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2011 San Francisco 49ers: The First Year of a 3-Year Plan

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2011 San Francisco 49ers: The First Year of a 3-Year Plan

I don’t blame many San Francisco 49ers fans who were growing increasingly impatient after unheralded and unknown names were rattled off to the team during April’s NFL Draft.

Nor do I blame those who didn’t understand why the 49ers were not being aggressive during the early stages of the free-agency period following the lockout.

Patience isn’t a good thing to ask from a fanbase that has seen continual losing for the better part of the last decade. American society is based on the “right now," not the “right later,” We tend to look for thrills immediately rather than looking at the larger picture. The credit crunch is a prime example of this.

Bring football into the equation, and this impatience is magnified to a greater extent. Many fans spend thousands a year on tickets, merchandise, the NFL package etc…

Does it make sense for billionaires and millionaires who are making a profit to ask us to be patient? Not really.

But good NFL teams are not built overnight. It takes time to build winners and to get the right mix of talent on a given team.

The San Francisco 49ers are no different.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
After eight years of futility, the San Francisco 49ers “brain-trust” decided it was, once again, time to start over. Mike Singletary and most of his coaching staff was fired, and the roster was overhauled, to an extent.

In comes a first-year NFL head coach, Jim Harbaugh, who had led the Stanford Cardinal out of the abyss of the Pac-10 to the Orange Bowl last season. The former NFL quarterback brought with him a wide array of talented yet experienced coaches.

 

But, once again, the San Francisco 49ers were asking us to be patient

This patience seemed to have worn thin as the lockout continued for months, and the only news that came from 4949 Centennial Boulevard was a draft that had a lot of skeptics puzzled. The 49ers passed on cornerback Prince Amukamara with the seventh pick of the draft to select a relatively unknown speed rusher, Aldon Smith. To many, this didn’t make much sense.

Why pass on one of the best players at a need position for a young player who promised to be somewhat of a project?

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Simply put, one player had more upside than the other.

But the San Francisco 49ers seemed to have gotten the best of the two in regards to Smith. He has surprised many people with pro-ready pass rush moves and has contributed a great deal during the 49ers first three preseason games.

Then the San Francisco 49ers traded up in the second round and drafted Colin Kaepernick from Nevada. It made a lot of sense to followers of the franchise. But impatience has since befallen the 49er fanbase in regards to the rookie quarterback.

He has struggled a great deal over the first three preseason games. While this was expected, fans just couldn’t stand to see another 49er quarterback going through growing pains.

The harsh reality is that Kaepernick will not be ready to start this season and may not be fully pro-ready until the 2013 season. Once again, the 49er front office is asking for patience.

But taking a patient approach makes more sense than throwing a raw quarterback to the wolves behind an underperforming offensive line.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

We saw what that did to Alex Smith during his rookie season

The three-year approach means waiting for Kaepernick to be ready before throwing him into difficult NFL situations.

The rest of the 49ers draft went by and they did pick up two extremely talented players at need positions: running back Kendall Hunter and cornerback Chris Culliver. Both have shown tremendous upside during the preseason and will contribute to the team immediately.

While the 49ers sat back and waited for some of the best free agents to sign multi-million dollar deals, many fans and pundits of the organization took that as a sign the team was not looking to compete in 2011.

They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Over the course of the next week, the San Francisco 49ers would bring in veteran upgrades at multiple positions on both offense and defense. These players were not signed to long-term or lucrative contracts. But they were solid additions

The fact that San Francisco didn’t break the bank to find upgrades speaks a lot to what direction they are going:

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Braylon Edwards: One year, $1 million.

Donte Whitner: Three years, $11.7 million.

Jonathan Goodwin: Three years, $10.9 million.

Carlos Rogers: One year, $4.5 million.

And then, last night it was announced that Frank Gore had signed a contract extension with the 49ers for a reported $21 million over three years. Look for the contract to be front-loaded considering the salary cap room San Francisco currently has.

In fact, the majority of the $13 million guaranteed that Gore received in the extension could count against the 49ers 2011 cap numbers.

This gives the 49ers a great amount of salary cap flexibility moving into the next few offseasons and doesn’t force them to play numbers with the salary cap—something that got this team in trouble in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images
If Edwards proves he is a No. 1 receiver in the NFL, the 49ers will either be able to franchise him or re-sign him for No. 1-type money, and it won’t negatively affect their salary cap situation.

Listen, good teams build through the draft and win that way. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers are prime examples of this.

Just look at how many home-grown players were on the last few Super Bowl champion teams:

2010 Green Bay Packers: 50

2009: New Orleans Saints: 32

2008: Pittsburgh Steelers: 46

This is also how Bill Walsh built and reloaded the San Francisco 49ers during their dynasty of the 1980s. 

I know that 49er fans want to see them be more proactive in the free-agent market, but it makes little sense at this point. If Super Bowls were won in free agency, the Washington Redskins would have won six consecutive Lombardi trophies. But they continue to exist in mediocrity.

This is the right way to build an NFL franchise, especially if you are starting from scratch. And that is exactly what the San Francisco 49ers are doing right now: taking the patient approach, finding the right players at the right positions, finding the players who fit their scheme, getting the best possible coaches and then jumping into free agency to fill certain holes.

Does this mean that the San Francisco 49ers will not contend in 2011 or 2012? No. It simply means they are building to something better in the future.

The NFC West continues to remain the weakest division in football, and the 49ers arguably have the most talent of the four teams right now. They could easily win the division this season. 

 

Conclusion

As hard as it may be to grasp, the San Francisco 49ers are taking the right approach to building a team. We are going to see some growing pains, questions will arise in regards to the direction of the team, and they might not be successful with the approach.

But it sure beats the heck out of not having a plan at all. Just ask the Washington Redskins, Cincinnati Bengals and our own San Francisco 49ers of a couple years ago.

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