The five dates that made the rebuilding process take hold
The 49ers wrap up their season today in Los Angeles. And this year, unlike the three prior, when the Monday after the season rolls around, CEO Jed York won’t be explaining why he just fired another head coach.
No, the outlook in Santa Clara is more positive than it’s been in years, and Monday will be reserved for exit interviews between the players and head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch.
They’ll be retooling for the future, preparing for what the Faithful hope is a playoff run in 2018.
Because even if the Niners lose to the Rams today, the season will be a runaway success. It doesn’t matter that they were eliminated from the playoffs by an 0-9 start.
Lynch and his talented personnel team have earned the benefit of the doubt by absolutely nailing the 2017 draft, and with fewer obvious holes in the roster — thanks to the acquisition of franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo — they’ll have an opportunity to cobble together a winner.
It took a lot of heavy lifting to get to this point. Here are the key dates that got the 49ers to an enviable position:
Jan. 2, 2017
York addressed the media after firing head coach Chip Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke. He was apologetic at times, defensive at others.
Kelly was a casualty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He obviously wasn’t the right fit, and he inherited the unfortunate task of having to work with Baalke. But getting rid of the erstwhile GM has been a major boon for the franchise, and the collateral was Kelly being swept up in the overhaul.
It’s remarkable that York was able to upgrade his head coach, but that should be a lesson to NFL teams looking to shake things up: It doesn’t work well if you go with half-measures.
“When you’re starting with a clean slate and have two guys that are coming in to work together,” a prescient York said, “two guys who will be fighting for each other and building what they see is necessary to get the 49ers back to where we need to be — that’s what we’re trying to put together.”
Feb. 6, 2017
After a prolonged search — made longer as the Niners obviously waited for the Atlanta Falcons to wrap up their season — the 49ers officially came to terms with Shanahan, a longtime offensive coordinator but never head coach.
Shanahan was well-respected throughout the league and he was coming with a hand-picked general manager in Lynch.
“I think these are, hands down, the two best guys,” York said on Feb. 9. “… I think, when you look at Kyle, when you look at John and you look at the teams that they’re starting to build, we’re starting to put together something that I think has a chance to be special.”
York played the conquering hero — who was adamant he wasn’t satisfied yet — at that press conference.
He had gotten the guys he said he’d always wanted, but they were unproven at that time. And he was committed to the decision by granting the pair matching six-year contracts.
It seemed like a 50-50 shot that the experiment would work or blow up in York’s face.
April 27, 2017
The draft finally arrived and it was showtime for Lynch.
He traded with Chicago to move down from No. 2 to No. 3 and then picks the player he wanted with the higher pick, Solomon Thomas.
If Thomas had been gone, the Niners would’ve taken Reuben Foster with the third pick. A few hours after making his first selection as a GM, Lynch comes to terms with the Seattle Seahawks to swap the Niners’ second-round pick and one of the third-rounders they got from the Bears for No. 31.
They used it on Foster. Then they celebrated.
Foster had projected as a top pick until a diluted drug-test sample, an expulsion from the combine and a lingering shoulder injury spooked the rest of the NFL.
According to Peter King of MMQB, after the 49ers called in the Foster pick, Lynch asked head athletic trainer Jeff Ferguson, “You guys worried about his shoulder?”
“What shoulder?” Ferguson yelled back.
Everyone in the room laughed.
Oct. 30, 2017
The Niners were 0-8 and coming off their two worst losses of the season after losing by a combined 53 points to the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles.
The team had already benched Brian Hoyer, the Week 1 starter. CJ Beathard was struggling to quickly get rid of the ball behind a makeshift offensive line.
Optimists pointed out that the 49ers had a great draft position. Pessimists worried a losing culture was taking hold.
Then, the New England Patriots decided they didn’t want to pay Tom Brady’s backup, Garoppolo, in the offseason and they didn’t want to let him walk for nothing. So they agreed to ship Garoppolo to California in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2018 draft.
“I’ve seen it throughout my whole career, but it’s hard to come across opportunities to get guys that you believe have a chance to be your quarterback for a while,” Shanahan said.
The Niners refused to rush the process of getting Garoppolo under center in game action. He sat while his new team lost to the Arizona Cardinals and beat the hapless New York Giants to earn its first win under Shanahan and Lynch.
But his presence was celebrated in the locker room. There was a new energy that maybe could translate to the field if he just got a chance.
Dec. 24, 2017
The 49ers hosted the Jacksonville Jaguars — owners of the best defense in football — on Christmas Eve.
Exactly four weeks prior, Beathard was forced out of the Seattle game by an injury. Garoppolo entered the game and threw a touchdown. He followed that by reeling off three-straight victories against progressively better opponents.
Garoppolo proved up to the challenge, leading a touchdown drive on the first drive of the game and eventually hanging 44 points on a team that hadn’t allowed that many points in a single game all season.
It was clear the Niners were for real, and that they had a true franchise keystone. Carlos Hyde joked the team was heading to the Super Bowl in the next season.
“You find out a lot about people through adversity, but you also do through success,” Shanahan said. “We’ve had some the last few weeks, got a lot of attention, way too much probably, but we’ve been happy with how we’ve been playing and hopefully can finish this up strong and that’ll leave us excited going into next year.”
Today, the Niners will wrap up their season. They’ll treat the game like any other, Shanahan said Friday, and they’re going to play all of their starters. And barring a catastrophic injury, they couldn’t be a better case study for how much a team can improve in a year’s time.
Contact Examiner Sports Editor Jacob C. Palmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.