Whew, much has happened since the last time I posted an article on the Webzone. That week, all the way back in November, Blaine Gabbert had taken the reigns of a sputtering offense and any hope that the remnants of 2012's Super Bowl roster would find some kind of resurgence went straight out the window. Gabbert, as we know, was marginally more successful than the man he took over for, but that still resulted in a 5-11 season and another coach fired.
It was difficult to watch and even more difficult, as a fan, to sit down and put in writing just what we were watching happen, the rapid decent back into NFL irrelevancy. Having said that, the brilliance of sport is that every season brings on hope for what may come. Success comes from the most unlikely of places at times and 49er fans don't have to reach too far back into their memory to recall a team enjoying marked reversals of fortune (in a good way). We haven't had much to look to for hope lately, but if there's anything 49er Faithful can hang their hopes on, it's these points of fact.
Chip Kelly is not Jim Tomsula
Chip may be many things, but you cannot deny the coach has a vision for the game and has had success at multiple levels. Instantly, he has more credibility in the minds of his players than did his predecessor, and that is not nothing. The core veteran talent of this team, sparse as it may be, needs someone to latch onto and believe can get them back to competitiveness.
Consider this quote from what many would consider Kelly's biggest detractor during his time with the Eagles, RB LeSean McCoy.
"The one thing I will say about Chip is that he wants to win. He's very, very intelligent. The offense, they'll find ways to get the big numbers. They'll find ways to put the stats up offensively. With him coming in there, no matter how good of a player or low player you are, if you just automatically believe him — no matter if it sounds crazy, you're like 'What is he talking about?' — if you just automatically believe and buy in, I think you'll be fine."
The 49ers roster is in desperate need of leadership and I'm sure will appreciate a more cerebral approach. If they're desperate enough to follow Kelly's vision to a "T", good things may happen over time.
The Offensive Line Has to be Better
The combination of Jordan Devey and Erik Pears on the right side of the line combined with 2nd year player Marcus Martin being forced to start at center resulted in some of the most astoundingly poor line-play I've seen in 25 years of watching the team. If there was any greater indictment of the coaching staff Tomsula had assembled, it was letting this combination not only hit the field together, but to start as many games as they did.
This year, with the full return of center Daniel Kilgore, the signing of former Pro-Bowl guard Zane Beadles, and the drafting of guard Joshua Garnett in the 1st round, the 49ers look poised to be dramatically improved upfront. Furthermore, the younger players that filled in last year such as Martin, Andrew Tiller, and Trent Brown all have significant experience that will lend itself well when the depth is called on.
The right tackle position is still very much up in the air and reports have said that the likely incumbent, Brown, is out of shape for Chip Kelly's purposes and Pears is again getting reps. Terrifying as that might be, the offseason is still relatively young though and Anthony Davis is still a lingering question mark that could also provide a solution should he be able to patch up his relationship with Baalke. Nevertheless, 4 out of 5 positions seem to have a reasonably good chance of already being set well prior to the start of the season and for those that know team O-line play, that's great news.
Real Competition at the QB Position
Coach Kelly has been very non-committal regarding the status of his QB race and truly, there isn't much to say at this point as Colin Kaepernick has yet to fully participate in practices. Blaine Gabbert played well enough last year and Kaepernick played poorly enough to warrant a full-on camp battle for the job however, and this may be the thing that finally shocks Kaepernick back to life.
Yes, he's working with a coach that knows a thing or two about QB play, but it could certainly be argued that Kaepernick started to falter when there was no danger of losing his job looming over his shoulder. He also didn't appear comfortable in the "superstar" role and really suffered in the limelight from a public perspective. Things are much different now, and with trade requests and rumors finally put to rest, he can focus on football and what may be his last, best chance to have a successful career in this league.
Should Gabbert win out, he has better tools than most of what Chip Kelly has had to work with in his 3 years in the league in terms of athleticism and will have proven some doubters wrong after having been thrown on the scrap-heap by the Jaguars.
Carlos Hyde Healthy
I'm not suggesting that the season would have been dramatically different had Hyde stayed in the lineup, perhaps another win or two would have materialized, but you can definitely argue that it severely inhibited the offense without defenses having to worry about the run. The 49ers wisely shut Hyde down early last season after a stress fracture in his foot cropped up and they found some nice backups in Shaun Draughn, Mike Davis, and DuJuan Harris, but they don't possess the same tools as Hyde, a truly dynamic player who now plays in an offense more aligned with his history. Should he get into a rhythm behind the hypothetically improved offensive line, the job for whomever takes over at QB gets significantly easier.
Ever since 2011 really, every season has been extraordinarily anticipated by fans and hopes were generally high (even last year for some). This year, most every talking head in the papers and on TV are saying the 49ers are going to suck. Great, let them.
I'm sure Kelly feels some pressure to get back in the NFL's good esteem, but he knows he's got more than just this year to do it. Certainly he'll have the support of the 49ers who are thankful to have him, for now. So essentially the 49ers have no expectations put on them for the first time in a long time. That bodes well for a team striking out to find a new identity and every victory they manage will be significant and a learning experience. I hope, as I know many of you do, that they catch on quickly, but at the very least we can expect a more entertaining product than what we got last year.