After the follies, the idiocy, the roster exodus, the fan alienation and the utter madness of replacing a Hall of Fame-caliber coach with Fred Flintstone, the 49ers need hope. They should eradicate 2015 as if it never happened and bring in a promising new presence who will change the conversation, if also the culture, mindset and perception of Jed York’s crumbling empire.
I would like to paint a shiny, joyful scenario of Jared Goff as that presence. What better way to flip the haunting Berkeley karma from 2005 — Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers — than wisely drafting the Cal quarterback this time and watching a local product become a Bay Area icon? As Goff exhibited Tuesday in the Golden Bears’ rout of Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl, he is NFL-ready, blessed with arm strength, accuracy, pocket savvy, speed-reads of defenses, fine mechanics, a 6-4 frame and, most importantly, a maturity that makes him the antithesis of those recent hot potatoes, Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel.
Seems he’s a present from the gods, a just reward for having to deal with low-grade football at league-high prices. So how can York screw up the Gift of Goff?
By having a team that’s so bad this year, it can’t even lose right.
It’s possible the 49ers, despite one of their worst seasons, won’t be positioned high enough to take Goff. If the draft happened today, they’d own the fifth selection. But two teams that would pick ahead of them, Cleveland and Dallas, are in need of young quarterbacks to groom — the Browns because Johnny Football is a hopeless party knucklehead, one who won’t be desired by a new head coach; and the Cowboys because Tony Romo can’t stay healthy as owner Jerry Jones begins to sense his life’s window shutting. The 49ers share a 4-11 record with the Cowboys, but Dallas wins the tiebreaker thanks to a formula that reveals a more demanding schedule. There also is the disturbing chance that the Niners, who do season finales well if not much else, might be fired up to beat a hot St. Louis team in The Zipper on Sunday just as they won Jim Harbaugh’s final game last season and Jim Tomsula’s season-ender as interim coach when Mike Singletary was dumped in 2010.
So when Goff played spectacularly in his final college game, passing for 467 yards and six touchdowns in a 55-36 victory, all he did was crank up buzz that he belongs with Memphis’ Paxton Lynch in next spring’s version of top-two roulette — the league’s annual draft-season debate on which premier QB will be the better pro. Just the same, it only gave hopeful Niners’ fans, assuming many remain, a nauseous feeling about an unnecessary recent victory in Chicago.
Did that comeback, capped by Blaine Gabbert’s overtime scoring strike to Torrey Smith, cost the Niners their future franchise player?
Though we’d never urge a team to tank, this weekend would be one time when confetti justifiably could drop after a loss. Other than helping the coach save his job — a repeat note to Jed: Tomsula’s return for a second year has no redeeming value for an organization that can’t afford further slippages — nothing can be gained from winning. By finishing 5-11 instead of 4-12, the 49ers likely would fall a few more spots in the first round.
Just so York knows, that draft pick — and high positioning in later rounds — is about all he has going for him right now as an alleged football man. If he does dismiss Tomsula, the next coach will want to know how he can win in Santa Clara. What he’ll do first is look at the most important position in team sports … and see Gabbert, who has been decent and sometimes impressive in his trial by fire but hasn’t sparked visions of titles and Pro Bowls. He’d be ideal as a temp until Goff is ready. But by any measure, Goff has more upside (I’m already in McShay/Kiper Jr. mode), including an ability to raise promise and hope that Gabbert never will possess. Maybe Goff turns out to be the high pick who disappoints, as we often see.
But maybe he turns out to be the Next Great Quarterback.
At present, no football person of any esteem wants to work for York without blockbuster money and control of football decisions. Think David Shaw, Sean Payton, Steve Young (or some combination) would come unless York got out of the way and dumped his current general manager, Trent Baalke? Having Goff as a carrot might entice a quality name or two.
It was inspiring to watch him grow at Cal, where he withstood a 1-11 freshman season as a skinny, mistake-prone passer and grew into a leader and future multi-millionaire. If you’re not a fan of coach Sonny Dykes and his $800,000-per-year raise — and I happen to like him for now, knowing he’ll have an entertaining team at a program that can’t be Stanford until it pays for a Harbaugh — you should laud him for developing Goff from the embryo to the collegiate elite.
“Going from where we were to where we are now is definitely a hallmark for me and this team. It is something I am very proud of,” Goff said. “We have gone from being very bad at 1-11 to reaching a bowl. It’s exciting, and, hopefully, we have built something that will continue in the future of Cal football. I felt a little responsible to bring them back to prominence, to get them back in the national eye, and I think we’ve done that.”
He passed a stress test this season, too. When the Bears started 5-0, Goff was touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate. I was among media who followed him on the road against a then-top-five Utah team … and watched him throw five interceptions. He would have more tough moments, losing his trademark cool on the sideline more than once, which dampened national hype about him attending Cal games as a kid and following his parents to Berkeley. But Goff rebounded to keep the bowl train alive and win back support from NFL personnel people. His father, Jerry, was there for him.
“He helped me a lot through this process, keeping me relaxed and reminding me to go out and have fun,” said Goff, who has stayed mum about the 49ers and is expected to make his NFL leap official soon. “It’s the same game I was playing when I was 7 years old, and I just wanted to keep that focus.”
He sure was having a blast on a winter’s day in Fort Worth. “One more year! One more year!” Cal fans chanted in the stadium.
“I was chanting that, too,” Dykes cracked in the press conference.
Said Goff, recalling his days as a youth at Memorial Stadium: “I was one of those kids chanting for DeSean Jackson about 10 years ago. It’s funny how that comes all the way around.”
Soon enough, he’ll be working out for teams at the NFL combine and subjected to endless assessments by paid and unpaid draftniks. By the big night with Roger Goodell in late April, I’m thinking Jared Goff will have vaulted into the uppermost reaches of all mocks.
What a shame if he goes second, or fourth, when the 49ers are drafting fifth. Actually, it would be quite fitting.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.