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Why the 49ers are doomed

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Can Kyle Shanahan save the 49ers?

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers
An apt metaphor for SF’s 2016 season
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

I watched the 2013 Seahawks-49ers NFCCG alone, on a terrible stream, in a crappy apartment. Every couple of minutes the screen would disintegrate into a collage of colorful blocks that could fit in at a De Stijl museum. I watched in abject dread as Colin Kaepernick marched the 49ers down the field. When Frank Gore broke off a 17-yard completion on 4th and 2, I thought the game was over. A few plays later, I watched Kaep launch the ball towards the end zone... and my screen collapses into enormous pixels. I hear Warren Moon's scream and don't know if it is in joy or in grief. As the picture slowly returns, I realize that the Seattle had intercepted the ball. The trajectories of the two teams diverged ever since. SF went 8-8, 5-11, and 2-14 and is on their fourth head coach in four seasons. The Seahawks went back to the Super Bowl, and has won at least 10 games and a playoff game every season since. Will this season see San Francisco rise back to prominence?

(no, it will not)

Where They Were

The 49ers’ 2016 season was not great. Coming off of a 5-11 record under first time head coach — and full time York stooge — Jim Tomsula, there was hope that the newly hired Chip Kelly could work some offensive magic. The season opened to a great start as they slaughtered the Rams 28-0 on Monday Night Football. They then lost nine of their next 13 games by double digits. To the chart!

49ers’ 2016

Stat Result
Stat Result
Point Differential -171
Pythag win-loss 4.2-11.8
Total DVOA (rank) -19.7% (28)
Off. DVOA -7.4% (23)
Def. DVOA 12.1% (28)
ST DVOA -0.2% (17)

The Niners actually appear to be not as bad as their record. They went 1-5 in one score games, which appears due for some regression. They weren't a good team, but some regression might eke out a few more wins next season.

What They Gained

San Francisco made some big moves this offseason. They hired John Lynch, the former safety and broadcaster, to be the GM and snagged Kyle Shanahan from the Atlanta Falcons for the head coaching position. Shanahan's impact may be more immediate and obvious, but Lynch's drafting acumen will determine the course of the franchise for the foreseeable future.

In free agency, Lynch had a boatload of cap space to play with and he knew it. He inked five players to eight-figure deals:

  • Pierre Garcon signed for 47.5 million dollars over 5 years with 20 million guaranteed.
  • Super Bowl 48 MVP Malcolm Smith signed for 26.5 million dollars over 5 years with 11.5 million guaranteed.
  • Kyle Juszczyk signed for 21 million dollars over 4 years with 9.75 million guaranteed.
  • Earl Mitchell signed for 16 million dollars over 4 years with 6.5 million guaranteed.
  • Brian Hoyer signed for 12 million dollars over 2 years with 9.85 million guaranteed.

I like two of these signings, hate two of them, and am indifferent about one. Garcon isn't some superstar WR, and maybe just under 10 million a year is too expensive, but the 49ers need talent at this point and shouldn't be all that concerned about value. Hoyer is a similar signing. He is the bridge QB. His only job is to play until Lynch/Shanahan find their QB of the future.

Earl Mitchell is a generic DL signing. He doesn't get sacks (5.5 in 7 years and none for the past two seasons) and has been injured recently. I doubt this blows up in the worst possible way, but I also doubt that anybody remembers this signing in two years.

However, how is Malcolm Smith still making money? He has made three great plays. He caught The Tip, he had a TD on an INT return, and a fumble recovery, the latter two both in SB XLVIII. But other than that, what has he done to earn $26.5 million? For the record, that makes him the 10th highest paid interior linebacker in the league. K.J. Wright was signed for $27 million (over four years and two years ago, yes). It's gonna be awfully interesting to see what happens when the salary cap stops inflating. Even more egregious is paying $21 million and almost 10 guaranteed to a fullback in the year of our lord 2017. He has had less than 105 total touches (97 catches and 7 rushes) in four seasons. His yards/reception have declined each season and he doesn't have enough carries for me to judge his rushing ability. The value has to, has to, come from his blocking, but I find it tough to believe that Lynch couldn't get similar blocking from a drafted TE or even a drafted fullback. I honestly have no idea what is happening with that signing.

And now the draft.

Lynch pulled off an awesome trade to move down one slot for Chicago's 1.3, 3.67, 4.111, plus next years 3rd round pick. According to Chase Stuart’s draft trade calculator, he got about 166 cents on the dollar for this move, so props to Lynch. The 49ers made 10 selections, hoping to infuse the roster with talent. The three most interesting selections were defensive end Solomon Thomas at 1.3, linebacker Reuben Foster at 1.31, and quarterback C.J. Beathard at 3.104.

Thomas is the third first-round pass rusher in three years for San Fran. They hope that he can ignite a pass rush that has largely been anemic over the past few seasons.

Foster has a couple of red flags. First, he is a linebacker and not a (primarily) pass rushing one at that. Trading up to 1.31 to snag him means missing out on two other players and its tough for LBs to worth that much. Second, he is coming off of shoulder surgery. I'm not a doctor, but I know that shoulders are important for tackling. Despite working in non-contact drills, this injury is delaying his integration into the 49ers defense. Third, and least importantly, he tested positive for a dilute sample at the NFL combine. It wouldn't surprise me if he went his entire career without a drug suspension, but I think it would be equally unsurprising if he ran into some issue with the NFL drug policy down the road.

Beathard could be the QB of the Future that the Niners so desperately crave, but I doubt it for a number of reasons. Stay tuned to find out.

What They Lost

As one would expect of a team with a lot of space, the 49ers did lot lose many players of note. Torrey Smith and Antoine Bethea left for Philadelphia and Arizona, respectively. Neither of these losses are drastic. Smith never seem to fit whatever offenses were being run in SF and SF has drafted a ton of DBs over the past years so it was probably time for Bethea to move on. I also don't think that losing a 42-year-old kicker and Blaine Gabbert are going to spell doom for the 49ers.

Oh, I suppose they also lost their other starting QB, the aforementioned Kaepernick, who technically you could say they haven’t totally lost yet. With no suitor willing to put forth enough cash to secure his services, Kaepernick remains “Free Agent Story Numero Uno” for the time being. The 49ers are clearly moving forward with Hoyer and Beathard and have put that chapter behind them, of course, but it’s not as though they have clearly improved at the quarterback position; Kaepernick was not the problem. He wasn’t the solution either, but it’s 11 starts at the most important position that they are re-filling, with the other five coming from Gabbert, now collecting “He was an intriguing prospect six years ago” checks from the Cardinals.

What Comes Next

While there may be some merit to 'steel sharpening steel' with tough division matches, I would rather Seattle takes the Patriots’ path to relevance by playing in cakewalk divisions year after year. Plus, I love watching the dumpster fire burn. The three most important people to the 49ers success are John Lynch, Kyle Shanahan, and C.J. Beathard.

Lynch played as an NFL safety for 15 years before retiring in November of 2008. Six days later, he joined the broadcast booth at Fox. Now, after a decade calling games, he is an NFL GM. I would love to hear what he said to Jed York to justify his hiring. He has no official scouting resume. Apparently he does make mock drafts. Congrats are in order, as FG member stufr (and many others) is apparently now qualified to be an NFL GM. We have one draft and 0 NFL film on his players, so I don't know how to evaluate him. He was lauded for trading back to 1.3 and some of it is deserved. However, it was an obvious choice to move back one spot and 'lose' a player they were never planning to pick. Without knowing how the actually negotiations happened, its tough to know how much credit he deserves for that move. The only broadcast-to-GM move that I can remember is Matt Millen with the Detriot Lions. Ask Lions fans how that went.

Kyle Shanahan deployed a fantastic offense in his second season as Falcons offensive coordinator. If he had called a run instead of a pass, he may have a ring of his own. Of course, if the Atlanta defense managed to get a single stop in the fourth quarter, they probably have a ring. Shanahan has been involved in coaching since 2003, when he got his first coaching job as a graduate assistant at UCLA. He has been an NFL offensive coordinator since 2008 when he was named as the Texans OC. He followed this gig up by following his dad to Washington where he was the OC for four years. After a year as Cleveland's OC, he was hired by Atlanta in 2015. And while the Falcons offense was great, the rest of Shanahan's resume is not as sterling.

Kyle Shanahan’s Offenses

Year Tm Yds Pts Rush Yds Rush TD Rush Y/A Pass Yds Pass TD Pass NY/A
Year Tm Yds Pts Rush Yds Rush TD Rush Y/A Pass Yds Pass TD Pass NY/A
2008 HOU 3 17 13 11 13 4 13 5
2009 HOU 4 10 30 18 31 1 5 3
2010 WAS 18 25 30 24 16 8 22 18
2011 WAS 16 26 25 26 22 14 23 16
2012 WAS 5 4 1 2 2 20 13 2
2013 WAS 9 23 5 13 3 16 24 23
2014 CLE 23 27 17 4 28 20 32 16
2015 ATL 7 21 19 12 25 6 23 10
2016 ATL 2 1 5 3 5 3 2 1

He has only ever coordinated three teams into the top 10 of points scored. Another, often maligned offensive coordinator has coached three teams into the top 10 of points scored ... in the last four seasons. I won't name him, but he is kind of edgy. So does Shanahan actually have a good offensive system, or was he just set up with some excellent talent in Atlanta?

C.J. Beathard is the final player I am going to highlight here. I don't understand how he was drafted in the third round. He didn't start in earnest until his junior year. When he did start he was a complementary piece of the offense. The Hawkeyes are perhaps the definition of a run-first offense. Iowa ran the ball 15 times more often than they passed, per game. He also is not a rushing threat, with a career 1.9 yards/carry, with -0.2 yards per carry (-13 yards on 83 carries) in his senior season. While Football Outsiders are certainly not perfect with their draft analysis, they didn't even think Beathard was a good enough prospect to run through their QBASE projection system. He was drafted because of the fetishization of the 'pro-style offense'. While college teams have shifted away from pro-style systems, NFL teams are scrambling to get players with pro-style experience. However, even in the pros, the pro-style offense is dying. Teams are passing more than ever, shotgun formation is on the rise, and 3 WR sets have become the norm. C.J. Beathard completed barely 60% of his passes as a college starter and, with two more games, threw 13 fewer TD passes than DeShone Kizer. At a time where NFL teams are incorporating more and more spread concepts into their offenses, selecting a relic from the 80s doesn't seem to be a prudent decision.

Prediction

I expect they will be about the same team as last season. The defense and offense will be a little better, but without a QB, they probably won't threaten the Seahawks' hold on the division. However, the incremental improvement and regression in terms of one score games will result in a better record. I think they end up going 4-12, but there is always a chance that they crash and burn (again) and have to at least consider moving on to their fifth head coach in five years — you never know what York will do.