of Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Right Guard Joshua Garnett into the starting lineup but it should not end there. There are various positions throughout the roster where the coaching staff should begin to audition players for future roles, such as the Strong Safety position, the Cornerback position, the Outside Linebacker positon and the Left Guard Position. Individuals such as Antonie Bethea, Tramaine Brock, Ahmad Brooks and Zane Beadles are not players that are likely in the organization’s long term plans so why not go through the process of having younger players at their respective positions compete for snaps with the starting units. Given where this team is heading this year there is no logical reason why younger players like Ronald Blair, Shayne Skov, Marcus Cromartie, Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser, Marcus Rush, and Fahn Cooper should not be given the opportunity to earn increased roles with the team. This is also a great test of the ability of this coaching staff to integrate new and/or different players into the schemes that this team operates.
As for the coaching staff, it has been made abundantly clear during this 5 game losing streak that changes need to be made from not just a scheme perspective but an attitude perspective. Now while its understandable for coaches to be confident, if not somewhat stubborn in their abilities as coaches and the game plans that they construct, it is not understandable for coaches to remain this way when its painfully obvious that changes need to be made. Jim O’Neil’s comments throughout this 5 game losing streak does not inspire confidence that he is a coach that is willing to make changes or even acknowledge that significant changes need to be made from not just the players on the field but the coaches on the sidelines. He clearly was not the 1st choice of Head Coach Chip Kelly to be the Defensive Coordinator of the 49ers, as he offered the position to Houston Texans Linebackers coach Mike Vrabel and was looking to reportedly interview such coaches as Texans Secondary coach John Butler, former Browns Head Coach Mike Pettine and former Eagles Defensive Coordinator Billy Davis.
Jim O’Neil is one such coach on the 49ers staff that is auditioning for his future with the organization but the rest of the staff needs to operate as if their jobs are on the line too. This is Chip Kelly’s last best chance at being a successful Head Coach in the NFL. While loyalty to one’s staff is an important trait to have as a Head Coach so is survival and the willingness to make changes when it is clear that they need to be made. Of course changes should not be made to the coaching staff simply for the sake of making a change and to find a scapegoat for what ails the 49ers, changes should be made because it is clear that no matter how much time they are given they will not make this a better team and organization. The remaining 10 games of this season along with the work they do during the bye week is the ample opportunity for Chip Kelly to assess the coaching staff much like he should do the same for the entire roster.
Going into the 2017 offseason the 49ers will have amongst the most draft picks of any team in the league. Currently they have 10 picks, their own in each round plus a 5th round pick that was acquired in the Derek Carrier trade, a 6th round pick to complete the Vernon Davis trade and the 7th round pick they received from Cleveland for the services of the “Death Star” Andy Lee. That number does not include the potential compensatory pick they will likely receive from the league due to the departure of Alex Boone. It is important to note that this is the first year that teams can trade compensatory picks, whether they are in the present year of the trade or in future years. The team will also have at their disposal over 40 million dollars in cap space, this number could be hirer due to the potential cap savings of Colin Kaepernick voiding his contract and the potential release of players like Ahmad Brooks, Antoine Bethea, Tramaine Brock and Zane Beadles.
Giving the younger, non-established players on the roster the opportunity to get on the field for the rest of this season will be vital for the coaching staff and the next General Manager for film tape on these players. The ability to assess this young roster in competitive situations against a variety of opponents will be crucial in the process of evaluating which players and coaches that this organization should go forward with. This is a team that by all accounts have a laundry list of needs that they need to address and prioritize. The sooner this process can begin, the sooner Chip Kelly and his staff can begin to asses which players they will or will not go into the future with. This is what should be the primary goal of this organization for the rest of this season.