By Matthew Budkofsky
After 3 consecutive trips to the NFC Conference Championship game, the San Francisco 49ers finished this past season at a lackluster 8-8. Ever since then, severe changes have been made. Jim Harbaugh and management ‘mutually’ agreed to part ways, and Harbaugh immediately turned around and took the head-coaching job at the University of Michigan. This decision did not come as much of a shock when it was finally announced, but it was a questionable call made by the executives. Before this past season, the 49ers had never lost more than 4 games in the regular season. Harbaugh helped build the 49ers into a fierce competitor, and the team was widely recognized as a run-first, hard-hitting defensive team. Ever since the legal tampering period of free agency began this past Saturday, the 49ers could be in for an identity crisis.
This past Monday, middle linebacker Patrick Willis announced his retirement. This came as a shock to many people around the league, as Willis is only 30 years old and made the Pro-Bowl in each of his first 7 seasons. This past season, Willis was limited to only 6 games before being put on injured-reserve but said he would return: “I will be bigger and better than I was.” Willis spent all of his 8 years in the league with the 49ers and was a key piece in the Niners making the conference championship all of those years.
Another huge piece of the 49er defense announced his retirement this Monday as well. Defensive lineman Justin Smith declared he would also retire, but his decision is not 100% final. This doesn’t come as such a surprise because Smith is 35 years old. If Smith does decide to hang ‘em up, the 49ers could be left with some huge shoes to fill on defense. Willis and Smith combined for 12 Pro-Bowls and 6 All-Pro awards en route to making the team’s defense one of the best in the league these past few seasons.
There are some options to replace these players though. Chris Borland enjoyed a very nice season last year playing linebacker. However, the Niners had too many linebackers last year. Not a bad problem to have. Now, Borland will have to take the step from unproven rookie to the motor of the defense. Borland is a very good player, but it will be extremely challenging for him to duplicate the success Willis enjoyed, especially for the length of time Willis played for. As for the line, Darnell Dockett was just signed to prepare for the departure of Smith. Yes, Dockett is a good player, but he is coming off a torn ACL and is already 33.
As for the offensive side of the ball, longtime running back Frank Gore and former first round pick Michael Crabtree are both on their way out of town via free agency. Gore was rumored to have a deal in place with the Philadelphia Eagles but it most recently came out he now wants to go to the Colts. Since turning 28, Gore has averaged 1,165 yards per season while also putting up 7 touchdowns. That’s 137 more yards and 1 more touchdown than he had been putting up during the seasons he was 24-27. You do not see that often, if ever, out of running backs. We can’t be sure when he will start to slow down.
Crabtree enjoyed his best season with the 49ers in 2012, when he posted his only 1,000-yard season in his entire tenure with the team. Crabtree never lived up to the potential he flashed during his days at Texas Tech. He is set to hit the open market and play elsewhere this coming season.
Don’t worry Niner fans, because there are reinforcements coming for these guys too. For Gore, the franchise just has to stay in house and roll with Carlos Hyde. Hyde was a second-round pick and definitely has the potential to pick up the slack from the aging Gore. Torrey Smith will do big things with Colin Kaepernick’s rocket of an arm, but there are obviously reasons why things didn’t work out for him with Baltimore, and this could be a hint at the problems going on in the bay area right now.
Another blow to the offense is the impending departure of guard Mike Iupati. Iupati is just 27 years old and has been to 3 straight Pro-Bowls. When he hits the open market, he will most likely receive a huge deal from a team in need of a great blocker to open up the line of scrimmage. He is probably the most underrated player leaving San Fran, but he is still an impact player that allowed the Niners to do what they do best, and that is running the ball.
So, Jim Tomsula appears to have his work cut out for him. Who is Jim Tomsula? He is Jim Harbaugh’s replacement. Losing Harbaugh meant losing some of his guys, and I’m sure the 49ers front office knew that. This isn’t even Jim Tomsula’s first day as a head coach. He coached the 49ers in 1 game back in 2010, and led them to a victory. Are we about to witness the next Vince Lombardi? Heck no. When the 49ers take the field in 2015, they are going to be a completely different team that will also have totally new identity. There are still many questions left to be answered with San Fran, and only time can tell.