There’s an old saying that seems to perfectly sum up what the 2021 San Francisco 49ers are experiencing right now: If you’re thinking about the past and planning for the future, you’re ignoring the present.
This offseason presented a crossroads for a team only a year removed from leading a Super Bowl in the 4th quarter. After an injury-riddled campaign that ended at a disappointing 6-10, the team could stick with their core, restock with some decent draft position, sign a few free agents back, and roll the dice on consistency. Or they could blow it up by cutting Jimmy Garoppolo with his hefty salary, let a handful of guys walk, select a rookie QB, and begin a soft rebuild.
Somehow, instead of all that, they managed to bulldoze through the crossroads and find an elusive third road that melded the first two options into one. They got ownership to foot the bill for their expensive veteran QB while trading multiple first-rounders for a rookie and returning most of the players that people had written off for gone.
From a distance, it appeared that the 49ers had it all. This is a team who finally found a winning formula that they could use to compete for the ultimate prize this year and still keep their eye towards competing next year, the year after that, and the year after that. And to be fair, the logic is as sound as it is daring.
In reality, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch decided to chase nostalgia and the future simultaneously, hoping to replicate what can’t be replicated and cement what can’t be cemented.
The problem with trying to convince yourself that you can repeat the past is that it’s too easy to gloss over imperfections, discount regression, and assume that everything can play out the same way as before, just like how Shanahan has overlooked Garoppolo’s weaknesses or how the defense hasn’t managed to reach those 2019 levels or how injuries have hampered the run game.
Meanwhile, you’re looking towards a future of Trey Lance, who needs some time to adjust to the pros, but you don’t want to throw away a season waiting for his development. Counting on a rookie while having to deal with all their rookie mistakes would lower the ceiling for a team with sky-high aspirations.
So, instead, you stick with a player who’s gotten you to the Super Bowl before, but you have to conveniently forget that he was propped up by the previously mentioned otherworldly defense and dependably brilliant running game. When you can’t match those performances two years later, and you have to rely on the seasoned but shaky option to win games, suddenly the ceiling looks a lot closer than before.
What does this all mean? Well, the Niners will almost definitely remain a tantalizingly frustrating too-good-to-fail-not-good-enough-to-succeed kinda team. Could they make a playoff run? Sure, if every little thing goes their way. That’s the corner they’ve painted themselves into for this season. That was the best-case scenario that you could see if you looked at things from just the right angle.
But the key will be what lesson they learn from this experiment. Can the 49ers take a hard look in the mirror and see that things need to change? That spending draft picks and money on cornerbacks can actually be helpful? That simply trying to recreate the past isn’t always the answer?
Let’s hope so because then they might have a shot at winning in the present.