The San Francisco 49ers of 2016 was lifeless. They went from game-to-game seemingly without a game plan and without a clue. At times it felt like they were being coached by Henry Winkler's Coach Klein from the movie The Waterboy. That's not meant as a slight against Head Coach Chip Kelly. He was asked to captain a boat already underwater. He also did the best that he could, averaging 19 points per game. Given the state of the roster, that's even more than could be asked for.
All that is over though. The great housecleaning of 2017 has occurred, and with it brings a new head coach. A new general manager. New personnel and scouts. More importantly, a new sense of trust. There’s the feeling that, even with tempered expectations, that the people in charge know what they’re doing. No longer does It feel like a battle between the fans and the front office. Fans can now be armchair GMs and still be surprised and impressed by the goings-on of John Lynch.
This brings us back to the question in the title though: What is the 49ers identity leading into the 2017 season? This begs a few different questions:
- Can you develop an identity as a team in 1 season?
- Does an identity matter?
- Can a team change an identity? Is it worth it?
For now let's focus on the first question. Under normal circumstances I would say it's nearly impossible to develop an identity in a year. There’s too much work required in terms of finding the right personnel, right coaches. You would need to understand what scheme best complements the players that you have and have picked up. You need to make sure that whatever players you have or will have, are smart enough and talented enough to carry out whatever scheme you feel works best for these players. Under normal circumstances, there is too much of a barrier to entry to try and carry out this task in one season.
These are not ordinary times, though.
We now have a competent GM. A “hotshot”, albeit first time, head coach. An executive team that’s filled with people that have drafted some of the best payers in the league, as well as people that have turned around similarly handicapped teams. The intelligence and football IQ that now resides within the 49ers Front Office is STAGGERING. With these people at the helm, the quality of the players, coaches, and the team itself will improve exponentially.
The change has already started. Compared to the team that ended the season this last year, over half of the 90-man roster is new. They've brought in vets familiar with the schemes they want to run as a way of easing the rookies into new concepts, as well as adding an element of competition. They’ve made it clear, with the rumors of a potential trade of centerpiece players like linebacker Navarro Bowman, that no player is safe. There is no longer a sense of entitlement within this team, and will ultimately carry over into the product on the field. They are breeding a team that wants to be on the field, and not a bunch of people running around for a paycheck. The rumors and ideas may cause stress on fans, but ultimately it produces a better team.
Asking whether an identity matters can be a partially convoluted question. Usually, it does not, but an identity helps fans connect with the team. Seattle had The Legion of Boom. They then had to license the phrase “The 12th Man”, from Texas A&M.
The Niners had The Tony Montana Squad. They also had Justin, Aldon, Ray, Patrick, and Bow to create a defensive front seven that teams tried and failed to game plan against.
Mainly, this is what I foresee the identity of the team being. With 4 first-round picks in the front seven alone and 6 within the defense as a whole. The defense just needed depth, and a scheme to fit the prizefighters they've drafted. These people are larger than life personalities and humans, but having a scheme that takes away the instincts and requires more thinking than feeling turns them into punching bags, leading to one of the worst defenses in the league this past year, as well as an historically bad run defense.
Lastly, we need to look at Head Coach Kyle Shanahan. Coming into this offseason, landing a coach of Shanahans caliber was/is considered a slam dunk. Known as an offensive-minded savant, Shanahan has gone into every organization and made them a better offense. There is no question about that. This isn’t a situation like Jim O’Neill in which you had to try and figure out if he was the one calling the shots in Cleveland or or someone else. (Spoiler: It wasn’t him) All these accomplishments of his, however, came as Offensive Coordinator. His job has been the offense, and nothing else. Can Shanahan be ok with a top notch defense, and the identity of the team being associated with it?
Ultimately that seems like an easy yes. Shanahan is not just an offensive genius. He just plain loves the game. He had a great relationship with the group in Houston,when he was just a wide receivers and quarterbacks coach before eventually ascending into the offensive coordinator role. This also led to his relationship with current defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina.
All of this will hinge on how well defensive coordinator Robert Saleh does. If he succeeds and is competent enough to lead the defense to the former glory that they were in, it will allow Shanahan to relax and settle in to the players he has and coach them to the best of his abilities. If Saleh struggles with the defense, Shanahan will think he needs to push harder with the offense and get them to overperform and overcompensate for the defense. This is certainly the worst case scenario.
The 49ers are going into this season with so much of the organization. Being new. Spring Cleaning is done. The bandaids have been applied, and the wounds to the team and the fans have started to heal.
What do we call the team though? How do we know who they are and how they play?
Well we can’t know yet. Not until September 10th, anyway. A style of play doesn’t matter though, because there will always be one identity. The team will always be The San Francisco 49ers, and the fans will always be The Faithful. It's finally time to get hyped for The Niners, because we have a team that will work together. We have a front office that will work together. We have an organization that will Stop, Collaborate, and Listen.
This team is back with a brand new edition.
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