49ers at Cardinals: Matt Barrows' 5 players to watch
Seen some bad football, have ya? Think it’s never been more bleak for your 49ers, do ya? Wondering how long it will be before you can stomach all four quarters, are ya?
Sorry to go “crusty old sea salt” on everyone, but it’s been darker before. Much darker. Don’t believe it? Then gather ’round the mizzenmast, light up your whale-bone pipes and prepare yourselves for some astonishing tales from the depths.
There was the season – oh, I think it was 2005 – when No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith took his first snaps in Week 4 but didn’t throw his first touchdown pass until Week 17. The rookie’s touchdown-to-interception ratio that year: 1 to 11.
There was the season in which the 49ers were led in receiving by a tight end, Eric Johnson. You scallywags probably know him by his new name, Mr. Jessica Simpson.
There was the day of the great wind storm – gusts so fierce that pigeons were struck from the sky, I tell ya! – in which quarterback Cody Pickett managed to complete one pass the entire game.
The 49ers set a franchise record for most punts in a season in 2005, averaged just 13.7 points a game in 2007, watched their head coach drop his pants in front of them in 2008 – Argh! – and in 2009 employed an offensive coordinator who had never heard of Yahoo!, a company with a sprawling campus just down the street.
All of which is to say, yes, the current 49ers are bad. Yes, there are holes throughout the roster. Yes, it’s going to take time and – attention, front office – money to get back to contender status.
But the slog back to respectability shouldn’t be as steep as it was a decade ago.
Back then, the 49ers not only missed on draft picks, they mangled the salary cap so badly that, with one massive swipe of the machete, they cut Terrell Owens, Jeff Garcia, Garrison Hearst and Derrick Deese after the 2003 season. That exodus of talent led to two wins the following year.
In 2005, Mike Nolan inherited a team that had one Pro Bowl player along the offensive line in Jeremy Newberry and one on the defensive line in Bryant Young. Both were nearing the end of their careers.
Neither line is complete now, but they are mostly young and in better shape than they were during the team’s last collapse. Which means the 49ers at least have the skeleton of a roster in place, something that wasn’t there 12 years ago.
What needs to happen? The following:
Quarterback plan: Three of the team’s 2016 quarterbacks – Blaine Gabbert, Thaddeus Lewis and Christian Ponder – will be free agents in March. The fourth, Colin Kaepernick, can opt out of his contract at the same time. The 49ers’ 2016 plan at the position seemed to be that first-year coach Chip Kelly would come in and wave a magic wand over Gabbert and/or Kaepernick. The 2017 plan needs to be more long-term. One issue: The quarterback talent seems to be in the 2018 draft.
Tough guys: The recent successful 49ers teams had players like Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and Frank Gore, who required a team of horses to get them off the field. Too many current 49ers leave the game too often and remain in street clothes a game too many. There’s a noticeable lack of grit on the field and in the locker room. The Nolan-Scot McCloughan tandem had its flaws, but they were adept at identifying tough guys.
Spend money: Once they fixed their salary cap situation, the 49ers of a decade ago tried to use free agency to pick themselves up off the mat. Sometimes that resulted in flops like Jonas Jennings (23 starts in four seasons for San Francisco; not a tough guy). But it also resulted in Justin Smith, Marques Douglas, Takeo Spikes and Michael Lewis.
The current 49ers have more than $41 million in salary cap space, according to NFL Players Association. The only team with more is the Cleveland Browns.