Yesterday a friend and Seahawks fan, recently returned from a trip to Reno, awakened me from my mid-summer slumbers with a printout of the over/under odds for each NFL team's 2015 season win totals. The 49ers projected tally? Six-and-one-half wins. Ah, the harsh realities of old-fashioned black and white. Quickly, after a two-month hiatus, I accessed several of my favorite NFL sites. Some prognosticators suggested the prospectors might win five games, or even four. Intrepid 49er-homers predicted ten wins, a few of the hardheaded hinted at eleven, while a smattering of severe wishful thinkers lobbied for even more.
What if they're all correct? What if, over the medium term, the team settles into the fair-to-middlin' ranks so common to most NFL franchises? After all, most teams avoid outright disastrous seasons, while never winning the Super Bowl. They win, say, between five and eleven games per year. On up years they pretend they're perennial championship contenders. On down years they dodge the falling football skies. This portending run of potential mediocrity does not, of course, fit the ambitions of Mr. Jed York, nor will it assuage the hopes of the faithful. Mr. York has scrawled "Super Bowl or Bust" on his lead Conestoga wagon, and the rest of us lowly prospectors have mostly followed suit.
Let us, then, before the games themselves return to shorten our attention spans, review four factors that allow those happy-few teams to rise from the ranks of the middle-of-the-packers, and see if we might salvage some Super-Bowl hope, beyond the near term, for the next few seasons.
The Yorks now own the 49ers, and have delegated most important ownership responsibilities to that young family rascal, Jed. Jed, along with his posse, mainly decides who gets hired and fired in 49erland. Would Jed ever fire himself? Even if he possessed the wherewithal, as most of us do not, to recognize his own shortcomings, likely he would not lop off his own modest noggin. Why not? Because the 49er fan base adores him. They call him "cute" and "cuddly," terms, admittedly, seldom used to denote success in football. Most fans think that the young swain can do no wrong, and, even when he does, the lad's sweet smile and seductive demeanor soon win the faithful back again.
Not since the heyday of Art Rooney, chomping his cigar high above the Steel Curtain, has an owner been so beloved by his fans. Were Jed ever to leave, most fans would weep inconsolably and rend their red-and-gold garments unto tatters. What care we, with such an owner, for mere Super Bowl victories? Jed may be a punch-line, but he's our punch-line, and we slavishly support his follies.
An ideal owner masters the art of knowing where s/he can and cannot help, and gracefully steps aside where not needed, avoiding the extremes of micromanaging on the one hand and neglect on the other. S/he provides the money, sets the franchise tone and lets those whom s/he has hired do their jobs. Above all, a good owner models professionalism and does not get involved in organizational personality conflicts and their ensuing feuds. In other words, young Mr. York, despite his many charms, is still a work in progress. Recently, in comparing Jim Tomsula to Steve Kerr, he threw his new coach under the training-camp bus before the season has even begun, a startling repeat of the same pattern he enjoyed with a certain former coach. Until Jed learns better, and he may, current ownership will remain a negative factor with regard to the 49ers' attempted escape from mediocrity.
Other teams have overcome less-than-ideal ownership to assail the Super Bowl, and here, under the category of personnel, most 49er optimists currently make their stand. They opine that the quality of the Niners' roster supersedes the assessments of mainstream-media experts. I myself proffered this possibility last spring. Certainly the 49ers have several under-the-mainstream-radar candidates who could excel in 2015. But, truthfully, we won't know how many, if any, of these players might blossom until after the regular season starts. We may hope, but cannot know.
Indeed, the upcoming season will go far in telling us how well Trent Baalke's roster performs. Few holdovers from the McCloughan era remain. These 2015 boys are Baalke's babies. If they fail, we will see how quickly Jed moves to replace Trent. Baalke manipulates the draft well, and usually adds value via extra picks. However, extra picks avail little of you do not select the right players with them. Likewise Baalke's redshirt strategies, also hit-and-miss, forfeit, even with the hits, valuable individual first-year playing experience, as well as four full years of salary-cap-friendly rookie contracts. This may work with already-talent-laden rosters; sometimes, though, you need as many impactful first-year players as you can get. (See the 1981 and, to be fair, 2011 49ers.)
Yes, the 49ers have PUP, NFI, IR and other methods to prolong their redshirts' contracts, but better by far to have a cavalcade of youngsters play so well immediately that they force management into hard decisions on roster spots available for backside-of-their-careers veterans. Of course, these are 49er-fan team dreams. Remember, this time of year, all fans of mediocre teams fantasize that their own team's roster is underrated. We salivate over each training-camp catch and marvel at each exhibition game block. The experts have underrated us! Our boys are better than anyone thinks! Jed is not only cute, but competent! Brent's brilliant!
Well, maybe. Conversely, some fans intentionally underrate their teams to preclude later disappointment, sometimes to the point of sour grapes, bitterness, or even downright abjection. And, this time, they, too, may prove right. Most likely, though, we're still in the midlands here, that talent range where we're neither dismal nor elite. Few complained two years ago about the 49ers having an underrated roster. Such desperate assertions now, even from optimists, confirm the probability that we now lack a juggernaut squad. Here's hoping this batch of ballers surprises us. Until they do, we cannot realistically say that we have the players on hand to overcome the team's other possible shortcomings.
Others have written reams about the head-coaching qualifications, or lack thereof, possessed by one Jim Tomsula. For sure, superb coaching can make good players seem great and bad teams better. And Tomsula has assembled a solid staff. Could this be the edge we have to become a top-five NFL team? Back in the day, maybe. See, for example, Bill Walsh's '81 team, not the most talented, perhaps, but very smart, and smartly coached. Today, though, most NFL teams feature damn fine coaches throughout; hard to get an edge here from position coaches alone. As for innovative coordinators, most of them get snapped up quickly to become head coaches themselves. Thus, the 49ers off-season pursuit of Adam Gase and others. We wound up, to the dismay of many fans, with Jimmy T.
Certainly, Jimmy could work out, but he has done nothing so far to merit much confidence as a game-planning wizard. Never mind, some say. Let Tomsula manage and massage the front office egos, and coach the coaches. The difference-making brains will emerge from somewhere else on the staff. Tomsula has already encouraged his assistants to install new schemes, and many fans have gone gaga over the prospects of zone blocking and inverted coverages. Hell, I'm looking forward to them, too, just as once I looked forward to Jimmy Raye's schematic magic. What did we expect Jim Tomsula to say, that his predecessor had already implemented the perfect schemes for this team, so no need to change them? That would have made Jed tremble, and not from joy.
Besides, from where on the current staff might such brains emerge? More on this later.
Like it or not, the most important position in the modern NFL remains quarterback. An ace QB can overcome a multitude of other shortcomings. More importantly, the lack of a great quarterback severely hampers a squad's chances of winning the Super Bowl. The last twelve Super Bowl victors were led by the following field generals: Brady, Wilson, Flacco, Manning, Rodgers, Brees, Roethlisberger, Manning. That's it, not just good QBs, but potential hall-of-famers, with the career reputations of the younger names still pending. Clearly, Colin Kaepernick does not yet belong on this list.
Some will insist that Kaep could fit the Flacco slot on the above list, an in-his-prime quarterback who could get hot at the right post-season time. Good point. After all, Colin now has Flacco's old receivers at whom to throw, and even Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl. True enough. I'm not saying the 49ers cannot possibly win a championship with Kaep. I'm just saying, on the strength of quarterback play alone, it's not probable. The objective rankings of non-49er-fan experts no longer include Kaepernick in the top tier of NFL signal callers; many have dropped him from the middle tier.
Ah, but Colin has, this very off-season, revamped his delivery, overhauled his entire throwing motion, and re-dedicated himself to studying his position. I have never doubted Kaep's work ethic, dedication, or talent. He works hard every off-season and so far has not transformed himself into a truly great NFL quarterback. As for his vaunted new throwing mechanics, we'll see if the old muscle memory worms back in during the duress of actual games.
Having already discussed the traditional four factors most NFL savants use when assessing a franchise's championship viability, I have added a fifth: Defense. Why? For a couple reasons. First, as a 49er fan, I am not content to leave the team mired in the mediocrity projected by the uninspiring evaluations of the first four factors: Ownership, Personnel, Coaching, and Quarterback. Second, of all the plausible fantasies I could devise, I believe this one qualifies, however tentatively, as the most realistic path to a possible great season. Laugh if you want. Jeer if you must. But do please grant me a prospector's red-and-fool's-gold prerogative. To wit:
In completing the first four sections of this article, one outlier stood out: teams with great defenses have previously overcome deficiencies in other areas to win championships. Specifically, two of the non-hall-of-fame-bound quarterbacks listed above, Trent Dilfer and Joe Flacco, won Super Bowls with stalwart defenses, Dilfer as a game manager and Flacco (who may yet attain elite status) as a hot-at-the right-time youngster. If you're not a Russell Wilson fan, you can include the Seahawks on this list. And even teams with great quarterbacks, such as Joe Montana and Steve Young, relied on superior defenses to get them back onto the field. Duh, you might say. Then please consider further how this storyline might particularly suit the current 49er team.
The 49ers' coaching staff may already have, hidden in their midst, a brilliant as-yet-unknown young football mind ready to blossom, or even several. Except we don't have to delve deeply into the unknown or indulge in rash wish-fulfillment fancies. The team already has one known smart football mind, and that mind belongs to the man who will coach and coordinate the 49ers' defense, one Eric Mangini. His Mangenius days far behind him, he may nonetheless still have the stuff to revive the 49ers' fortunes.
Before proceeding further, let us debunk one oft-made criticism about Vic Fangio's defenses, namely that they were too vanilla. If you had the kind of starters the Niners had on defense from 2011-2014, you, too, might succumb to the temptation to leave the same crew on the field most of the time. True, those teams did not look fancy, but Fangio engineered subtle adjustments and different assignments with the same players. Remember, the inside linebackers could cover like safeties and hit like, well, linebackers. And so could, most of the time, the safeties.
That said, expect Mangini to add some spice to the alignments, to use more players, devise more deceptions, and in general experiment like the mad scientist he's always been. Oh, his units may prove devilishly delightful to watch. Young players may earn more playing time; some may even star. Coverages, blitzes, and line stunts could proliferate. Jed York might even suit up. Sabroso mucho. Heartburn aplenty. Glee and hosannas. We will change his nickname to Madmangenie. We will call for his promotion to head coach. We will beg him to remove Jed York from goal-line defenses.
Speaking of Jim Tomsula, forget not that he has experience on the defensive side, and that he well knows the 49ers' young linemen there. He can make suggestions about how each front-line defender may fit into Mangenie's Alladinesque schemes, and thereby feel like, early on, a true contributor. Jim Harbaugh, in the midst of a comeback Michigan season, may even say, "I wish I'd thought of that."
Seriously, it might take some time for the defense to gel, but they may well come together before the offense, which, with their own rearranged line, may struggle awhile to survive. But, to repeat, a stout defense can buy time for a sputtering offense, and Pinion can pin the opposition deep on kickoffs to further abet a field-position strategy. Who knows, if the defense stabilizes by mid-season and the offense improves as the games grind forth, the now-distant playoffs may beckon. And if, by then, Kaep has mastered his new throwing motion in the context of a Colin-friendly offense, the team could catch fire (sorry, drought-stricken Californians) and blaze into the playoffs.
If, if, if. Might, might, might. I know. Could, could, could. Remember, though, I wrote this article not just about the upcoming season, but the next few. Will the 49ers during these looming years restore themselves as genuine perpetual Super Bowl contenders? Maybe, maybe not. Admittedly, the odds stack strongly against them, with four of the aforementioned factors now idled in neutral. But if they do return to their elite ways, likely their defense will lead them.