“This isn’t a rebuild situation. This is a reload situation.”
The quote, uttered Dec. 29, 2014, has gone down as Trent Baalke’s most infamous. The 49ers’ then-general manager had just parted ways with Jim Harbaugh, the franchise’s most successful coach in the last two decades, and insisted the 49ers would continue to be among the NFL’s elite. He was wrong. Harbaugh won more games in his lousiest year as the 49ers’ head coach (eight) than his replacements did in the next two seasons combined (seven).
The quote also was the first verbalization of Baalke’s debilitating blind spot: He thought the players he assembled were way better than they actually were, in the way a proud father thinks his daughter’s red crayon scribble is the most fantastic fire engine ever painted.
A year later, after Jim Tomsula’s failed one-year stint as Harbaugh’s replacement, the 49ers again went the wishful-thinking route and hired Chip Kelly as head coach. The thought process: Kelly’s offensive mind plus Baalke’s ability to find defensive talent would make the 49ers great again. It was about as solid a strategy as sprinkling pixie dust at the 50-yard line, waving a magic wand and yelling, “Presto!”
Which is why the best news to come out of the 49ers’ Thursday news conference is that the new regime seems to be grounded in realism.
There was no boastful talk about banners and beating the Seahawks. The undercurrent Thursday was that the 49ers aren’t very good, aren’t very talented and have a long road ahead.
That’s why new general manager John Lynch and incoming head coach Kyle Shanahan insisted on twin, six-year deals. If San Francisco’s rebuild is done correctly, it will take time.
The 49ers have an abundance of salary cap space and 10 draft picks, and a combination of the two could be used in trades. Shanahan said the team had no choice but to look at each of those avenues. But there also was a sense that he and Lynch would proceed with caution.
“You don’t just go do that to do that,” he said of bold roster moves. “You’ve got to make sure that you make the right decisions, you build it the right way. Everyone’s goal is to win right away, but the main goal is to build a team that can win consistently, and that’s what our goal is.”
The 49ers already are taking their cues from Lynch.
He spoke first Thursday and showed a confident, friendly, easygoing manner that also set him apart from Baalke, who was known for being defensive and guarded and also extremely assured of his abilities as a talent evaluator.
Since his hire last month, Lynch openly has acknowledged he has no scouting background or front-office experience, and on Thursday he announced he had hired ex-Lions general manager Martin Mayhew to help fill that experience gap.
A cynic (or a sportswriter) might point out that Lynch isn’t the only player-turned-broadcaster-turned-NFL executive who has hired Mayhew. Matt Millen made a similar move in 2001, and his teams (and his tenure) – including the Lions’ 0-16 squad in 2008 – are among the worst in NFL history.
Still, Lynch also has brought in Adam Peters and retained, for now, Tom Gamble, which means he’s surrounded himself with experience, and in Peters’ case, success. He was part of the Patriots’ front office that won two Super Bowls and was with the Broncos when they won Super Bowl 50.
“I’m going to embrace all those guys,” Lynch said. “I can tell you that we’ve been in draft meetings for the last two days, and it’s been great. I think we have a great process going. I’m not a guy who’s going to come in and just change everything. You come in and see what you have, and I’ve been very encouraged with what we have already.”
Everyone knows where they want to go when they’re hired to run an NFL team. The positive about the incoming 49ers officials is that, unlike previous regimes, they seem to know where they are.