After a 26-20 win in Chicago on Dec. 6, then-49ers coach Jim Tomsula and his staff were set to return for the 2016 season. Then, three weeks later, they weren’t.
That serves as a lesson that the futures of those on the current 49ers squad – in grave danger of losing nine consecutive games for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president – probably haven’t been decided yet and instead will be written, rewritten and then scratched out again over the next seven weeks, starting Sunday against the Patriots.
What’s more, the fates of the big three – quarterback Colin Kaepernick, coach Chip Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke – are interwoven. If Kaepernick continues to make progress, that’s probably good news for Kelly, who’s been a Kaepernick advocate from the beginning. If the 49ers keep Kaepernick in 2017, that might not bode as well for Baalke, who has an icy relationship with the quarterback.
There still are myriad variables that could influence these decisions, including injuries, a hot streak, emerging candidates, etc. Here are the major ones:
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1. How will the 49ers fare over the last seven weeks?
Former coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary always were able to grind out victories in December, which preserved their jobs for the following year. (Both ultimately were fired in-season.) Singletary’s teams, in fact, had a combined 13-10 record in the second half of the season.
Tomsula, on the other hand, didn’t have a winning record in December. He followed the victory in Chicago with three consecutive losses, to Cleveland, Cincinnati and Detroit. That underscores the importance of last impressions: Winning late in the year, theoretically, signals momentum that will carry over to the following season. (Spoiler: That never happened with Nolan and Singletary, whose teams were bad early in the season and stronger late.)
Kelly’s 49ers finally showed spirit in last Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals, which is a good sign. But with some powerful opponents such as New England, Atlanta and Seattle remaining on the schedule, and two long trips still awaiting them, it’s hard to see the 49ers going on a hot streak.
2. What other quarterbacks are out there?
Kaepernick is the only quarterback signed for next season, and he can opt out of his contract before free agency begins in March.
Do the 49ers make a play for Tony Romo, who will be 37 next year and has played four games in the past two years? Do they bid on Washington free agent Kirk Cousins, who would be on the market because his own team didn’t think he was worth the at-least $18 million annual salary quarterbacks get nowadays? Do they fork over draft picks to New England for their backup quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, who is set to become a free agent and command his own massive contract in 2018? Veteran Jay Cutler might be available if he gets cut by the Bears. His record as a starter: 69-71.
The 2017 draft doesn’t have any easy answers, either. None of the top quarterbacks available are thought to be as coveted as the two, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, who went 1-2 in April.
3. What options does Kaepernick have?
As it stands, he will make at least $14.5 million if he is on the 49ers’ roster through next season. As always, there will be more teams seeking quarterbacks than there are quality quarterbacks available. Some will be the same suspects from last year – Cleveland and the New York Jets – and some may be teams like Chicago and Jacksonville that could move on from their current starters.
Because of that, someone like Kaepernick, who has won big playoff games and is not yet 30, would get attention. He’s gotten a little better in each of his four starts, and he turned his career arc – heading decidedly downward a year ago – back to an upward position.
But he’s still completing only 53 percent of his passes, and any organization that signs him would take on his national anthem protests and the fan furor they bring. As of now, he plays for a team with progressive owners who pledged $1 million toward Kaepernick’s cause.
How many others out there would be as obliging? How many would pay him $14.5 million?