Before I let an elite-status headline turn into a full-on parody post (but seriously, take a moment to appreciate that headline) let's just dive right into the news you already know about:
The San Francisco 49ers are losing Patrick Willis and Justin Smith to retirement. This news comes right on the heels of Frank Gore reportedly saying he's going to Philadelphia to play for the Eagles, and that signing Torrey Smith on Tuesday is "a done deal." There was also the rumor that the 49ers were shopping Colin Kaepernick but there isn't a single credible source to back that up, and it would seem like an odd move since they promoted Geep Chryst -- Kaepernick's QB coach for his entire career -- to offensive coordinator.
But even if they don't have to replace their quarterback (yet), San Francisco has already shuffled the deck a lot this year and is far from finished with having to replace players.
Let's take a look at what we already know, or mostly know, about the new faces for 2015:
- Jim Harbaugh has been replaced by Jim Tomsula. It's not fair to say that Tomsula will be a bad head coach because we have no way of knowing that yet, but it is fair to say that Harbaugh will be as tough to replace as anyone.
- Chryst replaced Greg Roman at OC and Eric Mangini replaced Vic Fangio at defensive coordinator. Chryst has no experience as an offensive coordinator, while Mangini -- who coached the 49ers tight ends last year -- has one year as a DC. He coached the Patriots defense in 2005, and they finished 27th in DVOA for total defense, 29th against the pass, and 15th against the run.
- Has anyone used the headline "Gone Gore" yet? Honestly, Frank Gore is almost 32, meaning that he's already given San Francisco more than they could reasonably ask for (not that Jed York has ever reasonably asked for anything) but it doesn't mean they've done anything to replace him.
Despite spending good-to-decent picks on Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Marcus Lattimore, and Carlos Hyde, the 49ers don't appear to have anything to show for it. Hunter tore his ACL last year. James and Lattimore are gone. And Hyde's most extensive work last season included this three-game stretch:
10 carries for 26 yards
10 carries for 43 yards
11 carries for 14 yards
Nobody has been pushing the idea that finding a good running back is too easy in today's NFL more than I have (wanna fight about it?) but it hasn't been easy at all for Trent Baalke. They can go out and sign an adequate running back, but they will have a hard time replacing a guy who has averaged at least 4.1 yards per carry for 10 straight seasons.
- "What You Walkin' About, Willis?" In this case, the subject, Patrick Willis, is being asked why he is walking away from the NFL, making a colorful play on words with the popular phrase: "What you calkin' about, Wilson?" from the show Home Improvement.
Last year, Chris Borland did an awesome job playing a position that is similar to the position that Willis plays, but we all know that there is no "replacing" Patrick Willis. If he really never returns, he will have played his last game at age 29, but he will still be a good bet to make the Hall of Fame.
They went 4-2 when he was healthy last season, 4-6 when he was out.
It was reported in January that San Francisco would likely be switching a 4-3 defense, meaning that Michael Wilhoite won't have to start 16 games, instead allowing for a Borland-NaVorro Bowman-Ahmad Books situation, with Aldon Smith rushing the passer in some capacity. Those are four still-impressive names, but Willis was the everything of that defense.
The only other guy that even comes close to that presence would be ...
- Justin Smith.
Headline reads: "From Justin to ... Smelly?" Okay, still working on that one.
Smith was the fourth overall pick in the 2001 draft, which was a long time ago according to several reports. Reports like, "It was the same year that the Seahawks drafted Koren Robinson and the Panthers drafted Dan Morgan, who is now Seattle's assistant director of pro personnel."
He intercepted two passes in his rookie season with the Bengals, then obviously was never that good again, since he had only one interception over the entire rest of his career. Maybe it's not really his job to intercept passes, but come on Justin, you set us up for such high hopes with that first season. It's sort of like True Detective, but I'm not sure if True Detective can give us 13 more good seasons, like Smith did.
From 2009-2011 he was the NFL's best 3-4 defensive end/tackle, and since then he's "only" been like one of the five best.
They signed Darnell Dockett, but that's not going to come close to matching the production of Smith. Dockett is only two years younger than Smith, has never played quite at the same level, and is coming off of a torn ACL. And Dockett is the best player on their defensive line by a considerable amount.
- They signed Jerome Simpson and will reportedly sign Torrey Smith.
Signing Simpson (who fittingly enough, sort of looks like a Simpsons' character) largely means nothing. He didn't play last season, and in 2013 he caught less than half of his targets. His signing is on par with the signing of Brandon Lloyd last year, who finished with 294 yards*. Meanwhile, Smith is a talented player, probably more talented than Michael Crabtree, but it's close enough to think that swapping the two is mostly a wash.
*Reminder: Which was more than Vernon Davis, who had 245 yards.
Now, let's take a quick look at what's still unsettled for the 49ers:
- Mike Iupati is their top free agent, but San Francisco does not appear to be the frontrunner. Even if Iupati's play was somewhat uneven last year, he's still much better than anyone else they have to play guard. The next guy up might be Brandon Thomas.
What you need to know about Thomas is that when I clicked on his link on the 49ers Wiki page, it brought me to this guy's Wikipedia.
That's not really fair (though it is funny) because Thomas was a third round pick last year, but similar to the risks they took with Lattimore and Tank Carradine, San Francisco drafted him shortly after he tore his ACL. It's this odd strategy that Baalke has where he thinks that magic healing potions exist. Maybe Thomas will be okay, but even if he is, Iupati is about as good as guards get.
Another player that's irreplaceable or hard-to-replace.
- Both starting corners -- Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox -- are free agents. While there hasn't been much news about Cox's market, probably based on the fact that he just had his first and only good season and for past off-field issues, the Jets are reportedly very interested in Culliver, who also happens to be the Niners best corner and maybe a top-20 corner in the league.
According to Pro Football Focus, Culliver allowed a passer rating of 66.5 on 73 pass attempts, with four interceptions and four touchdowns allowed.
Losing at least one of their starters looks inevitable, while losing both is certainly possible. It's also possible that they can do better than Cox and get someone almost as good as Culliver, but it probably wouldn't be internal. Not if history has told us anything about Tramaine Brock or Leon McFadden, or Jimmie Ward's abilities as a corner.
- What's up with "The 'On Boys", which is what I call Vernon Davis and Anthony Davis since they both have 'On' in their names?
Anthony Davis missed nine games last season, which included hamstring, knee, ankle, and head injuries. It's probably nothing to be worried about, but Jonathan Martin didn't prove to be a great backup.
Vernon Davis had ankle and back injuries and had the worst season of his career. He's also been a cap casualty candidate this year, andmight not be returning, especially since it looks like the 49ers aren't afraid to burn it down. But the changes might not stop there.
- Though I mentioned him earlier as a potential starter, Ahmad Brooks has arguably fallen behind Aaron Lynch, and San Francisco could save over $4 million by releasing him with a post-June 1 designation.
Let's just assume that Crabtree is gone and pretend that Davis and Brooks get released and ask the question: Just who the hell even remains on the 49ers from the short-lived rivalry we all remember just two years ago?
Counting just notable players and coaches: Colin Kaepernick (on the hot seat), Joe Staley (30), Anquan Boldin (34), NaVorro Bowman (missed all of last season), Aldon Smith (renegotiated deal to apparently make him easy to release if anything goes wrong), Anthony Davis, and Eric Reid.
I don't know if the 49ers are better or worse, but I do know that this is not going to be the same team that Seahawks fans loathed. Maybe you'll loathe them for different reasons, maybe you'll revel in their defeat, but it should be almost for completely different reasons than before.
Now let's briefly talk about why they're worse:
As of today, San Francisco looks like a pretty bad team.
If the offensive line stayed very healthy, then maybe the offense could be alright, but the 49ers are dealing with the losses of Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Frank Gore, and the potential losses of Mike Iupati, Chris Culliver, and Perrish Cox. There is also the issue of whether they'll release Vernon Davis, Ahmad Brooks, and Stevie Johnson. Yet they'll be saving the money only to have already fallen way behind in the quest to add all of the good free agents.
Without any other moves, the starting running backs would be Hyde and Hunter, the tight ends after Davis are Derek Carrier, Vance McDonald, and Garrett Celek, the starting guard would be Thomas, the starting corners would be Brock and McFadden, the starting defensive tackles would be
Ray McDonald and Ian Williams, and the top receiver turns 35 in October. Is that a better roster than the Seahawks, Cardinals, or Rams, and how much worse is it than the team that went 8-8 last season?
And all of these moves still live under the umbrella of an organization being run by an owner that chose the guy who has built/destroyed this roster over the guy who coached them to three straight NFC Championships.
Then again, maybe the 49ers didn't screw over Jim Harbaugh. Now it looks like they were just doing him a favor.