The San Francisco 49ers are a resounding disappointment by most reasonable standards. That this statement has been true for four straight years — and most years since 1999 — is understandably distressing to a demanding fan base.
In defending a regime that has produced an 8-20 record through most of two seasons, it’s important to lead with this truism: NFL dominance is not a birthright (though I understand why many thirty-something 49ers fans feel it ought to be).
Being consistently good in the NFL is one of the hardest things to do in sports; it’s virtually impossible without a steady, capable front office and coaching regime. Jed York seems to have figured that out, based on his decision to give Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch corresponding six-year contracts.
While mistakes have been made, and there is plenty wrong right now, I believe the overall program remains soundly headed in the right direction. Perhaps it pays to start with the mistakes — and despite higher-profile problems with draft picks, the most damaging and concerning errors have come in free agency.
It’s easy to point to two guys who played an awful lot on Sunday — Weston Richburg and Malcom Smith. Both were signed to be starters, and both seem to have a propensity for visible struggles.
Richburg is a highly-paid center, allegedly the perfect fit, who has not consistently executed snaps at a professional level (nor distinguished himself as a blocker). Smith has been injured for the majority of his 49ers tenure and seems to be the worst export produced by Seattle’s erstwhile Legion of Boom. Both were identified as targets by this regime and are obvious failures so far, which is particularly concerning, given the opportunity to examine their work at the NFL level before pursuing them.
In overpaid veterans Pierre Garçon and Kyle Juszczyk, the thought process is easier to see — Garçon hasn’t worked out (largely thanks to injuries and QB play) but is still functional when healthy; Juszczyk is good, just perhaps not as impactful as his salary suggests. Most importantly, there are easy outs of both contracts at the end of this season.
Which brings us to a key point: The 49ers never looked at this year as a playoff season, or even an especially competitive one. Shanahan and Lynch viewed 2018 as a year to see what they have in Jimmy Garoppolo, give a bunch of young guys a look and find out which roster deficiencies their highly-paid new QB would be able to cover up before deciding on other long-term investments.
Any chance of winning through that process blew up when Jimmy GQ went down — and without showing anything particularly special to boot — but they have certainly had the opportunity to scout their young roster through adversity. The question now is whether, given significant resources, they can successfully fill the many gaps they’ve discovered.
The good news is, pronouncements of an utter inability to draft well are wildly premature and rather incorrect, the operative word being “premature.” drawing significant conclusions about drafting ability after less than two seasons is absurd; even judging the 2017 class after 28 games is a stretch.
Lynch is often pilloried for his 2017 first round, which admittedly looks awful with Reuben Foster gone and Solomon Thomas disappointing. The thinking was sound, though — after a universally applauded trade that gave him useful extra assets for nothing, Lynch drafted both a high-floor, high-character player expected to be productive if not flashy (Thomas) and a high-ceiling player with considerable upside attached to significant risk (Foster).
Every single draft pick is a gamble, and the first round has the highest stakes because the successes can be so impactful, but there are zero general managers who have a 100-percent success rate. From a process standpoint, Lynch managed to make two different kinds of value plays in the same first round; the fact that one bet has lost and the other is on life support does not necessarily mean they were bad bets.
In horse racing terms, Thomas was a 2/1 favorite with a history of big wins and Foster a 20/1 longshot with great raw talent. As any fan of the ponies knows, you can bet both of those horses in the same race and still come out a complete loser, but if you gamble smart over the long term, you can win big.
Once you get past that ugly first round (mere months after being hired to run an organization for the first time) Lynch’s draft record looks good. George Kittle, Mike McGlinchey, Fred Warner and Dante Pettis (with a recent breakout game) have all given reason to believe they could be draft successes.
The grade is still incomplete on virtually every other Lynch draft pick — an argument that is easy to make for late-round, long-term projects like DJ Jones, Julian Taylor and Kentavius Street (and only a little harder for Trent Taylor, DJ Reed and Richie James).
The other two oft-criticized choices are Joe Williams and CJ Beathard. Williams is a mistake that Shanahan and Lynch hopefully learned from — a case where Shanahan pushed to pursue a player who was initially off the team’s draft board, and it was a failure.
Beathard, however, is not. We should not be disappointed in a second-year, third-round quarterback who has struggled at times behind questionable offensive lines and without elite talent at other skill positions.
Here is a list of non-first-round quarterbacks drafted earlier than Beathard over the last three seasons: DeShone Kizer, Davis Webb, Paxton Lynch, Christian Hackenberg, Jacoby Brissett, Cody Kessler, Connor Cook and Mason Rudolph. I would argue that Beathard is easily better than the majority of those players.
The 49ers will likely always regret passing on Patrick Mahomes, as will others. The Foster situation blew up in such a dramatic way that it will always look bad in retrospect. If Richburg doesn’t come around, that signing is a disaster. These are relatively small errors in scouting and/or judgment, which are accompanied by a series of similarly small successes.
The bulk of this regime’s cash roll is sitting on Garoppolo, with a relatively significant side bet on Jerick McKinnon. Frankly, we have next-to-no idea how those gambles will work out until we see them on the field for a meaningful period of time. Clearly though, after two losing seasons, there is real pressure on this regime heading into 2019.
Another year of self-scouting, plus $70 million-plus in cap space and quite likely the No. 1 overall draft selection gives Shanahan and Lynch everything they need to be a playoff team, provided their big bet on Jimmy G doesn’t go bust. And if you’re still feeling down, remember this: Bill Walsh was 8-24 in his first two seasons with the 49ers. If 2018 ends with four more defeats, which seems likely, this regime will be 8-24. Hope has not left town, and neither should Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch. Not yet.
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 him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, 5a-6a every weekday morning. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can 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.