Iceberg, dead ahead!


Imagine, if you will, that you own a boat. It’s quite a nice boat that you have had for a couple of years and have enjoyed sailing in. It floats very well (as you would hope) and has lots of nice shiny bits on it that are not quite top of the range but all work very well together and go toward making the boat what it is.

Now, drill a hole in the bottom of it. Now drill another. And another. And another. Oh, those shiny bits can’t stay on there by the way, and that bit doesn’t want to work any more either, so they’ll have to come off too. Perfect.

Imagine what sort of boat you own now. Sure, you’ll plug those holes as best you can, and it will (probably) still float, but most of the good bits have gone and it’s looking a lot less watertight than it did not so long ago.

Sound a bit more “Titanic” than “Love Boat”? Welcome to the 2015 off-season at San Francisco!

In the space of 6 months, the 49ers franchise lost (or disposed of) their Head Coach, two key members of their offensive line, their all-time leading rusher, the number 2 receiver, two of the biggest keys in the front seven, a 10-year veteran linebacker (and defensive general) along with a rising star, also at linebacker. Oh, and both starting cornerbacks. Even the punter was traded in possibly the worst off-season endured by any franchise in living memory.

At times, the 49ers looked like the didn’t know whether to keep plugging the holes to keep the water out, or drill another in the hope the water would put out the fire.

Although all of the losses were significant, it was the protracted, public and at times downright ugly divorce between the front office and Head Coach Jim Harbaugh that epitomised the death of the franchise’s recent resurgence.

Until Harbaugh arrived in 2011, the 49ers hadn’t had a winning season since 2002 and pretty much stunk up the NFC West year in, year out. Harbaugh’s slightly unorthodox and controversial coaching style instantly had an impact, returning a 13-3 season. He’d subsequently take the Niners to the NFC Championship Game three years in a row, and the SuperBowl. His coaching style was starting to cause friction however.

Certain players and ‘sources’ from within the locker room were expressing displeasure at some of his methods, his relationship with GM Trent Baalke was widely reported to be almost non-existent and, to the outside world, the 49ers franchise was one in utter turmoil. It came as little surprise to anyone then when, at the end of his 5-year deal, he left Santa Clara and returned to his alma mater, Michigan.

What was a surprise, and a clear sign that 2015 wasn’t going to be smooth sailing, was who the team appointed as his replacement.

With several viable alternatives available and a raft of talented co-ordinators in the market for their first Head Coaching role, the 49ers elected to promote from within and handed Jim Tomsula his first top job since his year in charge of NFL Europe’s Rhein Fire in 2006.

It was an appointment that was, in my opinion, a clear attempt to restore some harmony within the franchise and allow Jed York to regain control over operations.

Tomsula was well liked by almost the entire staff and was never going to be anything other than a ‘yes man’ having been well looked after by the front office and given his opportunity. Whilst a 4-year deal was signed, at roughly $3.5M a year it was always a deal that would allow the 49ers to move on very quickly once things had calmed down. It was a chance for the 49ers to get everyone in the boat at least wanting to go in the same direction but meant they would need to hope that the damn thing would at least still float.

Sink or swim

It’s fair to say 2015 was a case of sink AND swim in Santa Clara. The boat sank and everyone had to swim for their lives.

Jim Tomsula’s more relaxed coaching style, which seemingly served its primary focus of getting players back on board and made for a more harmonious locker room, did little for on-field success.

The continued regression of Colin Kaepernick behind an offensive line that had a “Welcome to Sackville” turnstile installed at almost every position, coupled with an early season injury to bellcow running back Carlos Hyde which left the 49ers with a make-shift run game for most of the season (such as Reggie “out for three weeks with an ingrown toenail” Bush for example) and very little in terms of credible threats at receiver, all meant the offense was one of the worst in franchise history.

Averaging fewer than 15 points a game, and managing to score more than 20 points just once during the last 10 games of the season, the offense repeatedly demonstrated levels of ineptitude seldom seen in San Francisco. The play calling didn’t help much either, with new OC Geep Chryst repeatedly serving up overly conservative formations and strategy that left the offense in a hole early time and time again.

With Kaepernick running for his life behind that colander line and little by way of an effective run game to abate the onrushing defensive hordes, his days were numbered and Tomsula handed the starting job to Blaine Gabbert ahead of the Week 9 visit of the Atlanta Falcons.

Gabbert instantly looked more comfortable in Chryst’s offense in comparison to an often skittish Kaepernick and led the 49ers to a surprise victory over the visitors in his first start. He’d go on to win just one more game than Kaepernick over the same span however as neither QB really took hold of an offense devoid of weapons in front of a Levis Stadium by now devoid of fans. By the time the Niners limped past the St Louis Rams in Week 17 in a contest that may be one of the worst I’ve ever seen, there was a collective sigh of relief that the season was finally over.

It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t all doom and gloom in 2015 however.

Having missed the entirety of the 2014 season as he recovered from a horrific injury sustained in the 49ers’ last NFC Championship Game, the return to the field of NaVorro Bowman was a shining light in an otherwise largely gloomy season. His early season play bore all the hallmarks of a player wanting nee needing to test himself at full speed again, and his rehab work on his knee was clearly not yet 100% but, as the season went on it was clear Bowman was likely going to be able to return to the sort of level of play we had seen prior to his injury.

Rookies Arik Armstead and Jaquiski Tartt also showed glimpses of what may be to come from a defense forced to rebuild throughout the depth chart as a result of the absentees coming in to 2015, the latter in particular improving as the season progressed as the defense as a whole took time to adjust to Eric Mangini’s schemes which at times were exposed as woefully inadequate, particularly when working in zone coverage or pressing at the line.

By the time the Rams bus had left town, the curtain had dropped on a 5-11 season and it was clear that Jim Tomsula was going to play out the complete fall guy role and lose his job.

Rebuild? Reload? Resuscitate?!

2016 will start in much the same way as 2015. A new Head Coach (albeit – in Chip Kelly – one with NFL HC credentials), a new coaching staff, and questions at Quarterback.

It’s hard to know exactly what to expect from the season ahead and a Chip Kelly 49ers offense. The much-touted trade of Colin Kaepernick never materialised and both he and Blaine Gabbert will allegedly fight for the starting job throughout camp. With Colin still recovering from surgery to a shoulder injury that saw him finish 2015 on IR, and with Kelly’s offenses historically reliant on pre-snap reads and quick decisions from the man under center, you’d have to say Gabbert is potentially leading that race already.

Whoever gets the starting job will find themselves behind an offensive line that will certainly need to improve over last year. The 49ers rightly made that an area of focus in the off-season, adding former Jaguars and Broncos guard Zane Beadles and using no fewer than three Draft picks (including trading up for a second 1st Round pick for guard Joshua Garnett) to add much needed depth. What the final starting 5 will be is another question yet to be answered, but they will at least have some viable options this time around to find the right fits.

Carlos Hyde will be back and appears to be fully fit, and the late emergence of Shaun Draughn as a versatile option from the backfield would appear to be an ideal fit for a Chip Kelly offense meaning the run game should, on paper at least, be well equipped to give an added dimension to the lacklustre offense of last year. With little movement at wideout aside from Anquan Boldin hitting free agency, it could be much needed too.

A far more stable defensive unit will need to be working hard on their fitness levels if past Kelly teams are any sort of guide. Whilst they may rank highly in certain areas, time of possession is unlikely to be one of them.

The addition of DeForest Buckner with their first pick of the Draft gives the 49ers a potentially dynamic pass rush for 2016, something that was noticeable by its absence last time around, and NaVorro Bowman will again be the general in the middle of a linebacking core that, whilst possibly lacking a little depth, has the potential to be effective across all phases.

In many ways 2016 is a journey in to uncharted waters in Santa Clara but one thing is for sure – the seas can’t be as rough as they were in 2015. Can they?

Anyone got a bucket?