Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
When aerospace engineer Ed Murphy coined his informal law 65 years ago, he was attempting to champion defensive design practices in the manufacturing industry.
But if there's an example of Murphy's Law in the sports world right now, it's playing out at the Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Centre in Santa Clara, Calif., where the reeling San Francisco 49ers have been forced to hold training-camp practices without spectators because the sod at the adjacent stadium—which they recently built for $1.3 billion—is in such bad shape that it poses a safety risk to the players.
Because if it were isolated, the sod problem would merely represent a tough break. But the fact that the 49ers can't even get their playing field to cooperate indicates the franchise truly is experiencing a stretch in which anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
Beyond the sod at Levi's Stadium, it truly has been an offseason featuring an unprecedented number of personnel-related blows for the 49ers, from head coach Jim Harbaugh bailing for maize-and-bluer pastures at the University of Michigan less than 48 hours after the conclusion of a tremendously disappointing 8-8 season to top pass-rusher Aldon Smith's third DUI arrest leading to his release on Aug. 7.
In the 221 days that elapsed between those two unfortunate developments, the 49ers lost...
- Two starters below the age of 26—star linebacker Chris Borland and right tackle Anthony Davis, a former No. 11 overall pick—to sudden retirement.
- Two defensive stalwarts—seven-time Pro Bowler Patrick Willis and five-time Pro Bowler Justin Smith—to retirement.
- Two starting cornerbacks—reigning team interception leader Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver, who Pro Football Focus graded as the NFL's 15th-best corner last season—to free agency.
- Three-time Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati and five-time Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore to free agency.
- No. 2 and No. 3 receivers Michael Crabtree and Stevie Johnson to free agency.
Five of their seven highest-rated defensive players in 2014 at PFF, gone:
|49ers: Highest-rated defensive players at PFF in 2014|
|Player||Grade||Where is he now?|
|1. Chris Borland||20.8||Retired at age 24|
|2. Justin Smith||15.6||Retired|
|3. Ray McDonald||15.2||Free agent|
|4. Antoine Bethea||12.7||San Francisco|
|5. Ian Williams||12.4||San Francisco|
|6. Chris Culliver||8.0||Washington|
|7. Aldon Smith||5.8||Legal troubles|
|Pro Football Focus|
Plus, their team leader on D, their top back, their best offensive lineman, two of their top three receivers, two more starters (at corner and offensive tackle) and both coordinators.
I'll admit to being both baffled and impressed by the number of 49ers supporters who continue to believe that an offseason plagued by net losses won't somehow completely destroy a franchise that has by all unbiased appearances been irreversibly maimed.
They were out in full force when I condemned the Niners in an article last week, commenting that yours truly—born and raised in Toronto—should "stick to Canadian football" for my inability to recognize that NaVorro Bowman—coming off a severe knee injury—should indeed be able to replace one of the 11 starting-caliber players the team lost in spring and summer, and that running back Frank Gore's replacement, Carlos Hyde, "is a beast."
Never mind the other nine guys that need replacing, or the fact that Hyde has 333 career rushing yards and has yet to start an NFL game.
I was also told that the 49ers didn't win games because of the departed Harbaugh, but they were successful due to the presence of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. And that Darnell Dockett would be an upgrade over departed troublemaker Ray McDonald, who was a force up front when he wasn't in trouble off the field. And I was told that the loss of wide receiver Michael Crabtree—who, according to Pro Football Focus, had the league's fourth-highest dropped-pass rate last season—doesn't matter because the team signed Torrey Smith.
Never mind the fact Fangio is also gone and that the 34-year-old Dockett is no longer a full-time player, is coming off a major knee injury and was released by the Arizona Cardinals for a reason.
And, oh shoot, is that the Smith with an even worse drop rate than Crabtree's?
|NFL's highest qualified drop rates, 2014|
|1. Mohamed Sanu||Bengals||56||14||70||20.00|
|2. Torrey Smith||Ravens||49||11||60||18.33|
|3. Kelvin Benjamin||Panthers||73||11||84||13.10|
|4. Michael Crabtree||49ers||68||10||78||12.82|
|5. Reggie Wayne||Colts||64||9||73||12.33|
|6. Allen Hurns||Jaguars||51||7||58||12.07|
|Pro Football Focus|
Comments like those were slightly less intolerable before the football world received word that Aldon Smith had been cut following his fifth arrest in four years. But listening to sports talk radio late Friday afternoon, it was obvious the defenders of red, gold and white weren't about to take off those reality-obscuring glasses, proving that it truly is impossible for most—if not all—football fans to feel and/or express pessimism in the month of August.
My colleague, Ty Schalter, is a friendly, optimistic man—much more friendly and optimistic than the man writing this sentence. He was kind enough to search for a half-full glass when offering an initial take on the Smith development, essentially arguing that the offseason can't get any worse for the Niners and the nightmare is likely over.
That's fair, but it's important to note that the team has yet to play a game in this shape. Rock bottom was not 8-8.
I admire—even envy—the fortitude of those who continue to see rays of sunshine where I don't. But there's no denying that most of that fervor comes from nothing more than homer myopia, or gold-colored glasses.
A major theme here is that fans are failing to realize just how bad things have gotten because we've never seen a Murphy's Law offseason quite like this one. They're in shock and have yet to process what has happened to a once-great team. Fans are not necessarily reputable sources, but that's sort of the point.
You won't find reputable sources predicting a Super Bowl in San Francisco.
There's a reason this team is now listed by the Westgate Las Vegas as a 100-to-1 shot to win the Super Bowl, per Joe Fortenbaugh of 95.7 The Game in the Bay Area, and that just six months ago the same source gave them 25-to-1 odds. At that point, only four teams had worse odds than 100-to-1.
This San Francisco team wasn't particularly good last season with guys like Borland, Justin and Aldon Smith, McDonald, Culliver, Cox, Iupati, Gore and Davis playing significant roles. All of those players are gone, as is a locker room leader in Willis, the head coach and both coordinators.
Replacements like Bowman, Torrey Smith and even Dockett aren't scraps, and there's something to be said for San Francisco's ability to find diamonds in the draft rough. But consider what has to happen merely so that the Niners can maintain whatever it is they had going before everything hit the fan this offseason.
The Niners need Bowman to stay healthy. They need Dockett to take his career off life support to replace McDonald. And they need Hyde, rookie defensive tackle Arik Armstead, young guard Brandon Thomas and young linebacker Corey Lemonier—none of whom have ever started in the NFL—to replace Pro Bowlers.
Among the six players they brought in this offseason to play major roles, three—Dockett, Philip Wheeler and Reggie Bush—were cut by their former teams. A fourth—Smith—comes with question marks. Beyond that, new right tackle Erik Pears was graded by PFF last year as the third-worst player in football at guard, and new cornerback Shareece Wright was graded fourth-last among 108 qualified players at that position.
Just stop and take a glance at the 49ers depth chart. With names like Wright, Wheeler, Pears, Bush, Tramaine Brock and Glenn Dorsey sprinkled among completely unproven commodities like Hyde, Armstead, Lemonier, Thomas and center Marcus Martin, it's hard to see this team winning more than a handful of games.
I know this is a quarterback's league. And Colin Kaepernick has still accomplished quite a lot in a short amount of time. But Kaepernick, who had a lower passer rating last season than scrubs such as Jay Cutler, Mark Sanchez and Kyle Orton, needs more support, not less.
Among 27 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts during the final five weeks of 2014, Kaepernick ranked 25th during that span with a 71.2 rating. Per PFF, only four pivots were less accurate.
|NFL's lowest-rated passers, final five weeks of 2014|
|Min. 100 pass attempts (Pro Football Reference)|
He takes too many sacks, he throws too many ducks and there are serious questions regarding his ability (or lack thereof) to go through his progressions.
Regardless of whether Kaepernick is the long-term answer at that particular position, the 49ers are on the verge of a rebuild. Anybody who doesn't see it is in denial.
The bad (or good, depending on your perspective) news for those folks is September is quickly approaching, at which point fans are no longer inexplicably obligated to be unflinchingly optimistic.
The utter shock from this offseason has predictably caused many to fail to fully grasp that San Francisco now possesses one of the league's least talented rosters. That's understandable, because we don't often see Murphy's Law do so much damage to a team in such a short amount of time.
But when the games start counting and the 49ers have to deal with one of the hardest first-half schedules in football, it'll sink in fast.
|San Francisco's first 11 games, 2015|
Five of their first seven games come against 2014 playoff teams, with the other two coming against emerging, playoff-caliber opponents: the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants. And even beyond that, in November, they take on reigning playoff teams Seattle and Arizona as well as the tough division-rival Rams on the road.
Speaking of the Rams, their trajectory points in a much happier direction. We already knew Seattle and Arizona probably had San Francisco's number in the NFC West, especially with Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham joining the Seahawks and franchise quarterback Carson Palmer returning from injury to help the Cards, but consider that St. Louis now feels it has the answer under center with shiny new quarterback Nick Foles.
In other words, the Niners could be in line to finish in last place for the first time since 2005.
Unprecedented losses, tough schedule, tough division. Altogether, it's far too much to overcome for a team that by all indications was already careening downhill before everything that could go wrong started to do exactly that.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.