Waiting For The Kick: Using the 49ers Past To Be Cautiously Optimistic About The Future
I was sitting in my living room a couple weeks ago and decided to pop in “Inception”. First things first, if you have never seen “Inception,” you’re living your life incorrectly; stop reading this, go watch “Inception,” and then comeback.
So, as I was watching my favorite movie of all time, a light bulb went off and so many comparisons between the movie and the 49ers started popping into my head. So, without further ado: are we still dreaming?
Cobb: Well dreams, they feel real while we're in them, right? It's only when we wake up that we realize how things are actually strange. Let me ask you a question, you, you never really remember the beginning of a dream do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what's going on.
Ariadne: I guess, yeah.
Cobb: So how did we end up here?
Ariadne: Well we just came from the a...
Cobb: Think about it Ariadne, how did you get here? Where are you right now?
Ariadne: We're dreaming?
--Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page, Inception (2010)
For those of us 49ers fan who remember the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s, the last 20 years have been a somewhat of a nightmare; and I know you may be asking what about the Harbaugh years, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
After the late, great Dwight Clark leaped in the back of the end zone and made “The Catch” the 49ers saw nothing but success for next 20 years of the franchise. They had 16 straight seasons with double-digit wins. From 1981 to 2002 they made the playoffs 18 out of 22 seasons, and of course we cannot forget the five Super Bowl victories.
Cobb: We drop into limbo. Arthur: Are you serious? Ariadne: Limbo? Arthur: Unconstructed dream space. Ariadne: Well, what the hell is down there? Arthur: Just raw, infinite subconscious. Nothing is down there! Except for whatever might have been left behind by anyone sharing the dream whose been trapped there before. Which in our case is just you.
--Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Ellen Page, Inception (2010)
But then something happened and the franchise just died and has been in a limbo state ever since. As great as the 49ers were in the 1980s and 1990s, they have been equally bad in the new millennium. Have you ever had a favorite restaurant, and then that restaurant changes owners and it was never the same after that? Well that is what happened to the 49ers.
Eddie DeBartolo Jr. owned the 49ers for 23 years and created the dynasty we all remember in the 1980s and 1990s. He didn’t care what position you held in the organization you were like family. “I tried to run the 49ers like a family rather than a business.” DeBartolo stated. “I viewed the players and myself really, basically, as a partnership. Our goal was to win the Super Bowl every year, and we had to do that together.” However, following an incident in 1998 in which he failed to report an extortion scheme, DeBartolo was suspended from the NFL for one full year.
After his one-year suspension DeBartolo could’ve returned to the 49ers, but he made what he described as “a wrenching decision” and gave full ownership over to his sister Denise DeBartolo York, in exchange for other parts of the family business.
Between the scandal, changing of ownerships, and the departure of greats like Steve Young and Jerry Rice, the team started spiraling out of control. Between the years of 2000 and 2010 the 49ers would have a record of 74-102 (.420) and only two playoff appearances.
Cobb: I wish. I wish more than anything. But I can't imagine you with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You are just a shade of my real wife. You're the best I can do; but I'm sorry, you are just not good enough.
--Leonardo DiCaprio, Inception (2010)
Remember earlier when I mentioned the Harbaugh years? Now, under his coaching and leadership during his four-year run from 2011 to 2014, the 49ers had a record of 44-19-1 (.688), including two trips to the NFC championship game and a Super Bowl in which they were one play away from winning. So yes, the franchise saw success but it was just a poor projection of what the team used to be in the 1980s and 1990s.
The inner front office fighting sent what could have been the start of another dynasty into an absolute tailspin. After Jim Harbaugh was fired, the 49ers promoted defensive line coach Jim Tomsula in 2015 and Chip Kelly in 2016, each having a one-and-done season. The offense ranked 32nd and 27th in points under Tomsula and Kelly respectively. During the Harbaugh years, the defense had an average ranking of 4th, but during Kelly’s tenure the defense ranked dead last in the league.
Cobb: [about Mal] She had locked something away, something deep inside her. The truth that she had once known, but... she chose to forget. Limbo became her reality.
--Leonardo DiCaprio, Inception (2010)
I do remember that during Week 1 of Jim Tomsula’s reign, the 49ers decimated the Minnesota Vikings 20-3, before finishing the season at 5-11. In Week 1 of the 2016 season under Chip Kelly, the 49ers beat the L.A. Rams 28-0, and held running back Todd Gurley to just 47 yards on 17 carries before finishing the season 2-14, with their only wins coming against the Rams.
As I stated in the beginning the last 20 years have been more of a nightmare than a dream, and it’s getting harder and harder to remember the good ol’ days. I have conversations with people and I say five-time Super Bowl champions and they say stop living in the past.
After firing Kelly, their third head coach in three years, something very interesting happened. Kyle Shanahan was named the head coach, but there was also after the firing of general manager Trent Baalke, and an unlikely replacement was hired: former safety and Fox NFL commentator John Lynch.
Lynch and Shanahan had a productive first off-season following their hiring. They signed Brian Hoyer and Pierre Garçon, both of whom Kyle Shanahan has worked with before. In the NFL 2016 draft they selected Solomon Thomas with the third-overall pick and even traded back into the first round to select Reuben Foster.
Eames: Musn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.
--Tom Hardy, Inception (2010)
Lynch was not satisfied. He called up Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had tried to secure a trade for Jimmy Garoppolo before the start of the season, when that fell through, he tried for Tom Brady, I’m sure probably only in jest, but you have not because you ask not. Belichick wasn’t willing to trade either player, but I think the call from Lynch helped break the ice between the two of them.
The 2017 season, like the previous two seasons before it, was off to the same rocky, underwhelming start, and it left fans wandering when they were going to wake up from this dream and get back to the reality that the 49ers are a force to be reckoned with in the NFL.
Then, on October 30, 2017 my phone buzzed and when I looked at it, I had one of those Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments, but in a good way. The 49ers had sent a second-round pick in the 2018 draft to the New England Patriots in exchange for Garoppolo, enter expletives here.
Beginning in Week 13 when he finally made his starting debut for the 49ers, Garoppolo, led the team on a five-game winning streak to finish out the 2017 season, including wins over the playoff-bound Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars, by the way had the second-best ranked defense in the league.
The 49ers defense even improved with Garoppolo under center. But how can that happen, you ask? When the offense started moving the ball more efficiently, they could give the defense a breather on the sideline. The offense during Weeks 1 through 12 was ranked 31st in average time of possession, 0:27:37 minutes. During Weeks 13 through 17, they ranked third with an average time of 0:32:54 minutes per game.
This translated to the defense being ranked 28th in both points and yards given up in Weeks 1 through 12, to being ranked tenth and seventh respectively in Weeks 13 through 17.
Cobb: What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient... highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed - fully understood - that sticks; right in there somewhere.
--Leonardo DiCaprio, Inception (2010)
They hype for the 49ers franchise is at an all-time high. Good Morning Football’s Peter Schrager wants to be the lead conductor on the 49ers’ hype train. Jimmy Garoppolo signed his massive five-year 137.5-million-dollar contract. They signed running back free-agent Jerick McKinnon to a four-year deal. They traded away center Daniel Kilgore to the Miami Dolphins and signed free-agent Weston Richburg to replace him. They selected tackle Mike McGlinchey with the ninth-overall pick of the 2018 draft, hoping that the revamped o-line will keep their high investment in Garoppolo clean and upright.
So yes, the skepticism is there, as I remembered how the past seasons have started and finished, but then I look at how they finished last season compared to 2015 and 2016, I look at the culture Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch are creating in the locker room. I see the talent they have brought in players like Richard Sherman, and the ones they have chosen to let go, like Carlos Hyde. The seeds of the hype train have been planted in our minds, and even in the minds of those who are not 49er fans, the top is spinning, so I ask you, have we finally woken up from our dream? Is the top going to finally fall?
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