• John Bulmer

Examining the Rocky History of 49ers Big Trades and Why This One May or May Not Work Out

So, just for context, last Friday I was out walking my dog, Lola, when the news of the trade flashed up on my watch. I practically ran back home, fizzing with excitement and spent the next few hours absorbing content on Twitter. I tell you this because for the next few hundred words I’m going to be that guy, the “yes, but…” guy because, as exciting as all this is, history is littered with cautionary tales to take the wind out of our sails.

Names that we’ve tried to forget, like Kentwan Balmer. He was selected in the first round with the 29th pick, acquired from the Colts for a second-and a fourth-rounder. Balmer had good production in college but was miscast by the Niners as a 3-4 end instead of the 4-3 tackle he was more suited to. In two seasons he recorded the grand total of zero sacks and just 19 tackles before being moved on to the Seahawks (some things never change!)

More recently, we all remember John Lynch’s first draft masterstroke, the 2017 fleecing of the Bears (I know it didn’t quite work out but that trade was much better than the pick). Later in the first round Lynch was busy again, trading his second-and fourth-round picks (sound familiar?) for Seattle’s first-rounder, used to draft linebacker Reuben Foster. I remember being delighted at the time at the prospect of picking up such a talented player at the end of Round 1. The move was lauded by some as a potential steal and Lynch was beginning to look like a genuine draft genius.

However, the idiom,“If something seems too good to be true, it probably is” comes to mind here, and there was a good reason why such a talented player was still available at number 31. Foster’s various off-field issues eventually made his position on the 49ers untenable and he was cut mid-season in 2018.

Which brings us to the main event, a trade from a long time ago which has very eerie echoes of what is currently happening and reminds us how excitement can quickly turn into disappointment.

Let’s jump in the DeLorean and travel back to 1967: The Beatles (I’m from Liverpool so please forgive the reference) released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and race riots were raging across America, which was still embroiled in the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, the 49ers were coming off a 6-6-2 season and a fourth-place finish in the NFL West Division under head coach Jack Christiansen.

It was a surprise trade and a big move, especially given that they already had a veteran QB and regular All Pro selection in John Brodie. They traded offensive guard Jim Wilson, offensive tackle Jim Norton and wide receiver Bernie Casey to the Atlanta Falcons to secure the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner, Steve Spurrier of the Florida Gators with the number-three pick.

Spurrier has spoken of how he was told by 49ers team officials that the plan was for him to sit behind Brodie for “four or five years” which, understandably, affected his motivation leading him to say of himself in his 2016 autobiography, “I was not a very ambitious player.”

He attempted fewer than five passes a season over his first three seasons, not throwing a touchdown pass until year three. After three seasons, the 49ers’ big splash draft move turned out to be a backup quarterback and a punter!

Spurrier got his big chance in 1972 when he replaced an injured John Brodie, leading the team to a 6-1-1 record with 16 touchdownpasses before losing his place to a returning Brodie after tossing 3 interceptions in the final game of the regular season. Spurrier finished his disappointing 49ers career in 1976 when he was traded to the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a 13-12-1 record as a starter.

So what can we learn from history? Several things:

1) Do your due diligence carefully.

2) Don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole.

3) Trading up to no. 3 for a QB is no guarantee of success!

4) Back your guy. Part of the issue for Spurrier was the presence of Brodie. Garoppolo as insurance may sound like a good idea but sometimes you just have to hand over the keys.

5) College success doesn’t always translate, make sure your guy has the skills and attitude you need.

In summary, sorry to be a Debbie Downer but don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched. Enjoy the ride and let’s hope that history doesn’t repeat itself.Good luck to Justin Fields, Trey Lance or Zach Wilson, whoever the pick is, hopefully their 49ers career has more in common with John Brodie (pick no. 3 in 1957) than with Steve Spurrier.

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