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When the Savior arrivedtwo years (or was it a lifetime?) agothe plan was in place. And the key component, we knew, would be patience. Oh, sure, amid the euphoria that surrounded the hire, we had crazy visions of immediate greatness. But the plan was in place, and the plan would take time.
First things first: the Savior would draft a quarterback. This, of course, would be the key, the kid who'd take us to Super Bowls. But once again, it wouldn't be soon. Young QBs take time to grow, so while he grew, we'd need a bridge, a grizzled vet from whom he could learn. Preferably, a proven winner, but one whose tank was running low.
And then here's how the plan would work.
Year One would be The Year of Installation. The vet would play, the kid would sit. And the goal would be merely installing the system. For a franchise coming off eight years of losing, learning the Savior's winning system would be like learning to speak Japanese. If these guys could simply master the schemesa task that the lockout would make even tougherthen mission accomplished. The few wins we could get, figure six at the most, would be largely irrelevant.
Year Two would be The Year of Transition. Maybe halfway through, the vet would prove he'd maxed out, so it'd be time to put in the kid. The results, of course, would be mixed; he'd provide some flashes, but ultimately his inexperience would show. So the goal would be showing him everything once, so when we were ready to take the next step, he wouldn't be subject to any surprises. The record again would be meaningless, but eight-and-eight would sound about right.
Year Three would be The Year of Contention. The Savior's system would be up and running, the roster would be the Savior's guys, and the kid, under the Savior's wing, would be the best young ace in the game. The playoffs would be a certainty. And with a little luck, the Savior's Year Three would end just like the Genius's did: with a Super Bowl title, which would launch a dynasty.
The plan was in place. And believe it or not, as we enter Year Three, it still is.
Oh, no question, there've been some glitches. Going into Year One, the "grizzled vet" wasn't supposed to be Mike Nolan's quarterback, with all that heavy baggage of his. But, as planned, the installation proceeded. The season featured some surprising drama, but the key point was, the foundation was set.
In Year Two, as planned, the vet was phased out. (The transition wasn't supposed to require an injury, so the plan might've gotten a bit lucky here.) The kid went through the predictable ups and downs (and a whole lot of unpredictable ones). But ultimately, he saw it all, and he established himself as the league's most dynamic offensive weapon.
Meanwhile, as planned, the Savior's guys have loaded the roster. With its comprehensive dynastic potential, the Year One draft, a few years on, could look like Pittsburgh's in 74. For now, it was deep enough to allow the Niners to draft essentially one year ahead. The Year Two draft was redshirted almost entirely, and much of the Year Three draft will be too. What this strategy lacks in immediate impact, it more than makes up with the prospect of sustained organizational excellence.
Indeed, the Year Three draft was definitive proof: after years of wandering around in the dark, the Niners have retaken their place as the league's most soundly-run operation. Trent Baalke manipulated the board so skillfully, the "GM" in his title should stand for "Grand Master." In the first round, going in with more picks than any of his peers, he traded up for the one starter he lacked. Then, in the second, he traded down and still got first-round-quality depth where he needed it most. Solid depth followed at tight end, outside backer, and wide receiver. At the end of the fourth, he used a compensatory pick on a rusher who would've gone in the top five, but for two blown ACLs. (Just ask Frank Gore if he wasted that choice.)
All told, he spent 11 picks, addressing every conceivable need. (And this isn't including the sixth-round pick he spent on playoff-hero Anquan Boldin, an unquestionable #2 at last.) And he'll likely have at least that many in next year's draft. Not bad for a man once dismissed on this page as just another York Family lightweight.
Undoubtedly, the plan is in place. We're all set up for The Year of Contention.
What's that you say? You say we've already been contending? Ah yes, the part that didn't go nearly as planned.
Even now, it's hard to believe. In Year One, we did the installation, but somehow we won, and kept winning, all the way to the NFC title game. In Year Two, we made the transition, but somehow we won, and kept winning, all the way to the Super Bowl. Truly unbelievably, going into "The Year of Contention," we could've been going for a championship threepeat.
Naturally, those shocking successes raised our hopes, and seeing them dashed was the worst kind of pain. But if only to hold my sanity close, I choose to focus back on the plan. Year One went on longer than anyone had a right to expect, but in a way it ended precisely as planned: with the grizzled vet revealing his ceiling. Year Two saw the kid do more than we'd ever seen fit to dare to imagine, but in the end, again as planned, a seasoned Dwith only 15 feet to sparesimply exploited his inexperience.
We almost stole a title (or two), and heaven knows I wish we'd succeeded. But the fact remains, all of this was merely prologue. A prelude leading to this year, the year when everything comes together.
The Savior's era truly begins. A dynasty comes back to life.
You see, it's all a part of the plan.