Welcome to 2004. There’s fighting in the Gaza Strip, Bush is running for president, a new “Star Wars” movie is coming out soon. And the 49ers have just undergone a roster overhaul.
Gone are longtime veterans like Jeff Garcia, Garrison Hearst and Derrick Deese. So is the most cantankerous personality of his generation, Terrell Owens. Thank goodness that guy’s out of the building; he made life miserable for everyone.
The 49ers figure they have some promising young pieces – Tim Rattay at quarterback, Kevan Barlow at running back, Kwame Harris at tackle – who can slide into starting spots and they convince themselves, “You know what? This will work.”
It doesn’t. Not even a little. The 49ers fail miserably, and the season ends with the coach sacked, the general manager booted and the team looking for a quarterback of the future.
The 49ers haven’t had a turnover like that until this year.
The circumstances are different. Salary cap bungling was the primary cause of the 2004 meltdown. But that season and this one are the result of failed strategies and the inability to build a bridge from a winning, but fading, era.
The 49ers should have foreseen this type of season. They lost key players to retirement, allowed others to depart in free agency and didn’t retain their most talented coaches. The national media, the local media, the wannabe media, your dermatologist, the guy who replaced your air conditioner all predicted choppy seas.
Everyone except the 49ers. As was the case in 2004, they convinced themselves the changes would work. They just needed to allow Colin Kaepernick to do what he does best, needed more blitzing on defense, needed to get combustible Jim Harbaugh out of the building and – voila! – they would be a team that finally could beat the Seattle Seahawks for division dominance.
Instead, the 49ers are competing to stay out of the division cellar.
The 49ers are unlikely to finish with just two wins, as they did in 2004. They are not the worst team in the league, as they were then. In the first part of the season, they faced quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning. The back nine includes Jay Cutler, Josh McCown and Nick Foles (twice). At some point, center Daniel Kilgore will return from injury to help the overmatched offensive line. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman’s knee will continue to get stronger, and the young players will adjust.
But as in 2004, there has been a overestimation of roster talent. On the defensive line, Quinton Dial and Glenn Dorsey are not nearly as good as Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, while Tank Carradine has had difficulty even getting on the field.
Along the offensive line, the 49ers allowed Mike Iupati to leave in free agency, figuring that one of two third-round picks from 2014 could step into his spot. One of them, Marcus Martin, has been forced to play center, where he is ranked 33rd out of 34 players at his position by the independent scouting service Pro Football Focus. The other, Brandon Thomas, has been inactive for all but one game and has yet to play an NFL snap.
The right side of the offensive line comprises a journeyman free-agent pickup in tackle Erik Pears and two vagabond guards, Jordan Devey and Andrew Tiller, who alternate each series. Only one starter on the offensive line was drafted by San Francisco’s front office. In fact, of the 11 offensive starters, just four – Kaepernick, Carlos Hyde, Vance McDonald and Martin – were drafted by general manager Trent Baalke.
The 49ers hoped Kaepernick would rise and help the team smooth over any post-Harbaugh bumps. Instead, he could be the fall guy in the short term.
Coach Jim Tomsula said Friday that Kaepernick remains the starter, but if the quarterback’s inconsistent season continues, the Nov. 15 bye week appears convenient to put Blaine Gabbert in the lineup.
At that point, the message would go from “Harbaugh was the problem” to “Kaepernick was the problem.” And since Harbaugh handpicked Kaepernick, they are really one in the same.
Of course, the problems won’t go away. They run beyond the quarterback and are deeper than anticipated, just as they were in 2004. The 49ers began that season two years removed from the playoffs, started a massive rebuild the following year and were dreadful for a long, long time.