SANTA CLARA, Calif. – There was a time a little over a year ago when San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke wondered when the historic attrition would end. The days when the long-term franchise design became a heavy bag and the celebratory back-patting transitioned into kidney punching.
“It felt like Muhammad Ali in the ‘Thrilla In Manila,'” Baalke said last week. “Every time I came off the ropes, something else happened.”
“Something else” is the most generic reference possible for one of the worst offseasons in NFL history. One where the fallout from the Jim Harbaugh divorce reached almost biblical fervor. Where Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and Chris Borland retired; and Anthony Davis took a one-year hiatus. Where Aldon Smith rendered himself radioactive and key free agents cashed in elsewhere. And the morale? Well, it wasn’t a Siberian labor camp. There was always that to fall back on.
A little over a year later, Baalke still has only one pragmatic gear when it comes to all of this.
“You deal with it,” he said. “Through the process you learn. You try to make adjustments so it doesn’t happen again. But some things are just unpredictable.”
Here’s what is predictable about the 49ers right now: they are in a rebuild.
Baalke isn’t a big fan of that term, of course. Nor is the coaching staff or roster. But there’s a simple deduction in the NFL that goes something like this: if a team is still working a basic staple like starting quarterback and measuring significant pieces of the offensive and defensive lines, then it’s likely in some early stage of a rebuild.
San Francisco is there. And this is going to require some endurance from everyone involved.
Baalke has plenty of that – even if the fan base and media don’t. He says things like “Winning in March doesn’t matter” and “I’ve got great patience.” He makes sure to say he doesn’t care what anyone thinks about him or his job security. Most of all, he talks about constructing with draft picks as if it would someday be etched on his tombstone: Here lies Trent Baalke. He built through the draft.
Build with draft picks, spend ample salary cap space extending players in the fold. That’s where this is headed again. And yes, it might take some time.
“That’s historically what wins,” Baalke said. “It’s tough to buy championships in any sport [but] it’s damn near impossible in the National Football League. … We absolutely have a young core group of guys that are going to move into their second contracts here. And I think people will see that this year as it unfolds. The Aaron Lynchs. The Jimmie Wards. The Carlos Hydes. They’re good football players and they’re only going to get better.”
All of that is great, of course – not having a roster totally devoid of talent. But there is also a pressing reality that some fundamental building blocks are still unknown. For now, it’s simplest to stick with the quarterback. All offseason and through Sunday’s preseason opener against the Houston Texans, the discussion has been about Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick. This one feels transparent at this stage. Gabbert has gotten no shortage of positive reviews from head coach Chip Kelly at this point. And there is no indication that any of the lingering questions about Kaepernick – leadership, accuracy, health – have been definitively answered. It seems Gabbert would have to crater to lose his sizable lead on the starting nod.
That’s not to suggest Gabbert doesn’t have concerns. He simply has less right now. He looked like a work in progress against the Texans, throwing a touchdown but completing only four of 10 passes. If we learned anything from Kelly’s time with the Philadelphia Eagles, it’s that a quarterback can’t be inaccurate in his offense. If Gabbert can’t be accurate, he won’t last long as a starter.
Asked why he hadn’t named his starting QB and let the team galvanize behind one person, Kelly replied, “Because you could be wrong.”
“You want to be right – you don’t want to be first,” he said. “That’s like writing an article in the newspaper, right? You want to make sure you get all of your information right before you write the article. Just because you’re the first one in and you beat the deadline, you could be wrong in that decision. So, I don’t want anybody on our staff to make the wrong decision on who our quarterback [will] be just because we said, ‘Why did we do it? Because we wanted to name him by a certain date.'”
That’s a fair approach. But it also feels like a captain trying to steer the franchise clear of an iceberg. Instead of saying, “We can’t go wrong,” he’s saying, “We can’t be wrong.” That’s a significant distinction. Perhaps more than anything else, this illustrates why the 49ers are in the midst of a significant rebuild. This is the most important position on the field, and the head coach isn’t talking about having two wonderful choices. He’s talking about not making the wrong choice. That’s a scary place to be for a franchise that doesn’t have a wealth of development behind it.
There’s a possibility that neither Gabbert nor Kaepernick is the right choice, and the quarterback to build around isn’t on the roster. And that’s what makes it so hard to measure how long this construction will take.
“How big is the lull? I don’t know,” Baalke said. “No one expected us to play well in 2011, and we seemed to play pretty well. Is this going to be 2011? I don’t know. I’ve never put boundaries on a team.”
Time will reveal those boundaries. Maybe the only sure thing is that this past offseason was far more calm and collected than the one following the 2014 season. At the very least, the 49ers have moved forward. Not entirely off the ropes, but also not wondering when the flurry of punches will end.
It’s not a coincidence that Baalke invokes the Ali-Joe Frazier “Thrilla in Manila” when he frames the disastrous offseason in 2014. Ali ultimately won that fight. Baalke thinks the 49ers can turn this around, too. All it’s going to require is some patience and stamina.
Most rebuilds do.