Rebuilding and wasting time can look a lot alike in the NFL.
49ers general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan must have realized they were doing the latter instead of the former as they watched C.J. Beathard get tenderized like a flank steak over the past two weeks. The 49ers weren't nurturing young talent, installing a system or developing a winning culture. They were getting blown out and getting players injured.
So instead of waiting around for the 2018 draft and the inevitable offseason Kirk Cousins open house, they decided to do something.
The 49ers acquired Jimmy Garoppolo from the Patriots on Monday night in exchange for a 2018 second-round pick, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. It's a risky trade because Garoppolo has attempted just 94 passes and has a history of minor injuries, plus "Brady Baby" backups have a long history of plummeting to their doom once they leap from the Foxboro nest.
But here's what else would have been risky: eight more weeks of blowouts; turning to some third-stringer once Beathard and Brian Hoyer (released after the trade, according to Schefter) were knocked out of commission; playing so poorly that receivers got few catches, blockers developed bad habits and defenders got gassed; and writing it all off to "rebuilding." Then either plunking down $150 million on a would-be savior whose team is 3-4 or handing the reins to one of the top college quarterback prospects, most of whom have spent every Saturday afternoon this autumn getting in their own ways.
If Lynch and Shanahan took the allegedly "safe" approach and stood pat, they risked their credibility and the confidence of their players and the patience of their owner. The 49ers were going in reverse this season, and no matter how long their contracts may look on paper, general managers and coaches have a finite amount of time to turn things around.
A year is a terrible thing to waste in the NFL. The Texans threatened to waste one by keeping Deshaun Watson in bubble wrap in favor of conventionally ineffective veteran Tom Savage. That strategy lasted exactly one half of one game. Watson gives both the Texans and their bickering coach-GM combo of Bill O'Brien and Rick Smith a future, one that would have faded the moment J.J. Watt got injured if Savage were still getting knocked from the saddle once per offensive series.
The Bears almost made the same mistake, insisting that plain-and-tall sack factory Mike Glennon was a better starter for their rebuilding effort than Mitchell Trubisky. Since making the switch in Week 5, they have won two games and kept the other two close, and now they are trade-deadline buyers, adding a wide receiver and redefining their identity.
The 49ers didn't draft a Watson or Trubisky, just the middling Beathard in a middle round. They had more time than the Texans and Bears, because the Lynch-Shanahan braintrust was brand new, with no expectation to win this season.
But there's danger in taking no expectation to win as literally as the 49ers were taking it. For evidence, Lynch and Shanahan needed to look no further than the Browns, their neck-and-neck challengers in the race to the bottom of the standings and the poster children for the Free Beer Tomorrow school of roster management.
The Browns spent the 2016 season going 1-15 while playing Extreme Moneyball. It was so much fun they made 2017 an encore performance. If they shoot for a three-peat in 2018, it will probably be with a new coach and/or front office, because while NFL owners are willing to wait two years for real progress, they won't wait that long for just a pulse.
Young players aren't really developing in Cleveland, because they are surrounded by other young players who need to develop, so every injury or mistake causes a chain reaction. The team's determination to avoid drafting a franchise quarterback—dodging opportunities to select Watson and Carson Wentz while congratulating itself on discount options like Cody Kessler and DeShone Kizer—has helped keep it permanently stalled at Step One of the rebuilding effort.
Lynch and Shanahan must have recognized the potential to make the same mistake after losing two games by a combined 73-20 score. Or perhaps they noticed the parallel between Joe Staley's injury and the loss of Joe Thomas in Cleveland: Wait too long to acquire one set of building blocks, and the older ones will crumble before they arrive.
So they stopped biding their time Monday night and decided to be more like the Texans, Bears and Eagles (who nabbed Wentz last season and played everything else by ear) than the Browns.
Garoppolo has the tools to be excellent. He demonstrated them during 2014 draft season, when he made believers out of scouts and observers at both the Shrine Game and Senior Bowl. He demonstrated them in a pair of starts last year, including an impressive season-opening victory over the Cardinals. He's looked great in preseason games (11 touchdown passes in four preseasons, FWIW) and gave Bill Belichick the confidence to waive off stopgap veterans during Deflategate and trade Jacoby Brissett at the start of this season.
Garoppolo has a live arm, a quick release and enough athleticism to scramble for a few yards. He's been exquisitely coached and has proved the stage is not too big for him.
Yet Garoppolo is no sure thing. He is no experienced, durable starter like Cousins. He is no dreamy extreme-upside prospect like [insert your favorite dreamy extreme-upside prospect here]. And he is not under contract beyond this year.
But Garoppolo is in San Francisco now. The 49ers can start the test drive on the practice field right away and on the game field (realistically) after their bye in Week 11 at the latest. Garoppolo can make the 49ers better now so they can start evaluating what they have in their skill-position youngsters and seeing how their defense holds up when it's not trailing by 17 every halftime.
The Draft Hipsters and Orthodox Moneyballers believe rebuilding is all about saving cap space, hoarding mid-draft picks and waiting for the cosmos to line up just so. If a team can't compete for the Super Bowl, then screw it: Trade everything but the cleat brushes and let your fans spend Sundays reading mock drafts instead of watching games.
Rebuilding is really about acquiring better players so they can make your roster better so you can develop other good players and doing it all quickly so guys don't get old/injured/discouraged/lazy/fired while waiting for the flames to catch.
Sometimes, that means spending those precious high draft picks, signing a player with just months left on his contract, making a deal with the NFL's resident devil or simply taking an honest-to-goodness chance instead of waiting and hoping.
Welcome to the realm of the risk-takers, Lynch and Shanahan.
It's a scary place with no guarantees. But the alternative is even scarier, and it only guarantees failure.