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Deeper into the 49ers Elegant Tank

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Does winning ruin it? What now?

Spanish National Day 2017 Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

We had some fun, earlier in this grim season, yukking it up over the San Francisco 49ers setting a record for close losses. Then it turned ugly with a horrible tsunami of injuries leading to blowout defeats. Then they ruined their league-worst record by winning.

But joking aside, there is a serious business behind the Elegant Tank concept. This team was always going to lose a lot of games, despite Grant Cohn’s ridiculous prediction of a 9-7 record.

What the Elegant Tank really means is, “How gracefully can Kyle Shanahan lose those games, and how well can he use this lost season to rebuild the franchise?”

The question is not academic. High draft picks are great, but losing can be contagious. (Just look at the Cleveland Browns.)

Once you get that stink on you, it’s very hard to recruit good coaches or sign free agents (and the Niners were starting to reek last year). Then players turn selfish and play to rack up statistics or make money, rather than help the team.

Morale is especially tricky. Football players risk their careers and health on every single play. If everyone knows you’re going to lose, how can you ask them to give up their bodies the way Marquise Goodwin did on Garrett Celek’s touchdown against the Giants?

One way is to show them that the team is going places, and offer a chance at ascending together. They can handle the dark before the dawn, but not — as in Cleveland — a future of misery stretching forward without apparent end.

Beating the New York Giants didn’t ruin the Elegant Tank — it was a key element of making it work, by giving the players a taste of future success. Dropping a slot or two in the draft is easily worth that.

Shanahan and Lynch clearly have this team behind them, and they knew how to make the most out of that one win. (Having the extra bye week to celebrate didn’t hurt.) Players are giving fierce effort, even when overmatched.

Giving everyone a chance to play and succeed helps, too. Shanahan and DC Robert Saleh needed to figure out who will work in their schemes, and the emergence of unlikely stars such as Leger Douzable spreads hope down the roster rotation.

Given the salary cap, rookie contracts are a key to building a team with the talent to create a Super Bowl window, and this team has done an amazing job of maximizing their ten 2017 draft picks.

It’s unfortunate that injuries have played such a big role in that rookie development, but several players of genuine talent have emerged, including seventh round pick Adrian Colbert and UDFA Matt Breida. The hit rate is a morale booster, too, giving players further reason to think the team is on the way up.

Which leads to the big discussion going forward — should the team continue to start C.J. Beathard at quarterback, or bring in Jimmy Garoppolo for a tryout before extending him? The cautious, conventional approach would be to bring in Garoppolo ASAP and kick the tires.

But I think the Elegant Tank calls for signing Jimmy G. immediately to a reasonably priced, long term contract and leaving him on the bench. This may reduce the chances for more victories this year — wink, wink — but the task right now is installing the system and developing young talent.

Even with the bye week, Garoppolo has not had the normal amount of training in this system to take the helm. Furthermore, his receivers and linemen would have to re-adjust to a new helmsman instead of focusing on improving with the existing one. Also, the weakness of Laken Tomlinson at guard makes the risk of injury to Garoppolo too high.

Besides, Beathard had a monster game (QB rating of 123.4) and his first real fun of the season after getting pounded relentlessly for four and a half games. What kind of message would his coach send by benching him after that? Beathard certainly earned another start.

A long contract right now for Garoppolo should be cheap by NFL standards, since there’s a chance he might not play well. But there’s no real risk for the team, given the shortage of decent quarterbacks. Even if he sucks in San Francisco, someone will trade a second or third round pick for a $15-20 million QB who won in New England and learned from Belichick and Brady.

So yeah, I’m not seriously arguing that Kyle Shanahan has been trying to lose games this year, whether by small or large margins. This team was always going to lose. The question was always, how well could he minimize the damage from that losing and set the team up to rise next year? So far, the answer is “pretty damn well.”