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The beauty and ugliness of sport are contained in what can and cannot be controlled. Indeed, the Great Magnet chooses the winners and losers, with some teams or players seemingly forever damned with misfortune.
This foul year has the San Francisco 49ers deemed as the NFL’s hard-luck case. Players who should have been excelling at their positions have had massive drops in overall play. Others stepped wrong on sticky artificial turf and were victims of the grizzly reaper’s lust for ligaments.
While it feels like COVID-19 continues to rip through all NFL locker rooms, the data proves otherwise. So far, the league has a positivity rate of less than 1 percent, but it’s been enough to impact the 49ers’ overall record.
A decade from now, the 49ers and football historians might look back at the 2020 season, offer a collective shoulder shrug and a crystal clear thesis on what happened: the South Bay team was the unfortunate victim of a perfect storm of injuries, COVID, poor coaching and a thin roster.
Mike McGlinchey: Coaching
When the 49ers drafted Mike McGlinchey on April 26, 2018, I thought it was a rare moment where the team was preparing for a significant transition.
Joe Staley wouldn’t be around forever, and drafting a tackle in the first round would prepare the team and the fans for the inevitable. McGlinchey would have two years to learn from a future Hall of Fame player - all the good parts of the game, the heartbreak, how to lead, and when to follow.
Once Staley announced his retirement, it was time for McGlinchey to sit on a legendary throne and lead the team into the next decade.
But this year has been the absolute opposite for McGlinchey. He’s played well below his capability, and his film often shows his opponents violently shoving McGlinchey at the line of scrimmage. When McGlinchey stands tall with no base, his opponent is below pad level, with hips ready to explode through McGlinchey’s chest.
The numerous pass protections and run blocks have not changed, nor has the terminology or how Shanahan designs a game plan. Something or someone is in McGlinchey’s head, and the 49er coaching staff has failed to exorcise these demons.
Arik Armstead: Injury and Roster
I wish I knew why 49er fans and specific so-called experts consistently point the finger at Arik Armstead to blame him for the defense’s woes.
In late 2018, a “beat writer” claimed Armstead was not playing good football. Yet, the facts and the film at that moment were clear: Armstead was one of the best edge defenders against the run, and through Week 14, had improved 21.4 points in his run defense from 2017.
“It’s a contract year,” sang the chorus. “Armstead’s only playing well because he wants a new contract.”
Folks, every year is a contract year. The NFL is a ruthless, billion-dollar business, and most teams do not have the patience for players who cannot improve.
This season, Armstead has his new contract but is missing key players around him. The absence of Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Robert Blair, and Solomon Thomas has put the full strain of defensive success on Armstead. But there is a reality about defensive linemen that consistently gets ignored: he cannot be everywhere on the field on every play.
Armstead’s job is to control the area around him, not rack up 15 tackles and 15 pressures per game. If he can control and even push back his opponent, that has a butterfly effect on the play. The back might have to cut against the grain toward the middle or a quarterback might get flushed from the pocket. Both instances result resulting in a teammate making a tackle for a loss or a sack.
Someone else might get credit for the pressure, but Armstead initiated it by controlling his man at the line of scrimmage.
Quarterbacks: Coaching and Roster
I’ve got a threshold, Gentle Reader, for the amount of quarterback talk I will take. Right now, I’m running in the red regarding the will-they-won’t-they keep or trade quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
It’s the same feeling regarding quarterback Nick Mullens’ skill set, who is and will probably forever be an NFL backup with a slightly-higher-than-average ceiling when he’s on the field. Getting angry at him for making second string-type errors is a huge waste of mental energy.
The new chatter seems to be that a new veteran quarterback, or a blue-chip rookie, can show up in Santa Clara, master Shanahan’s offense, and put it back the way it ought to be.
I’ve heard this line before. Four or five college quarterbacks have tons of potential to be NFL stars and are ideal for a certain coach or offense. Their success, so long as it’s in Shanahan’s offense, is as sure as the sun rising in the eastern morning sky.
That reality is a fantasy land that will not come true in Santa Clara if quarterback coach Shane Day remains with the 49ers.
In two seasons with Day, we’ve not seen meaningful improvement or development in Garoppolo’s ability. Indeed, Garoppolo led the team to a Super Bowl, but he still has a glaring inability to stretch the field vertically or see dropping linebackers.
Mullens is no better. His throws are ill-timed, lack anticipation, and are completed far too late into the route. Neither Garoppolo nor Mullens can consistently see the whole field or have a feel for a play developing, and these deficiencies have gone completely uncorrected by Day.
So, let’s flash forward to May 2021. The 49ers have traded Garoppolo, drafted quarterback Zach Wilson from BYU, but kept Day on staff to develop their new rookie. Is anyone expecting Day to mold the new savior of the team into the next great quarterback?
Day’s most prominent career accomplishment is grooming Jay Cutler, Caleb Hanie, and Josh McCown, who “combined to throw for 3,346 yards and 18 touchdowns.” That’s not an accomplishment, nor anyone who should be in charge of honing the skills of a $137.5 million investment.
Maybe the problem with the 49ers’ quarterbacks isn’t the man taking the snap, but the man coaching them on how to take the snap.
The 2020 season is not a total failure for the 49ers. The team has put up a real fight in most games with a roster that’s being held together with Bubble Yum and twine. They have failed to improve on what can be controlled -- fundamentals, acquiring quality talent, and consistent play. Whenever the season ends, I am hopeful Shanahan and general manager John Lynch sit down and plan a strategy to rebuild critical aspects of the team that have eroded.
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