Gold Dust Or Bust

Written By: Joe Grisso

Yet after a 2017 season which saw a shocking mid-year trade to bring in QB Jimmy Garoppolo from New England, optimism was high heading into 2018 for a wild card berth, potentially even a division crown. Garoppolo went 5-0 as a starter that year with the same supporting cast that Brian Hoyer and CJ Beathard could only carry to 1-10, and the team signed long hated rival Richard Sherman (the self-proclaimed “best corner in the game”) to a multi-year deal. Factor in the excitement around rookie linebacker Reuben Foster (more on him later) and the most salary cap space in the league, and the patience in Santa Clara understandably gave way to hope (even hype) for 2018.

Those hopes were quickly dashed when Garoppolo tore his ACL in week three against the Chiefs and eventual league MVP Patrick Mahomes. Playing most of the year with a third string QB on offense and an injury riddled defense, the 49ers lost to Arizona twice en route to a forgettable 4-12 season that marked their fifth year in a row without a winning record. Adding insult to injury, Foster was disappointing when he played and ended up being cut in November after his third arrest of the year, with two of them being related to domestic violence.

Although most of the Faithful can probably forgive a subpar 2018 that may have been much different had Garoppolo gotten out of bounds a yard sooner than he did, the fact remains that 2019 will mark year three of the Lynch and Shanahan era, and the midpoint of their contracts. Much like how American voters wish to see tangible results from an incumbent president before re-electing him to a second term, the fans will need to see real signs of progress in 2019. The signs have been largely intangible so far, moral victories like taking Green Bay (2018) or Los Angeles (2017) down to the wire on national TV before falling short.

No more. They need to win, and they need to win now. If not, their jobs (or at least Shanahan’s) could be in serious jeopardy.

Make no mistake, the team is heading in the right direction. Fifth round tight end George Kittle appears to have been the steal of the 2017 Draft, a good counter to the disappointments of their first rounders that year: in addition to moving up to take Foster at thirty one, the Niners traded back from two to three with QB needy Chicago, then used that pick to nab DT Solomon Thomas, whose productivity thus far is more in line with a second or third rounder than a second or third overall pick. They’re slated to draft second for the second time in three years this April, with a pair of dominant edge rushers in OSU’s Nick Bosa and Kentucky’s Josh Allen awaiting them. Using that draft capital to get an explosive player like one of these two will do wonders to improve the team in both the short and long term.

On the team already, veterans like Sherman and WR Marquise Goodwin have shown leadership while rookies like RT Mike McGlinchey and LB Fred Warner have shown promise. The team is still loaded with cap space (according to Spotrac they are projected to rank sixth in the NFL and first in the NFC), and with Garoppolo returning (plus RB Jerick McKinnon, who was handed $8M a year last offseason before tearing his ACL just before week one) there’s no reason to believe the 49ers can’t right the ship and be at bare minimum a wild card contender this fall.

But what if they aren’t? What if the talented pieces Shanahan has assembled just don’t gel under his leadership? What if his offensive system isn’t the perfect bride for Garoppolo’s skill set like everyone thought it would be? What if the team continues to hang with contenders, but for one reason or another, constantly ends up on the short end of hotly contested battles?

Well, then it may indeed be time for a change. Just look south at the Rams, coming off their best season since Warner and Co. were lighting up the scoreboard in St. Louis. As anemic as their Super Bowl performance may have been, there’s no doubt that new head coach Sean McVay took that offense to a level not possible under old head coach Jeff Fisher, even though Fisher’s regime was responsible for drafting RB Todd Gurley and QB Jared Goff. As cruel as it may seem, sometimes the right team is made by the wrong coach, and a change must be made before the window of contention closes. The 49ers know this all too well: the house that the Mikes (Nolan and Singletary) built only turned into a mansion once Jim Harbaugh and his khakis abandoned the warm nights of Palo Alto for the chilly winds of Candlestick.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge believer in Kyle Shanahan. I strongly believe that, having gotten most of the pieces together, we will see his offense in full swing this year. The defense should be better too, with a talented edge rusher (the lack of which was the biggest thing that held the unit back in 2018) being likely in round one. I predict he will win in 2019 and beyond and live up to the lofty expectations that came with his name and time in Atlanta.

But he can’t afford to be patient. He needs to be aggressive. Like, going after Earl Thomas in free agency and trading for either Antonio Brown or OBJ aggressive. The time to be patient was 2017 and maybe 2018. The time to win is 2019. Don’t believe me? Just look at how quickly the worm turned for Adam Gase in Miami: the 2016 Coach of the Year candidate was canned after a 10-6 rookie campaign gave way to 6-10 without Ryan Tannehill and 7-9 with him. That’s a 23-25 record over three years and included a playoff appearance. Shanahan is just 10-22 without one through two years.

Are the situations different? Sure. But if Shanahan doesn’t show he can win after three years (7-9 should do the trick, anything worse is cause for concern), the excuses will ring hollow. He will need to go.

It’s time to win now. This is San Francisco, after all.