From 2011 to 2013, the San Francisco 49ers won 36 regular-season games. From 2014 to 2016, they won 15 -- a decline of 58.3 percent, the steepest in that span of any team in the NFL.
This is, don't forget, one of only four teams in NFL history to win five Super Bowls. There is a new regime in place, with coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch attempting to right the ship. What do they need to do to turn around a team that just posted its worst record since 2004? It won't happen overnight, but below, I've outlined a six-point plan for returning the 49ers to glory.
Too often in recent years, turmoil has undermined people trying to do their jobs in San Francisco. This team must present a unified front that includes accountability across the board. Owner Jed York should keep a low profile and let Shanahan and Lynch handle the media, at least until the Niners start winning again.
It's tough to succeed when you've had three different coaches over the past three seasons. When the players see Shanahan's steadying hand at the tiller, they'll play better from top to bottom.
Shanahan will get the most out of whoever is under center. The problem is, there's uncertainty as to who that will be, given that, as Ian Rapoport reported in December, Colin Kaepernick is expected to opt out of his contract. The best option would be to acquire Kirk Cousins, who's got the kind of competitiveness I love and who has worked with Shanahan in Washington. But I think there's one half of 1 percent of a chance of that happening.
The next best option, believe it or not, is signing Jay Cutler, presuming he's eventually released by Chicago. Cutler's apparent inability to put it all together is as well-documented as it is befuddling. But he probably still has some life in him as an NFL starter. He should be familiar with Shanahan's system, given that he started 37 games in Denver for Kyle's father, Mike, who thought highly of Cutler. Cutler looks like the ideal quarterback in terms of traits and characteristics, at least in non-game situations. Maybe at 33, he'll change. The success he had with Adam Gase as his offensive coordinator in Chicago in 2015 (posting a career-best 92.3 passer rating) suggests it's possible to maximize his talents with the right coach. I wouldn't trade for him, but if the Niners could sign him, he'd be an ideal stopgap.
If the Niners can't land Cutler, I'd try to bring back Kaepernick as a short-term fill-in who could still reveal himself to be a long-term solution in San Francisco. He's familiar with this team and his teammates, and he showed improvement as 2016 went along -- don't forget that he's taken this team to the Super Bowl. After Kaepernick, the Niners should take a look at Matt Schaub, who's smart, has some ability and played under Shanahan in Atlanta and Houston.
Whether Cutler, Kaepernick or Schaub is the starter, I'd draft a quarterback for the future -- not at No. 2 overall, but by moving back into the first round for DeShone Kizer. There are some questions, given a checkered 2016 campaign that included a benching against Stanford, but he has a good arm, is a natural thrower and displays some traits that lead to success at the position.
Despite the fact that the defense logged a ton of snaps and was on the field far more than the offense (the Niners averaged 26 minutes and 56 seconds in time of possession in 2016, the worst mark in the NFL), San Francisco finished with just 31 sacks. Buckner is a good building-block piece, as is Arik Armstead, who went on injured reserve with a shoulder injury in November. Getting Bowman back healthy is key, as is the continued development of Aaron Lynch, who lost much of 2016 to a suspension and high ankle sprain. But I think the Niners will ultimately have to add some pass-rushing firepower, either in the draft or free agency (or both). I'd use the second overall pick in the draft on Alabama's Jonathan Allen, a playmaker who racked up 22.5 sacks over the last two seasons. In terms of free agency, Chandler Jones, Jason Pierre-Paul and Melvin Ingram look like strong potential fits.
While the roster holes are numerous, the cupboard isn't quite as bare as the 2016 win total would indicate. Shanahan knows how to optimize his offensive line, and there are three pretty good offensive linemen on the roster. Joshua Garnett is going to be a big-time star. Trent Brown is a mammoth of a man who can thrive at right tackle. Joe Staley is 32, but he's still a real asset.
I think Shanahan can have success running the ball with Carlos Hyde, who can clearly move the chains, provided he stays healthy. Receiver Torrey Smith is fast, but he's somewhat of a one-trick pony, limited to deep routes. Receiver is where the Niners need to help themselves in the draft. I'd look at second- or third-round guys like Carlos Henderson of Louisiana Tech (who could grade out as a high second-rounder), Cooper Kupp of Eastern Washington, Zay Jones of East Carolina, Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown of Ohio State, Malachi Dupre of LSU and Amara Darboh of Michigan. Free agents DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery and Pierre Garcon could help.
Shanahan's system is a good system, tried and true, and he will make the most of the pieces already in place.
It might be tempting to try to spend your way to a quick turnaround via free-agent additions, but the Niners have so many holes to fill in terms of depth, they should approach the market with the long view in mind. Don't overpay for older players who might be nearing the end of their prime with the thought of applying a bandage to a gaping wound. You want leaders and players with proven ability, but you also ideally want them to be on the younger side, with an eye toward 2018 and beyond. You don't have to turn away older players like Jackson (30) and Garcon (30); just be cognizant of how much you're investing and how long you expect the investment to pay off. In addition to the aforementioned Jones (26), Pierre-Paul (28), Ingram (27) and Jeffery (27), cornerback A.J. Bouye (25) and converted receiver Terrelle Pryor (27) would be worth a look.
This team will be better in 2017 than it was in 2016, if only because Shanahan will get that time-of-possession mark closer to 30 minutes per game. But I think the season to circle is 2018. If the 49ers get a quarterback in place and follow the rest of these steps, I believe it is reasonable to imagine them competing for a playoff spot in 2018, especially given the relative uncertainty dogging other teams in the once-foreboding NFC West.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.
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