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Return of the Elegant Tank?

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Last year, when the San Francisco 49ers set a record for consecutive close losses, we had a lot of fun talking about the “elegant tank” strategy. Now, after two close losses to not-great teams, guess who’s back? (Spoiler: it’s not Shady.)

No one’s suggesting that Kyle Shanahan ordered up five turnovers to improve draft position (I hope). But with the team’s franchise quarterback and top running back out with ACL tears, it’s also clear that the playoffs are not a realistic goal, not with the Rams in the division and teams like the Eagles and Panthers competing for that wild card slot.

Is it time for the Niners to write off this year and play for the future? Yeah, pretty much.

I don’t think a team should ever try to lose a game. Ever. Not only is it an awful thing to do to fans, but losing is a habit you don’t want to develop. Last year’s team had it right — work out a lot of new plays and players early, then close strong with five straight wins. Picking up Jimmy Garoppolo in a trade had a lot to do with that — just as losing him to injury was a key to these last two losses.

Something roughly like that would be perfect for the rest of this year. Not throwing games, but working out a bunch of young players, and new plays, stunts and coverages without fear that it will lead to a loss. By December, hopefully, you’ve found enough things that work to start winning some games, without losing a high draft pick.

The Niners need a great edge rusher, like Nick Bosa or Clellin Ferrell, and that will require a top ten pick. Filling that need will help this team push for a future Super Bowl a lot more than edging out Arizona for 3rd place in the NFC West would.

Let’s face it — a lot of us got too hyped about the Niners this year, after closing on that five game run. We were sort of joking about Jimmy G being undefeated forever, but not 100% joking.

We took for granted that young talent like Ahkello Witherspoon and Adrian Colbert were locked in as guaranteed 10 year starters, when the reality was (and is) that they are overachieving 2nd or 3rd level prospects, who were always going to have rough days on the path to holding down their positions. They may be great, they may not, but I know I’m not the only one who took their success for granted.

Every team has to balance building the future against winning today. Unless you’re the 2016 Denver Broncos, with a Hall of Fame quarterback in his last year and a solid core, you don’t burn all your bridges to win today. You don’t trade draft picks for veterans, burn up future salary cap with backloaded deals, and rely on free agents.

Good franchises know how to time the cycle of rebuilding vs. winning now. You carefully build the team until you’ve created a Super Bowl window, then burn through everything you’ve saved up to win NOW. When the window closes, burn it down, trade your stars for draft picks and develop young talent — knowing you’ll lose and get good picks.

A lot of us thought this team was further along in the cycle than it was, but this is a horribly depleted roster with a new management team and a very complicated scheme that takes time to learn and master. San Francisco was never going to be a deep playoff threat this year, and even next year is probably unrealistic too.

Hopefully, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan were clear-eyed about that all along. For everyone who wasn’t, the injuries have been awfully clarifying. Bring on the tank!