By Morris Phillips
For the third time in three seasons, the 49ers are starting over.
After an encouragingly competitive performance against the Seahawks, and a franchise-record tying 14th loss on the season, the team announced that general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Chip Kelly had been fired.
While Baalke’s dismissal had been widely anticipated for weeks, Kelly’s status remained uncertain until the reports surfaced the night before the season finale that the coach would be let go in sweeping changes aimed at getting the struggling franchise righted.
“I have informed Trent and Chip of my decision to pursue new leadership for our football team. These types of conversations are never easy, especially when they involve people you respect personally and professionally,” team CEO Jed York said in a statement released after the game.
“Despite my feelings for Trent and Chip, I felt the decision to change our football leadership was absolutely necessary. The performance of this team has not lived up to my expectations or those of our fans, and that is truly disappointing. Weall expected to see this team progress and develop as the season went on, but unfortunately that did not happen. That is why now is the time to find a new direction for this team.”
Whoever is hired to replace Baalke and Kelly, will enter a situation with as clean as cupboard as can be found in the NFL, and will inevitably ask for as much time as possible to right the ship. The 49ers could say goodbye to all three quarterbacks currently on the roster, including Sunday’s starter Colin Kaepernick, whose restructured deal gives him a player option that he is likely to decline.
Beyond the quarterback position the most likely players to return with potential of transformative impact are rookie defensive end DeForrest Buckner and possibly behemoth offensive tackle Trent Brown. Tight end Vance McDonald recently signed a contract extension, but missed the team’s final four games due to injury. Most NFL talent evaluators when asked have pointed to the team’s rosters lack of impact talent, especially at the offensive skill positions.
At the critical linebacker positions, the team will return NaVorro Bowman, whose 2016 season was cut short due to an Achilles rupture, Eli Harold, Aaron Lynch and Tank Carradine. Longtime veteran edge rusher Ahmad Brooks isn’t likely to return.
The team’s secondary could see upheaval as well despite the presence of valued draftees Eric Reid, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt.
Veteran kicker Phil Dawson said after the game he will take a couple of weeks to determine his future in football. If the 41-year old Dawson opts to resume his football career, that does not automatically mean that he returns to San Francisco.
Given the lack of talent and uncertainty within the team’s roster, and York’s frequent firings, attracting a top-notch talent evaluating GM and a compatible coach won’t be easy. The top candidates for those positions–Scott Pioli, Trent Kirchner, Eliot Wolf for general manager, and Kyle Shanahan, Josh McDaniels for head coach–are expected to be in high demand with at least six teams expected to make similar changes.
Just last off-season, Chip Kelly was hired after several bigger targets turned down the 49ers and York.
In Kelly, the 49ers had a capable coach whose team frequently enjoyed success early in ballgames only to see things stagnate once strategic adjustments were made. Kelly also had the respect of his players, no small feat, just one year removed from Philadelphia, where the former college coach did not have the respect of all his players.
On Sunday, the 49ers started fast again, leading 14-3 at one point as Kaepernick completed his first 10 passes and ran for 18 yards on four carries.
Afterwards, several Seahawks’ players admitted that the 49ers’ quick-hitting rushing attack hadn’t shown up on film and initally confused the Seahawks’ defensive front. But Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said afterwards that a series of adjustments along the Seattle defensive line helped to slow the 49ers, who started Shaun Draughn at running back in place of the injured Carlos Hyde.
After leading 14-3, the 49ers allowed Seattle 16 unanswered points and a 19-14 lead in the third quarter. Besides a gift safety where Seattle long snapper Nolan Frese snapped the ball over the head and out of reach of punter Jon Ryan, the 49ers were shut down the rest of the way save a Kaepernick touchdown pass to Grant Celek with 5:42 remaining.
With Seattle’s playoff positioning decided as the high-scoring Falcons put the finishing touches on the Saints to claim the NFC’s No. 2 seed, Carroll opted to bench quarterback Russell Wilson and several other starters as a precautionary move. But backup Trevone Boykin came on to convert two, critical third down opportunities and help the Seahawks run out the clock.
Ironically, with Wilson in the game, the Seahawks failed to convert third downs on nine of ten opportunities. But with Boykin aboard, the Seahawks converted their last two.
The 25-23 loss was the narrowest of the 49ers’ 14 losses. As a result of the outcome, and the Browns’ loss earlier to Pittsburgh, the 49ers will pick second in the upcoming spring draft.