Awfully consistent is probably the best way to describe the San Francisco 49ers off-season thus far. A word so commonly used in the world of sports, consistency, for the most part, brings about a positive connotation, unless of course, it follows troublesome friends ‘no’ or ‘lack of’, which in this particular case are nowhere to be found. Instead, San Francisco remains incredibly consistent throughout the spring and heading into summer–normally a great sign for an elite NFL squad–but the problem being that the 49ers consistency is trending in the wrong direction, as injuries and legal issues crop up like crazy, and roster concerns continue to mount.
It all began with a playoff loss to the Seahawks that cut deeply. Super Bowl dreams were shattered. Coaches and players were left soul searching–some even appeared bitter about the whole ordeal. The team desperately needed to regroup in the worst way, and put it all behind them. They had to forget about 2013 and gear up for 2014. Preparing for the NFL season is a difficult task as is, but this particular campaign will be rendered even more so with Pro Bowlers NaVorro Bowman and Mike Iupati in the process of rehabbing serious injuries which leave their availability for 2014 in question. The very sight of the hobbled warriors serves as an agonizing reminder of yet another promising season ending in turmoil. However, as they say, injuries are a part of the game and in order for a team to win championships they must survive the war of attrition.
Then reports surfaced that quarterback Colin Kaepernick was involved in a police investigation. Troubled defensive star Aldon Smith once again added to his growing resume of legal offences. Cornerback Chris Culliver landed in a dicey legal predicament of his own. Three of the four starting defensive backs from last season signed with other teams in free agency, and return specialist LaMichael James is seemingly involved in a trade rumor, or voicing his displeasure with the team bi-weekly. All of a sudden concerns about the 49ers roster began piling sky-high like waste in a metropolitan landfill, and, as if that was not enough to contend with, it all came crashing down in the midst of a wire-rocking report that the team’s general manager and head coach are allegedly having some issues. A war of attrition indeed.
The draft, even though pushed into May this year, arrived just in time to cool things off. General manager Trent Baalke pulled in a praised crop of prospects to alleviate some of the negative press surrounding the red and gold. Coach Jim Harbaugh appeared to be in as good of spirits as always–though, detectives are still trying to decipher what that means exactly. Miami Police released recorded 911 calls that lead one to believe Colin Kaepernick may have had very little to no involvement whatsoever in the strange investigation his name was attached to, and as a gift for his good behavior, the Niners acquired former Bills receiver Stevie Johnson in a trade to bolster the receiving corps. All is well, gather around the fire, grab a guitar, and everyone sing Kumbaya.
The only problem is that its about consistency in this Niners off-season, and so before things had a chance to trend upward, Aldon Smith pleaded no contest to the felony and misdemeanor charges laid against him, and in doing so, he could potentially face time in prison, or at the very least a hefty league suspension. 2013 fourth round draft choice, and once highly-touted running back, Marcus Lattimore is having a set-back of sorts in his return to the field. The issue, allegedly, has nothing to do with the surgically repaired knee that threatens his career. The former South Carolina star was thought to be a great addition to the San Francisco backfield this season, but drafting Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde in the second round may be a sign that Baalke and company are unsure of Lattimore’s future.
This year’s first round selection, versatile defensive back Jimmie Ward could be out of full-speed action until July as he recovers from a surgically repaired right foot. Ward is still participating in the walk-through portions of rookie camp, but for a young player who the Niners are banking on to fill holes in the depleted secondary, the coaching staff may need to adjust expectations after so many lost reps. The former Northern Illinois standout played both safety and cornerback in college, and while it is still uncertain as to how the coaching staff figures to deploy him in the defense, getting an instant impact from the 30th overall pick will be crucial for the team’s success.
Add the fact that the incredible Frank Gore has entered the twilight years for a running back and will be 31 years of age when the season begins. Mike Iupati’s injury and Jonathan Goodwin’s release creates two vacancies on the offensive line. Colin Kaepernick’s current back-up is either Jacksonville bust Blaine Gabbert or NFL journeyman Josh Johnson, so number seven had better remember how to use that baseball slide. San Francisco could start the season with only–yes only–two of their four pro bowl linebackers. Eric Wright is the lone cornerback on the roster who has experience as a full season starter and he has not done so in over two years, and can the Niners actually rely on the likes of Tony Jerod-Eddie, Demarcus Dobbs, and Tank Carradine to supply solid depth on the defensive line in the event that iron man Justin Smith finally wears down? Special teams is solid though, well, aside from return man LaMichael James, who dependent on the source, is either unhappy, on the trade block, or staying put because the team is very excited about the skill set he brings.
Over the past three seasons the red and gold have certainly earned the right to be considered one of the league’s elite, but how long can a franchise sustain championship level success when there is so much unrest from top to bottom? Injuries are a part of the game, and ever-changing rosters are as well in this salary cap era, but off-field issues, however, do not have to be.
If key players continue to find trouble in their spare time this team will slide. If the organization continues to support repeat offenders, regardless of talent level, it will fall off. If there is any truth to the possible rift between Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh, and if it is irreparable then the team will implode. As it stands, the franchise has the talent to win it all, but if the 49ers continue trending in the direction that this off-season has pointed them in, then consistency will be their undoing.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky