Two years removed from their last NFC Championship Game visit, the 49ers may be as far from competing for a title as any team in the league.
Football makes it easy to buy into the fantasy, easy to believe that a given successful stretch for a team will be the one that never ends and that any impending roadblocks can be dodged easily. So forgive the 49ers, if you will, for thinking that their run from 2011 to ’13—three NFC title game trips and one near-miss in the Super Bowl—was the foundation for a burgeoning dynasty, led by a rising superstar quarterback.
That was the fantasy.
This is the reality: Two years removed from their last NFC Championship Game visit, the 49ers may be as far from competing for a title as any team in the league. That quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, will reportedly be benched this week for Blaine Gabbert, who hasn’t started a game since 2013 and hasn’t won in three years.
The 49ers punted on their season, and on Kaepernick’s future with the team, by making that decision. It was just in June of 2014 that Kaepernick signed a contract extension through 2020, worth a possible $114 million. The front office hedged its bets, though, essentially making Kaepernick’s contract a year-to-year proposition: If he is on the roster on April 1 next year, his entire 2016 base salary of $11.9 million becomes guaranteed; the same goes for April 1, 2017, when $14.5 million comes due.
There is almost no chance of that now. Kaepernick will be cut or traded in the off-season, if he’s not out of San Francisco before then.
His fall from grace has been both swift and public. Kaepernick came off the bench to lead San Francisco’s Super Bowl run in 2012, supplanting an injured Alex Smith. He was the unquestioned starter the next season, as the 49ers posted a 12–4 mark and won two more playoff games.
But Kaepernick’s play has slid in concert with the 49ers’ implosion, and the on-field issues have been just a part of the concern. FOX’s Jay Glazer reported on his network’s pregame show a week back that Kaepernick is “on an island inside that locker room.” CBS's Jason La Canfora added on, tweeting Monday that newly traded tight end Vernon Davis “was among those sick of Kap walking around team headquarters with headphones on all day,” all but confirming multiple reports of Kaepernick’s reclusive approach to his teammates.
Team CEO Jed York has refused to discuss the situation with reporters, an approach similar to the one he took as rumors of a rift between general manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh pecked away at the 2014 49ers. The team wrapped that season 8–8, Harbaugh left and the entire franchise has unraveled in the months that followed.
Baalke and York continued to assure San Francisco fans that all was well this past off-season, despite Harbaugh’s exit and an unprecedented rash of retirements from key players. Per Ann Killion, York said at the May owners meetings that he thought the 49ers would go 11–5 this season. More fantasy, which many pointed out at the time.
Publicly, this is how the NFL—and sports in general—wants to operate, with a prevailing theme of parity giving every team life during the off-season. York cannot be faulted for buying in. Internally, though, both York and Baalke had to know what lay ahead, at least to some extent. Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Justin Smith and Anthony Davis all retired. Frank Gore, Mike Iupati and others bolted via free agency. Jim Tomsula was promoted to head coach in place of Harbaugh and, though he is by all accounts a highly respected voice in the locker, instantly appeared overwhelmed.
And hovering over all of it was Kaepernick’s situation. It’s no secret that having an elite quarterback can help mask a franchise’s problems. Just ask the few teams that boast such a player.
However, the flip side is that leaning too heavily on the wrong QB can set a team back for years. Assuming Gabbert has not morphed into the next Tom Brady while riding the pine, the 49ers immediately are in the market for a new No. 1 quarterback—a quest that can take years and years to complete.
This is the new reality for the 49ers, one that the front office tried to ignore for months even as the walls around it crumbled. Those days of Super Bowl contention with Kaepernick at QB and a stable, happy locker room are long gone.
Expecting them to return anytime soon is nothing more than a dream.