The 49ers are a bad football team.
They have a roster depleted by age, injury and bad management; coaches who were overmatched (Jimmy T) or underwhelming (Chipper); quarterback play matched by the Bay Area’s better junior colleges; and of course that old standby — ownership controversy.
But this 49ers team is a different bad than those of recent vintage, and a brand of bad in which a frustrated fan base should be able to find some silver linings. After two seasons of wandering in a wilderness of dead-end, last-chance coaches and redshirt prospects, the franchise appears to have a competent front office regime, a plan for the future and a viable road to get there.
As shocking as it may sound: Jed York might turn out to be okay at this.
It goes in the face of that old 49ers-fans saying: “We will never be good as long as Jed York is the owner.”
Of course there are basic, factual reasons that this is a silly thing to say — namely that the 49ers already have been good with Jed York as the owner (even his overall record as named owner is significantly better than his father’s). Additionally, in the last decade, teams owned by the Bidwell family (Arizona), Tom Benson (New Orleans) and Mark Davis (Oakland) have all been good.
The NFL is a league in which once-bad owners can later preside over a winning team.
Mr. (as opposed to Dr.) York has provided reasons for a crisis of the Faithful. From tone-deaf statements and questionable social media activity to confusing and unsuccessful coaching moves to sticking with a GM several years past his best-used-by date — mistakes have been made.
The notable difference in this season under York is that we don’t have to refer obliquely to distant theoretical possibilities to see the possibility of a brighter future. It’s right in front of our eyes.
It begins, of course, with the hiring of new coach-GM tandem Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, and that was no small moment in franchise history — not only because they seem competent, but because of the circumstances surrounding the move.
In landing Shanahan, the 49ers had targeted and acquired one of the top young coaching candidates on the market, a guy who any rebuilding franchise would have been thrilled to hire. But oddly enough, the bigger proof-of-concept as far as Jed York’s progression was probably the hiring of the inexperienced Lynch.
John Lynch, a man who will soon enter the Hall of Fame in large part because of a lot of loud hits in his career as an NFL safety, was determined to keep his candidacy quiet. The Jed York 49ers have not, historically, been able to keep anything quiet — they’ve become so associated with information leaks that former Raider Tim Brown said, “We want to stay under the radar. Not like the 49ers, leaking every piece of information they get.”
Author’s note: As someone has probably realized and I intended to mention, Tim Brown said these words while playing himself in the HBO show Ballers, which either makes it better or worse depending on your perspective.
It may be damning with faint praise, but York & Co.’s success at keeping the discussions under wraps and ultimately surprising most with the hire represented a significant accomplishment. It seems distinctly possible that we will look back on that moment as the inflection point in a 49er resurgence.
Then there’s the roster — not necessarily significantly better than the last couple years if you’re counting wins, but positioned much better for the future. They are committed to only six players making more than $5 million in 2019. Two of those are big-time defensive prospects Solomon Thomas and DeForest Buckner, two are valued veterans NaVorro Bowman and Joe Staley. By 2020 the only significant contracts locked on the books are Thomas and Bowman.
This installation is short on offensive talent (which can hurt watchability and wins, of course, but also is likely to lead to the sort of draft position a team needs to acquire top offensive talent). That said, they have a competent, professional trio of top skill position players: Brian Hoyer is workmanlike and reliably average, Pierre Garcon is a legitimate NFL wideout and Carlos Hyde looks like he can be good if he can stay healthy and in shape.
On defense, though, there’s real excitement to be found: the Niners’ young defensive-line group highlighted by the aforementioned Thomas and Buckner along with Arik Armstead and Aaron Lynch has real potential; young linebacker Reuben Foster, likely to be forced into heavy action with the injury to Malcolm Smith, looks to be a draft steal; the 49ers secondary group includes 10 home-grown players drafted in the last 5 years.
These are signs of hope — and hope is a thing that the 49ers have tried to sell without signs for the last few seasons. This is not exactly a major accomplishment for a franchise built on a Super Bowl dynasty, but the shift is significant.
If Jed York is to be blamed for the 49ers’ recent failures — and he should be — then he must also get credit for recognizing and admitting to mistakes and changing course and philosophy — assuming he holds to his new leak-free style and truly empowers his new front office regime.
Turnarounds happen quickly in this league. A team with sound principles and a solid framework can go from mediocre to Super Bowl contender with one fortuitous QB draft.
It’s finally reasonable to believe the 49ers could be a good football team again.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. Find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.
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