• Travis Hawkins

Tipping Point: Time for the Niners’ Rebuild to Enter the Winning Stage

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

The 49ers were on the verge of becoming an NFL punchline on the level of the Cleveland Browns or Oakland Raiders, something Jed York, the team’s CEO, was desperate to avoid and thus, whoever the next head coach would be was going to have the negotiating equivalent of Thor’s hammer when it came time to discuss contracts, and York had no one to blame but himself for that predicament.

It was York who sided with a general manager with an uneven track record over a head coach who had won everywhere he has been, and the internal power struggle that resulted in the “mutual parting of ways” with Jim Harbaugh. The 49ers then had more head coaches (3) than non-losing seasons (1) from 2014 to 2016. When a team that manages just seven wins in two seasons and is somehow still trending downward, the message is clear.

Just days after Super Bowl LI, the 49ers announced the hiring of Kyle Shanahan as their next head coach. As the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, Shanahan was on the losing side in that Super Bowl; he displayed the offensive genius that made him one of the hottest coaching candidates in the NFL taking a 28-3 lead into the third quarter, and lived up to his reputation for stubbornness when he refused to run the ball at the end of the game, leaving the Patriots with enough time to come back.

Armed with six-year contracts and a no-offset clause, Shanahan and his handpicked general manager, John Lynch, set about to completely gut the 49ers roster and start from scratch.

In 2017, the 49ers turned over more than half of their 90-man roster (50 of the 90, to be exact) giving preference to players with experience in either the offensive or defensive systems.

In the introductory press conference, John Lynch made it clear that building the culture was paramount, and the team was not afraid to overpay veterans like Pierre Garçon and Malcolm Smith or to overpay to get players they wanted. Putting the emphasis on culture did not pay off in terms of wins and losses in 2017, but the effects of the budding culture could be seen in the team’s play. Despite starting 0-9 and losing an NFL record 5 straight games by three points or less, the team continued to play hard under their rookie head coach.

When John Lynch was introduced as the new GM, he made a point to stress that the rebuild had no timetable, but on October 30, 2017 the dial on the rebuild got turned to eleven when the 49ers sent one of their two 2018 second-round picks to New England for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Having a potential franchise quarterback on the roster was enough to brighten the team’s outlook even if Shanahan went out of his way to downplay the chances of seeing Garoppolo on the field in 2017. Then, C.J. Beathard got hurt and Garoppolo was forced into action.

The 49ers finished 2017 on a five-game win streak and 6-10 record overall.

Year 2 of the rebuild was full steam ahead. The 49ers used a top-10 draft pick on Mike McGlinchey to help protect their newly-minted franchise quarterback and had enough salary cap space to outbid other teams for the services of the players they coveted. The 49ers were a team on the rise and seemingly ahead of schedule, but when Garoppolo tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in Week 3 the 2018 season was, for all intents and purposes, over.

The 49ers battled through injuries and a defense that set records for ineptitude in the turnover department to ultimately finish with the second-worst record in the league.

Entering the 2019 season, the 49ers have their deepest, most talented roster since the Harbaugh years (admittedly, that’s not a high bar). In the draft they added attitude and physicality on both sides of the ball, something they have been missing since Anquan Boldin left and Patrick Willis retired. The 49ers also acted aggressively in adding linebacker Kwon Alexander in free agency and trading for defensive end Dee Ford in the offseason and signing both to big money contracts. Both Alexander and Ford were brought in because they play with “speed and violence” and should help the 49ers create more than seven turnovers this year.

Year 3 marks the tipping point in the Shanahan-Lynch regime and there is a renewed sense of urgency around the club during this preseason and it has been reflected in the practices. This training camp the team has spent more time practicing game scenarios (red zone, 2-minute drill etc) and practicing ones versus ones than they have previously. The team has also taken a more cautious approach to player health this offseason all with an eye towards making sure they hit the ground running in Week 1.

Year 3 of the rebuild begins in Tampa on Sunday and the 49ers will deploy most of their new weapons against the Buccaneers. The time for laying the foundation and establishing the culture is over and the fans have heard enough about the labor pains, now they want to see the baby.

Video by Alex Rollins


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