San Francisco 49ers: NFL's Worst Team - Rolling Stone
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How San Francisco 49ers Became Worst Team in Football

Yes, even worse than the Cleveland Browns

San Francisco 49ers, football, NFL, 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, Cleveland Browns,

San Francisco 49ers went from top of the NFC to worst in the NFL in three years.

Ezra Shaw/Getty

When it comes to being terrible, the Cleveland Browns might be overrated. Sure, the Browns are winless, have the league’s worst point differential, and haven’t won a division title since George Bush, Sr. was in office, but they still might not be the NFL’s worst team today. They actually have a lot more going for them than a certain franchise that has won five Super Bowls and is three years removed from an appearance in the NFC Championship game, what was their third in a row, but is now knocking on the door for what could be their worst season ever.

So, what happened to the San Francisco 49ers?

Now 1-11 following a 26-6 loss to the Chicago Bears – a team that had just two wins before Sunday – the 49ers are 32nd in scoring defense, 32nd in run defense, and 30th in points. They had to bench quarterback Colin Kaepernick this week after he went 1-of-5 for four yards and Blaine Gabbert didn’t do much better in relief, going 4-of-10 for 35 yards. All told, it meant that the Niners gained six passing yards, the lowest by any team in the last six seasons.

At least Cleveland has something to potentially build at quarterback with rookie Cody Kessler and could be getting Robert Griffin III back for the final quarter of the season. Things were never supposed to get this bad under Chip Kelly, once regarded as football’s next great offensive genius, but whose offenses in fact have gotten successively worse in each year he’s been in the league since leaving the University of Oregon in 2013. It’s not like anyone expected San Francisco to lead the league in scoring, but players are objectively worse under Kelly this season.

At least the Browns seem to have a plan with head coach Hue Jackson, general manager Sashi Brown, and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, best known as being played by Jonah Hill in Moneyball. We don’t even know if Kelly will stick around after the season, if he’ll find the currently-vacant Oregon job more attractive than a long rebuild with the 49ers, or if owner Jed York will even want him to stay after a year in which even “satisfactory” was a pretty low bar that he failed to meet.

What do Niners fans even have to look forward to after this season?

The best players under 30 are safety Eric Reid, defensive ends DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, linebacker NaVorro Bowman, cornerbacks Jimmie Ward and Rashard Robinson, running back Carlos Hyde, and tight end Vance McDonald. Bowman, who signed a needlessly-long extension to keep him with the team through 2022, is on injured reserve with a torn achilles. So is Reid, though his injury is a torn biceps. So is Armstead with a shoulder injury. Hyde is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry and in a passing league, is limited as a running back with just 247 career receiving yards in three seasons. McDonald has progressed into being a decent tight end, which is why he should leave via free agency as his rookie deal expires in a few months.

That doesn’t compare favorably to what Cleveland has to build around, like Kessler, Terrelle Pryor, Isaiah Crowell, Corey Coleman, Gary Barnidge, Joel Bitonio, Joe Thomas, Duke Johnson, Joe Haden, Emmanuel Ogbah, Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton, Christian Kirksey, Carl Nassib and potentially Josh Gordon. It’s not the first team I’d choose to build around but it’s a lot better than what San Francisco is trying to work with.

And unlike the future draft prospects for the 49ers, I would trust what the Browns do next.

Since Trent Baalke fully assumed the role of San Francisco’s GM in 2011, the team has drafted 61 players. Out of those, only two have made a Pro Bowl, each one time; linebacker Aldon Smith, who was released for off-field issues in 2014 and is currently serving suspension with the Oakland Raiders, and Reid, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2013 but has failed to progress since either because of injuries or a constant change in coaching. Dozens more, like Smith, are no longer with the team, including fellow high draft picks like receiver A.J. Jenkins and running back LaMichael James, both of whom had no contribution to the franchise. And while the 49ers may have the first or second overall pick next year, Cleveland is likely to have the top pick plus another early selection courtesy of the Carson Wentz trade with the Philadelphia Eagles that could end up being in the top 10.

As farfetched at this statement may have sounded mere months ago, you’d tend to believe that even the Browns will make better use of their picks than the Niners.

For Kaepernick, he received a $114 million contract extension in 2014 after just 23 career starts, and he’s the seventh-highest paid QB this season, ahead of guys like Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Cam Newton. Benched for the first five games, he is 0-7 with a passer rating of 85.5 since winning back the job via the “Gabbert” rule which unofficially states that Blaine Gabbert is never going to be able to hold down a starting job for a full season. San Francisco is slated to have plenty of cap room next year (Cleveland has $18 million more) but that power will only go as far as which players choose to play for the worst team in football as opposed to a team that has a quarterback, or stability on the coaching staff, or is the New England Patriots, who have the third-most cap room in the NFL.

As unlikely as it seemed three years ago, or when hiring Kelly in January, and even as recently as this past Sunday when the Browns dropped to 0-12, nobody is worse than the 49ers. Not today, and not in the near future. The solution won’t be simple, but it likely involves a change in personnel management that will get the most value out of their top pick in 2017, making the best of their cap space, and ensuring that they have the right coaches in place to help what talent they do have reach their ceilings.

It’s time to change the narrative on which franchise is actually the worst in the league. Not just for what their record is this season, but in how they got there and for what’s to come next.

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