The rivalry is dead. For now.
The San Francisco 49ers struck first in this current era, winning the NFC West in 2011. The Seattle Seahawks emerged the next year, grabbing a wild card spot with the rookie Russell Wilson and falling just shy of meeting the Niners in the NFC Championship game, who’d go on to fall just shy of a Super Bowl win. They did meet the next year in the NFC Championship with Richard Sherman leaving Michael Crabtree a huge tip for his troubles. Thus ended the three-year run of San Francisco as a notable NFC contender.
Jim Tomsula. Chip Kelly. And now, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan. The hope is that the latest regime change will be the one that sets them right, but the 49ers are 8-19 under new management, including a roster that is 2-17 when Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t start. And those two non-Garoppolo wins are against the New York Giants, who went 3-13 last season, and the Oakland Raiders, who’d be lucky to go 3-13 this season.
This is a bad, bad team. Arguably worse than Tomsula’s 49ers and Kelly’s 49ers. Maybe Garoppolo is a future Pro Bowl quarterback with unique top-five talents, but San Francisco started 1-2 this season and he threw a trio of interceptions in Week 1, an ongoing problem for him in all of his starts. That’s not the quarterback that the Seahawks will face this Sunday at 1:25 as Seattle hopes to upgrade their place in the standings to a place in the NFC wild card slots. That falls on Nick Mullens, a former UDFA out of Southern Miss who has thrown four interceptions in his last two starts, including a loss last Sunday to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that went as far as firing their defensive coordinator earlier this season.
It’s not looking good for the Niners, but this is still a divisional game between two teams that have a recent history. Pete Carroll is familiar with this team. Russell Wilson is familiar with this team. Richard Sherman is familiar with Seattle. So is 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, a former assistant under Carroll for the Seahawks. The teams may still have bad blood ... but San Francisco still needs a lot of new blood.
To get to know this current version of the 49ers better, I sent 5 Qs to David Fucillo of Niners Nation and in kind he sent back 5 corresponding As. Here they be:
Q: It appeared that maybe Nick Mullens could at least run an adequate offense after his debut against the Raiders but it turns out that “Raiders” because his last two games have not been very good. How is the offense changed or limited with Mullens under center?
A: The big issue with Mullens is his arm strength -- or lack thereof. He can’t hit anything going to the sideline ten or more yards down the field with consistency. It first showed up against the Giants. It was not an awful performance, but it showed his inability to get passes in quickly. He was well off on the first pick, and the second one that looked to be due to a Marquise Goodwin drop was in part because Mullens could not get enough zip on the ball. It was a known issue, so this was not a surprise.
He is not going to push Jimmy Garoppolo for the starting job, but I see him pushing C.J. Beathard for the backup job. Beathard has much better arm strength, but seemingly less pocket presence. Mullens took a beating against the Bucs, but that came after back-to-back games without getting sacked. Beathard has issues with feeling the pressure, while Mullens seems a little more adept at it. Given the hits he took in Week 12, I am curious to see if that is an anomaly or if it turns into a problematic trend. But for now, he seems to be a little more confident in making his throws than Beathard has seemed.
The big thing with Mullens is the level of competition. He looked great against Oakland, decent with question marks against New York, and bad against Tampa. I have a feeling this next stretch (@ SEA, vs. DEN, vs. SEA, @ CHI, @ LAR) could get ugly, but I do like that we will get a firm handle on just what he can do against upper level competition.
Q: With five games left to go, two against the Seahawks, which players are you most looking forward to watching as they get more playing time?
A: Injuries and general playing time decisions resulted in several younger players getting more playing time in Week 12. Pierre Garçon was out with a knee injury while Marquise Goodwin was away dealing with what is described as a serious family issue. That resulted in 2017 UDFA Kendrick Bourne and 2018 second round pick Dante Pettis starting. The 49ers traded up in the second round to land Pettis and it’s been an inconsistent season. He had a couple big catches the first two weeks, but injuries slowed him much of the next month. He got a starting opportunity on Sunday and led the team with 77 yards and a touchdown.
The team made Alfred Morris a healthy scratch, which resulted in 2018 UDFA Jeff Wilson getting some work behind Matt Breida. Wilson was a prolific back at North Texas and looked decent against the Bucs. Kyle Shanahan and Bobby Turner have extensive history developing under-the-radar running backs, so I’m looking forward to seeing more of Wilson the rest of the way.
On defense, 2018 fifth round pick D.J. Reed will likely be the team’s starting free safety the rest of the way after Jimmie Ward broke his arm on Sunday. Reed is a returner and can split time between free safety and slot corner. He has had some ups and downs this year, and five more weeks of assessment will be helpful for 2019.
The 49ers also activated 2018 seventh round pick Jullian Taylor for the first time. The rookie defensive end had a strong preseason but had been inactive the first ten games. He might prove to be a preseason wonder and nothing more, but I suspect we see enough of him these final five weeks to start getting a better handle on if there is more to him than just a couple big preseason performances.
Q: 27 games into the new regime, how would you grade the performances by John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan? Obviously you might grade on a curve based on the injury to Jimmy Garoppolo, but how about the rest of the roster?
A: If I really wanted to cop out on this, I’d say the 49ers brain trust gets an incomplete. They acquired Jimmy Garoppolo to potentially be the franchise QB which could still prove to be an A+ move. He got off to a strong start, signed a monster deal, and then tore his ACL three games into his first full season as starter. Garoppolo has the tools to be a very good quarterback, but nobody can say with certainty how he will look nine months from now when the 49ers are in training camp. There are plenty of others that need building, but if you’ve got a franchise quarterback, you’ve answered the biggest question by a long shot. The 49ers don’t fully know where they stand in that regard, so I actually think an Incomplete makes a certain amount of sense.
Looking strictly at the draft, you could argue they deserve a D for first round picks and a B+ or so for late round work. The 49ers have done solid work finding under-the-radar gems, including fifth round pick tight end George Kittle, UDFA running back Matt Breida, and third round pick linebacker Fred Warner. On the other hand, they released 2017 first round pick Reuben Foster after his third arrest of 2018, and his second for an allegation of domestic violence. He was considered a character and injury risk coming out of college, and both played out -- he was suspended two games to start this season for his offseason arrests, and missed extensive time over his season-and-a-half with the 49ers due to injuries. The 49ers rolled the dice on Foster, and it came up craps. Fellow 2017 first round pick Solomon Thomas has been average at best, not the kind of production you’d want from a No. 3 overall pick. Fortunately, 2018 first round pick Mike McGlinchey has been a strong presence at right tackle, and generally shown improvement each week. Overall, that might equate to a C or worse, depending on how you value hidden gems vs. screwing up first round picks.
In free agency, it’s been more misses than hits. Their 2017 additions started out well, but have had issues this year. They overpaid Kyle Juszczyk, but he’s been the best fullback, and a strong third down back for the team. Marquise Goodwin broke out last year, but has struggled to get going this year with QB changes, injuries, and other issues. Pierre Garçon was on pace for 1,000 yards last year before a broken bone in his neck cut short the season. He has dealt with a knee injury much of this season and might be finished. K’Waun Williams has been a solid enough nickel back who earned a contract extension last season.
This year, the 49ers signed center Weston Richburg and running back Jerick McKinnon to sizable contracts. They lost McKinnon at the end of the preseason to a torn ACL, and Richburg has been fairly mediocre much of the season. We’ll see what 2019 brings, but Richburg has been the least inspiring addition to the 49ers roster this year.
On the other hand, old Seahawks friend Richard Sherman is having a solid return from his torn Achilles. The 49ers have gotten inconsistent (at best) production from Ahkello Witherspoon opposite Sherman, but the former Seahawks cornerback has had a nice year. He has been challenged a bit more lately, but for a guy coming off a devastating leg injury, he’s been one of the team’s most consistent defenders. He’s not near his peak, but he looks like a guy who could play out his contract and provide solid leadership to a young defense.
I think the Jimmy Garoppolo situation turns this whole thing into an incomplete, but I still like where it’s headed. The Foster situation has been a mess, and if things don’t turn around, that could end up being viewed as a major factor. But if they can hit on what will be a high first round pick in 2019, it will move them in the right direction. There are so many question marks at this point that 2019 seems to be the year to truly evaluate whether this is going to work out or not.
Q: What are three things that you’re really happy about in regards to the Niners 2018 season?
Matt Breida: The UDFA was expected to complement Jerick McKinnnon, but he has emerged as a playmaker in his own right. He ranks tenth in rushing yards and third in yards per carry. He has benefited from some big running lanes, but he is among the league leaders in 20+ yard gains. Shanahan had high hopes for what McKinnon could bring to the 49ers offense. Having him and Breida next season has me excited about the backfield.
DeForest Buckner: It’s been a tough year for the 49ers defensive line, which has resulted in Buckner facing double-teams with regularity. Even still, the defensive tackle has set a career high with seven sacks. The 49ers haven’t had a player with double digit sacks since 2012 when Aldon Smith had 19.5. Buckner needs three more over the final five games to get into double digits. If the 49ers can add a talented edge rusher this coming offseason, their pass rush could take a big step forward in 2019.
Kyle Shanahan play-calling: The offense has been inconsistent at best, and looked abysmal against an atrocious Bucs defense, aside from Matt Breida. That being said, given the turnover at quarterback and injuries up and down the roster, I’m excited about what Shanahan’s play-calling will be able to do with a talent infusion next year. Whether Shanahan will turn out successful as a head coach is still uncertain, but his ability to design game-plans with often sub-standard talent in San Francisco is showing his skillset as an offensive mind.
Q: Have you heard of Michael Dickson?
A: Everybody loves a great special teams player! (I don’t know what else you want me to say here)