The 49ers are in the midst of another disastrous season. They enter their trip to play the Seahawks this weekend in the driver’s seat for the top overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
The plan coming into the year was to build off the five-game winning streak to end 2017 and be the hunt for playoff contention with Jimmy Garoppolo under center for a full campaign. Winning was going to be the best way to build a foundation for the future.
“We came here for one reason. That’s to win and compete for championships,” general manager John Lynch told The Bee in August. “And that’s where we’re going to get. When that happens, I think that’s up to our guys and how they go execute and compete.”
But far more has gone wrong than right in Year 2 for Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan. Garoppolo played in three games before tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament in Kansas City, weeks after top free-agent running back addition Jerick McKinnon suffered the same injury in practice a week before the regular season opener.
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The latest chapter in San Francisco’s book of misfortunes came over the weekend when prized linebacker Reuben Foster was released less than two years after being a first-round draft pick. The move came after his second arrest on domestic violence allegations since February.
Suffice to say, silver linings in 2018 have been nearly impossible to find for the 2-9 club.
The bottom line for Shanahan and Lynch: They preside over a team with the NFL’s worst record, a year after starting 0-9. The team has continued to come up short in winnable situations. Yes, they deserve credit for that 5-0 sprint to the finish 12 months ago, but the shine from that accomplishment has worn off and the momentum did not carry over. It didn’t portend to anything tangible, other than Garoppolo’s $137.5 million contract.
Naturally, each loss this season (and more are coming, to be sure) leads to more murmuring from the fan base, both in the stands and on social media, that perhaps Shanahan and Lynch aren’t the pair to get the 49ers back to the playoffs. San Francisco hasn’t been there since Jim Harbaugh’s penultimate season in 2013.
In reality, Shanahan and Lynch aren’t in danger of losing their jobs, or being on the hot seat, until the end of 2019 at the earliest.
They signed matching six-year contracts when they were hired in 2017, and there’s been no indication CEO Jed York wants to dive back into a coaching or GM search for the sake of placation.
Even with all positivity created by the way 2017 ended, reaching the playoffs in the crowded NFC was perhaps too ambitious a goal, even if Garoppolo had stayed healthy for the entire season. Lynch and Shanahan were careful to define what a successful season in 2018 would look like.
“We really try to not focus on, ‘here’s the marker of us being a vastly improved team,’” Lynch told The Bee in August. “Do we want the playoffs? Absolutely. Everybody’s shooting for the playoffs. But I think if we just focus on what we preach to our players, because we believe it, focus on what we can control, those things take care of themselves. Where that is, I’m not going to put a mark on that.”
Injuries fall under the umbrella of things they can’t control. Losing Garoppolo Week 3 was a predictable death knell for 2018 given how rarely, if ever, teams contend without their franchise quarterbacks.
But what about what Shanahan and Lynch can control?
They can control the players they draft and how those players develop. They control the background work they do on players leading up to the draft and creating the environments those players need to be successful.
Clearly the new regime failed when it came to identifying Foster and curating the conditions he needed despite obvious red flags during the pre-draft process, including getting kicked out of the NFL combine for getting into an altercation with a hospital worker and failing a drug test there.
The new regime’s first draft pick, Solomon Thomas, hasn’t been a difference maker. There could be a variety of reasons at play, including Thomas being used mostly out of position. He’s proven to be best as an interior pass rusher, yet he’s struggled to get playing time over Arik Armstead and Sheldon Day, and been a run defender on the outside.
Confidence has also been an issue for Thomas. He was credited for his only sack this season when he was near Raiders quarterback Derek Carr as he happened to scramble out of bounds for a short loss. And, of course, there’s the unimaginable tragedy of Thomas’ younger sister dying from suicide, which he’s spoken about openly.
“Solly has been battling all year,” Shanahan said Friday. “He’s had times where he does better, times where he does worse. But, he’s not trying to hide and disappear. He puts himself out there.”
Then there’s Ahkello Witherspoon, the cornerback who has struggled playing opposite Richard Sherman. And running back Joe Williams, a fourth-round pick, who failed to make the team and never played in a regular season game.
Tight end George Kittle has been Shanahan and Lynch’s only home run draft pick from the 2017 class, while first-round tackle Mike McGlinchey and third-round linebacker Fred Warner appear to be the only clear hits from the most recent crop last spring. Former undrafted free agent running back Matt Breida has also been an obvious bright spot.
“We’re still going at it. There’s five more games. I think our young guys are playing even more now,” Shanahan said this week. “... Like I said a few weeks ago, that’s why these next five games are going to be huge because I plan on seeing more and more of it.”
The problem: We all thought the same during the final five weeks of last season, and they didn’t offer much in terms of momentum for 2018.
Which is why the coming offseason and the 2019 campaign will be imperative in judging Shanahan and Lynch, particularly if they’re able to get a healthy season from their franchise quarterback. If their next class of free agents and draftees don’t improve the roster, and the incumbent players don’t show development after largely taking a step back this year, then their seats should get a little warm.