The NFL is a very volatile league. One season a team can find itself playing in the Super Bowl, and the next, it can struggle just to win a handful of games. Though nobody expects the San Francisco 49ers to plummet to the bottom of the standings this season, one cannot dismiss the fact that there are many questions concerning what has been one of the most talented rosters in football for the past several seasons. First off, there are rumored squabbles between coach Jim Harbaugh and management. Then there is the fact that the passing game has come up short two seasons in a row. Three of the four starters from last season’s defensive backfield have departed in free agency. There are a few key injuries to starting players that will carry over into next season. Moreover, there are the legal issues swirling around franchise players Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick, which is further clouding the direction of the team. All of that that off-season turbulence has made San Francisco seem vulnerable for the first time in three seasons, which is exactly why the decisions made in the 49ers 2014 season will shape the future of the franchise.
The supposed rift between coach Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke has been reported on by sports news outlet, from the bay area all the way to Timbuktu. By now, even dogs would rather hear that cursed word V-E-T uttered repeatedly instead of the latest tidbit on whose ego is bigger. However, the seriousness of a disconnect between GM and the coach–if such a thing even exists in San Fran–could be absolutely devastating to the franchise.
Take the Dallas Cowboys for example. In the early 90s, no team, aside from maybe the 49ers, had as much talent. Through the draft Dallas built a juggernaut that won back to back championships in ’92 and ’93, but for some reason owner and general manager, Jerry Jones could not find a way to co-exist with coach Jimmy Johnson–whom he hired to build the team in the first place–and so he was fired. The Cowboys won another title in 1995, but with essentially the same roster Johnson had built. Since then, the Cowboys have had five different head coaches, 13 different starting quarterbacks, and have not been anywhere remotely close to the Super Bowl. In fact, they have registered only one playoff win in the past 16 years. Dallas has failed to consistently find high level talent in the draft, and as a result, Jerry Jones attempted to supplement poor drafting through signing high priced players in free agency–an idea that backfired as Dallas is now dismantling pieces of its roster in an effort to avoid salary cap penalties. It is not to say that Jerry Jones needs Jimmy Johnson to be successful, or the other way around, but Jones had something that worked and he squandered it.
Comparatively, the 49ers became one of the NFLs all-time dynasties through the 80s and 90s from the football genius of Bill Walsh. Once Walsh left the team, however, they toiled through draft obscurity and eventually took a dramatic fall to the bottom of the league. Not to say that San Francisco has now returned to the glory days of yester-year, but since Baalke took over as general manager and hired Harbaugh to man the sideline, the 49ers have reestablished themselves as true NFL contenders. Though they are still without a Super Bowl victory, they have built a talented roster full of players that know what it takes to get there. If they do not like each other, so be it. But the time frame to win championships often closes quickly, and if there is to be a championship parade in San Francisco any time soon, both men must put aside their personal differences and continue to do exactly as they have been doing–drafting well and winning a ton of games. If they do that, then there is no reason why the 49ers cannot continue to be successful in the future.
In Baalke’s four seasons as top dog in the war room, he has been responsible for drafting the likes of All-Pro linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, franchise quarterback Colin Kaepernick, starting offensive linemen Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati, starting fullback Bruce Miller, nickelback Chris Culliver, change-of-pace running back Kendall Hunter, and just last season rookie pro bowl safety Eric Reid. The only blemish on his impeccable draft history is 2012, as return man LaMichael James is the only player who has seen any significant amount of field time, and missing big in that draft has already begun to affect San Francisco, especially on offense.
For several years the 49ers have fielded one of the league’s most dominating defenses, which has often covered up for one of the league’s most dismal passing offenses. The oft-injured wide receiver Michael Crabtree has proven to be a game changer when healthy, Anquan Boldin is one of the league’s feistiest receivers, and Vernon Davis is possibly the fastest tight end to ever play the game. Add in a very talented offensive line, a top five running attack, plus quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s ability to scramble and this offense appears it should be one of the league’s most explosive. But then one must take into account that Kaepernick is still growing as a passer and learning to trust his eyes and arm instead of his legs. It is visible that Crabtree and Boldin are essentially the same type of strong handed possession receiver that can fight for the ball in traffic, but lack the top end speed to threaten defenses deep. Vernon Davis, though supremely skilled, does not always have the surest pair of hands, and aside from those three players there really has been nobody else to catch passes, so any injury to the receiving corps severely weakens a passing game that already has a difficult time getting started.
San Francisco tried to address this issue in 2012 by selecting A.J. Jenkins in the first round, which came as a big surprise to basically anyone not named Baalke or Harbaugh. Jenkins was known for his speed in college, though he was viewed by most analysts as more of a middle round pick, and as much of a shock as the selection was, some critics warmed to the idea thinking that in a talented atmosphere without pressure to perform Jenkins would provide the missing element to the 49ers offense. But, it was not so, and after failing to record a single reception in his rookie season, management shipped Jenkins to Kansas City for Jon Baldwin, another former first round receiver who had failed to produce. In the 2013 draft Baalke selected wide receiver Quinton Patton in the fourth round, and though Patton made noise in the pre-season and looked like he could be that third receiver San Francisco had been lacking, he spent a good portion of the season on the sideline with an injured foot and never quite got back into the swing of things. He still could develop into a key contributor but you do not win championships on ‘could’, the Niners need to add another quality player at the wide receiver position. If San Francisco fails to properly address the receiver position in the 2014 NFL draft, they could be shaping up for a repeat of 2013.
On the other side of the ball, San Fran has witnessed starting cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, along with pro bowl safety Donte Whitner depart via free agency. They signed long time Indianapolis Colts safety Antoine Bethea to take Whitner’s place, which may be a bit of a downgrade in run defense but could be an upgrade in coverage. The cornerback position, however, remains very unsettled. Tramaine Brock played very well last season in place of the injured Rogers, and was rewarded for his play with a new contract. He will be one of the starting cornerbacks, but who the other one will be is anyone’s guess. Chris Culliver played well as the nickelback two seasons ago but missed last season with a torn ACL. It is unknown how Culliver will rebound from the injury, but on top of that, he has found himself in some legal trouble recently. Other cornerbacks on the roster include Perrish Cox, Eric Wright, and Chris Cook, and while all three have plenty of NFL experience, they are not exactly a bunch to get excited about. There is no doubt that Trent Baalke and company need to address the cornerback position early in the draft, and possibly a safety at some point as well.
Then there are the serious injuries that pro bowl guard Mike Iupati and All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman sustained in the NFC championship game. Had San Francisco won and went on to win the Super Bowl those injuries would have hurt a lot less, but unfortunately, they lost to their bitter rivals, the Seattle Seahawks, and then had to watch them thrash the Denver Broncos en route to becoming league champions. The rehab process for both Iupati and Bowman is on-going, and when either player will return to the lineup is unknown. Surely, the loss of two such impact players will make winning games more difficult for the 49ers on Sundays, but regardless, they must move forward and hope that they can keep the season on track until the reinforcements return.
Following football related turmoil in the bay area, two of San Fran’s best players find themselves in legal trouble that has absolutely nothing to do with the sport they love. All-Pro pass rusher Aldon Smith’s off-the-field problems have been widely publicized, from illegal gun charges to DUI’s to his most recent bone-headed decision to fake possession of a bomb in an airport. His talent is immense, but the headaches he is causing niners’ management are wearing thin. In fact, as it stands right now the team is pondering whether it is actually worth it to pick up the fifth year option on Smith’s contract for 2015. NFL teams have been bitten in the past for putting too much faith in reckless players–see Michael Vick, Atlanta Falcons–and it is time that San Francisco management and ownership sit down and really contemplate this matter before Smith potentially handcuffs the franchise. On the other side of the ball franchise quarterback Colin Kaepernick is involved in a police investigation of his own, and a strange one at that. Though, it appears that Kaepernick’s involvement is not criminal, any time your quarterback is involved in any type of criminal investigation is cause for reevaluation, especially when said quarterback is trying to negotiate a mammoth-sized contract. It may be a matter of wrong place at the wrong time, or just a whole bunch of confusion that is soon to be cleared up, but regardless of the true circumstances it has both San Fran officials as well as fans losing sleep at night.
All of these things will factor into how management approaches the 2014 NFL draft, which is now only one week away. How Baalke and Harbaugh choose to draft may give suggestions as to what direction the team will take concerning some of these unwanted off-season disturbances. The draft will provide a lot of answers, but just like always, it will bring many new questions for the upcoming season. One thing is for certain though, and that is that San Francisco cannot afford a repeat of 2012. With all of the uncertainties currently surrounding the roster it is crucial that they find talent in this year’s draft, not only to remain competitive now, but to continue to build for the long run. For Trent Baalke, Jim Harbaugh, and the San Francisco 49ers, the outcome of the upcoming 2014 season will go a long way toward shaping the future of the franchise.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky