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On paper, the beginning of this San Francisco 49ers reboot was a perfect storm of ambition.
Signing aggressive-but-inexperienced general manager John Lynch. Pairing him with cocky head coach Kyle Shanahan. Fleecing the Chicago Bears in a trade and dominating the 2017 board with a superficially perfect draft haul. Stealing franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo via trade from the New England Patriots, then inking him to a massive long-term deal. All the while, churning a moribund roster into newfound relevance.
The 49ers were back on track up to the beginning of the 2018 season. Since then, the process has gone backward. And nothing accentuates that more than Reuben Foster’s Saturday night unraveling – which is now the lowest point in the roster-building effort of this regime.
The granular details of Saturday night are still unfolding, but the bottom-line of Foster’s latest misstep has been laid out. For the second time since February, the linebacker has been accused of domestic violence by his girlfriend Elissa Ennis. And this time, it allegedly happened in the most unbelievable of places: inside the team hotel on the road, the night before the 49ers were set to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While Foster’s alleged conduct is concerning enough, there’s also a question to be asked of the organization as well: Why was his girlfriend in the team hotel in the first place?
There are few good answers to that question. The 49ers realized that, quickly cutting the once-celebrated 2017 first-round pick on Sunday afternoon, citing Foster violating some “very specific ground rules.”
Despite significant criticism, the 49ers stuck with Foster through the first domestic-violence allegation back in February. Eventually, Ennis’ allegation was recanted, with the accuser saying it was another woman who hit her – not Foster. Ennis went on to testify that she made the story up to damage Foster’s career. After Saturday night’s alleged incident, police in Tampa reported finding a scratch on Ennis, as well as allegations that Foster had pushed her, knocked a phone out of her hand and slapped her across the face. The San Francisco Chronicle reported Sunday evening that there was a “domestic disturbance” that police responded to in October involving the couple, an incident the 49ers told the newspaper they were unaware of.
Eventually, Foster will be judged. But the 49ers? They are being judged right now. And they should be. Foster represents a significant gamble that turned into an ugly mistake. And it comes at a time when the franchise has already hit a number of potholes in the path to a total cultural reset inside the building. General manager John Lynch said Sunday that cutting Foster was “extremely disappointing.”
He’s right. It is disappointing. I’ve spoken to Foster one-on-one. He comes off as an airy, good-natured young man. He has loads of personality and charisma. Teammates and staffers have always been naturally drawn to him. That and his ability to play linebacker at an extremely high level have gotten him a litany of chances in both life and his chosen career. And there’s little doubt at least some will line up behind him in this latest mess, too. Just as they have during all the other nonsensical things he has been involved in during his college and pro careers.
That’s also what makes this embarrassing, too. Especially for Lynch, who unequivocally stumped for Foster publicly more than anyone else in the organization. While other teams took Foster off their draft boards, Lynch spoke of how he had him ranked No. 3 overall in the 2017 draft. Going a step further, Lynch even said Foster was in play at the third pick in the draft, if both Myles Garrett and Solomon Thomas had been off the board.
Something like that says Lynch was fine with Foster’s red flags during the draft process. It’s revealing because a multitude of teams said privately they were not in the same boat. Several pointed to a scary nightclub shooting in Auburn, Alabama that left three dead – including one of Foster’s close friends, Recco Cobb. Even those who didn’t hold the nightclub incident against Foster admitted they were leery of a lot of people who had surrounded him over the years.
The reservations were simple. If Foster had problem people surrounding him in college, that could get significantly worse in the NFL.
As a onetime-Alabama football staffer told Yahoo Sports on Sunday, “With Reuben, it was always a lot of stuff that had to do with cousins, ladies, family and friends. When he was in the building, it was fine. When he was out of the building, there was a lot to deal with.”
This kind of assessment was no secret in the NFL. The dueling personalities of Foster was always a consistent evaluation. Even his biggest supporters couldn’t gush about all his positives without tempering praise against the maintenance in Foster’s personal life. He was a great kid … with unbelievable football skills … and a ton of personal and emotional baggage.
Lynch knew it, but he also liked Foster a great deal and was excited to give him a chance. That’s why he traded up to the 31st pick and took him. All of this despite Foster failing a scouting combine drug test with a diluted urine sample – then getting kicked out of the event altogether after a heated incident with a hospital employee during a physical.
But the talent was too great, so Lynch rolled the dice. And what he got in return was 16 games on the field, two domestic-violence allegations and a two-game NFL suspension stemming from substance-abuse and personal-conduct violations. Now, even if Foster caught on with another team, he faces deeper league scrutiny and another potential suspension based on his latest arrest.
And none of this speaks to what else Foster has left behind for Lynch. Specifically, a microscope that is going to focus more intensely than ever on his skills as a general manager. Not to mention the 2017 draft class, which has fallen precipitously from the heights of applause in the days following the draft. That “A+” draft class is looking much worse now.
Thomas, the No. 3 overall pick, is having a mediocre impact on the defensive line. Foster is gone. Third-round cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon has been maddeningly inconsistent. Third-round quarterback C.J. Beathard was beaten out by undrafted free agent Nick Mullens and could be the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart in 2019. Fourth-round running back Joe Williams was released. And if that isn’t enough sting, the 49ers traded the 67th overall pick in the 2017 draft to the New Orleans Saints, who used it to take star running back Alvin Kamara. If Lynch hadn’t snagged Pro Bowl-caliber tight end George Kittle in the fifth round, his first draft would look like a smoking crater right now.
All of which speaks to how tense things have to be for the 49ers right now. Sitting at 2-9 and with a brutal schedule the rest of the way, this could be a 2-14 team. That represents a big step backward from 2017, even without Garoppolo for most of this season. And it puts a massive amount of pressure on 2019. A year in which a lot has to break right – including Garoppolo coming back and playing at an extremely high level – for the 49ers to once again look capable of that exciting turnaround everyone predicted this season.
Back in August, I visited with Lynch and asked him about the first Foster domestic-violence allegation. Specifically, whether that incident had opened his eyes to the unexpectedly difficult parts of the general manager job. His response?
“It’s not for the faint of heart, you know? I know that,” Lynch said. “I knew that coming in. But until you’re in that seat and something like the Foster accusation happens, you don’t really understand what people are talking about. But I go back to principles and believing in things. And one of the things Kyle and I talked about when we came in here, we’re not going to do what’s popular. We’re going to do what we believe is right in every situation. If we do that, we’re going to be all right. In [Reuben’s] situation, we did what we thought was right. We felt like there was reason to believe in the kid and we stuck by him.”
In the end with Foster, Lynch was wrong. And maybe he was wrong all along. That’s something he’ll have to grapple with moving forward with this franchise, into a future that doesn’t seem quite as secure as it was only three months ago.
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