Where From Here?
By Will Sigmund
The day is January 20, 2014. 49ers fans are left in shock when in the final seconds of the NFC Championship game, a pass intended for Michael Crabtree was tipped by Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and ended up in the hands of Malcolm Smith in the endzone.
Sherman’s post-game interview echoed through the news outlets and social media. “When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get.”
After a disappointing 8-8 season followed, the team experienced a more rapid decline in talent than almost any other team in recent history. 2014 was the last time the 49ers went to the playoffs, the last time Colin Kaepernick was a relevant franchise quarterback, and the last time six of the eight Red and Gold players that were selected to the pro bowl in 2012 would play for play in a 49ers uniform. It also marked the end for beloved coach Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco.
It is now the middle of the 2017 NFL season, and fans are wondering if the franchise has progressed at all since General Manager Trent Baalke was fired. As an underprepared GM, Baalke moved from coach to coach each season after Harbaugh, and never seemed to pick the right one. Jim Tomsula over Adam Gase, Chip Kelly over Mike Shanahan; these changes all ended in disastrous seasons, in which the 49ers’ front office gained less and less support.
Things finally came to a head when rumors about Baalke purposely sabotaging San Francisco’s season to get a high draft pick surfaced in the media, the accusations coming from the mouth of the red and gold’s most loyal fans.
The damage had been done and things needed to be fixed. Baalke was fired and former Pro-Bowl safety John Lynch was called upon to oversee his first NFL team. The 2017 draft proved fruitful for San Francisco, signing top-three pick Solomon Thomas as well as Reuben Foster, possibly the steal of the entire draft. The organization hired Kyle Shanahan, their third coach in three years, and the first in that span that was well-received by the majority of fans.
Many saw it as progression, yet the Niners are still searching for their first win of the season. The answer to the woes of the current squad, however, may be found in the success of previous teams.
The 49ers teams of the 1980’s and early 1990’s can be described as some of the best in the history of the league, and much of their success can be attributed to the team’s front office.
Cam Inman, 49ers reporter for The Mercury News, recalled their glory days.
“When they emerged as a dynasty in the 1980s, Bill Walsh's coaching and personnel genius meshed great with John McVay, while president Carmen Policy and owner Eddie DeBartolo dominated league issues from their side,” said Inman.
All of this combined with the talent they had raised made for the perfect combination. They had . Not to mention, those teams had legitimate franchise quarterbacks in Joe Montana and Steve Young, and a number one receiver in Jerry Rice, something the current squad is obviously lacking.
In fact, that fateful 2014 championship game might have ended differently if the team had a Dwight Clark-type receiver to make a particularly amazing catch in the final seconds to put them up and seal the game. The way The Niners performed in the Walsh-Seifert era made other teams not want to suit up, and the dynastic owners and leaders of the team created a tremendous winning attitude among players and fans.
Today, Niners fans don't have much to be proud about. Despite decent showings in the stands on game day, losing records have become the norm and a team once so great is now one of the worst in the league.
You can have the players, draft picks and the front office, but that does not always create the right attitude without winning games. That's what was truly great about past teams that made great postseason runs. They were able to translate all their successful practicing and training to the game, and keep the mentality to be able to win.
Much of it has to do with coaching talent, and there is no shortage of it when talking about Harbaugh. The former coach of the 49ers had a true connection with players and gelled with the team to create a winning attitude. He was even able to generate nearly two amazing seasons from former draft bust Alex Smith before he was traded to the Chiefs after a concussion left him sidelined.
“The 49ers led a charmed life in that timespan. They won close games. They bought into Jim Harbaugh's team-first mentality. They had great coaching from position coaches. They had tremendous veteran leadership. They had hope. They delivered,” said Inman.
They had veteran leaders on both offense and defense to lead units to touchdown drives and forced three and outs. The dynamic defense of the 49ers in those years was known throughout the league. Built on the base of their two Pro Bowl linebackers Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman, they outscored their opponents 384 to 273 in 2012, the year they made it to the Superbowl. All the leadership they had acquired both in players and coaching had turned their average players into stars, made a second year QB into one of the best in the league, and turned the whole team into a powerhouse on both sides of the ball.
There's no way to be certain about what the future holds for the red and gold, but it does look promising. As for Cam Inman, he sees potential.
“They hired the most coveted offensive coordinator, and one with 49ers roots, to coach. They gambled on a new general manager who has no front office experience but is extremely well liked. And they're rebuilding all aspects of the roster. They've got draft picks, cap room and nowhere to go but up -- unless they stay in the cellar,” said Inman.
One thing is for certain, they have no shortage of talent from previous years to gain inspiration from.