John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan are preaching patience and prudence, of course. They are reminding 49ers fans that Jimmy Garoppolo is not immortal, that the impressive finish was preceded by an awful start, that the organization has tons of cap money to spend, but plenty of roster holes to fill.
The plan is to temper expectations without killing the buzz.
So good luck with that.
The 49ers haven’t been this interesting or this entertaining since the early Jim Harbaugh years. While Michigan’s quirky head coach could never be characterized as warm or fuzzy or fun, before the implosion of his 8-8 final season in 2014, his 49ers appeared in three straight NFC championship games and came within a few feet of winning another Super Bowl.
Levi’s Stadium was brand new and sterile back then – and still is – but it was never dull. Harbaugh presided over the rise and fall of Alex Smith, the rise and regression of Colin Kaepernick, the demise of Aldon Smith, much of the time while feuding with 49ers CEO Jed York and former general manager Trent Baalke.
Three years, three more head coaches and one GM later, the 49ers are spinning a very different form of entertainment, with the attention directed at the field and a revival that began last February when Shanahan was hired as a first-time head coach and Lynch as a first-time general manager, and York finally appeared content to stay in his lane/office.
The two rookies went out and changed everything except the direction of the sun. It still sets in the west, which can be brutal for fans sitting in the east stands. But success colors everything. Add this to the list of reasons fans began showing up, sticking around and wearing sunglasses: That 0-9 and 1-10 start was followed by a 5-0 Garoppolo winning streak and an improbable 6-10 finish.
“Starting 0-9 here was tough,” said Shanahan, “especially being a first-year head coach, going through that. Coming into the building every day, knowing how hard everyone is working and coming up just short. I think one of the things that got me through it was the way John handled it every day, how Jed handled it every day. They never seemed to lose confidence.”
The 49ers’ refusal to panic or point fingers during the early struggles represented another dramatic and encouraging break from the recent past. Harbaugh and his one-and-done successors Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly never got off the hot seat. One could certainly argue that neither should have been granted a chair in Santa Clara in the first place, but that’s for another day.
Almost from the moment they arrived, Lynch and Shanahan stripped Levi’s Stadium of its famous paranoia, instead impressing with their calm and candor, sense of humor, and aggressive assault on the job. In an unusually active 11 months, the 49ers signed 22 free agents, re-signed three veterans, executed two trades and a 10-player NFL draft class.
Then there was the most significant move in recent 49ers history when the team acquired Garoppolo from the New England Patriots in November for a second-round pick. It was a virtual steal given Garoppolo’s potential and revelations in an explosive ESPN article claiming that Bill Belichick was pressured into trading Tom Brady’s heir apparent by owner Robert Kraft because the future Hall of Fame quarterback is 40 years old and hearing footsteps.
Perhaps, with good reason? Depending upon whom you ask, Jimmy G is either Jesus, Joe Montana or the guy who should still be in Foxborough, Mass., awaiting the Montana-to-Steve Young handoff. But no one predicted that he would arrive in midseason and immediately transform the franchise. The elephant in the room – the desperate longing for an elite quarterback – has been replaced by an unmistakeable energy and upbeat vibes about the future.
Small sample size aside – and Kaepernick’s emergence and disappearance offer a cautionary tale – Garoppolo commands the huddle, makes all the throws, is a sneaky capable runner, and has shown a knack for improvising and making plays when needed.
“Jimmy came in and was fantastic,” said Lynch during his end-of-season media session. “He was great for us and he made people around him better. I think that the mark of a player who has an opportunity to be special is, ‘Do you make people around you better?’ He did that. There was also a confluence of I think we had a bunch of young guys that were improving. Around that same time we got healthy after enduring a lot of tough injuries.”
Entering the offseason, Lynch has nine draft picks (four in the first three rounds) and an estimated $130 million in salary cap space to address needs at wide receiver, offensive line, pass rusher and cornerback.
The immediate task, obviously, is to secure Garoppolo, who is a free agent, to a long-term contract. No one needs to remind Lynch that a failure to close the deal would send 49ers fans back under the covers for the foreseeable future. He already has had conversations with his quarterback and his agent, Don Yee, and is confident an agreement can be reached. He also has to be eminently grateful to Belichick, Brady and Kraft, and the reportedly nasty circumstances that precipitated the trade.
Apparently, even the most stable and sustainable marriages are vulnerable to bruised egos and power grabs. But that’s the Patriots’ problem. As the 49ers very capably move on from Harbaugh, Tomsula, Kelly, Baalke, Smith, Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert, Brian Hoyer, among others, mothers and fathers can tell their children: It’s safe to go back into the building. And certainly, time to sit back and enjoy.