Hope When Hope is Lost

For the record, right up front, this is a sports post.

Okay, now that’s clear, we can soldier on.

I wrote a few months back about my long-suffering San Francisco 49ers fandom and how thrilled I was that after many years of being awful–with a short, pseudo-dominate period  tucked in between–it looked liked my beloved football team was on the right track, mostly due to the presence of head coach Kyle Shanahan and his savant-level offensive mind and newly minted QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who for a brief moment was the highest paid player in pro football.

Then this happened:

Image result for jimmy garoppolo knee injury gif

As the Niners were mounting a drive to possibly pull themselves within a score of the scorching hot Kansas City Chiefs, Garoppolo tried to make something happen to help his team win the game. But instead of getting out-of-bounds, saving a timeout and taking what he could get, the 49ers franchise QB fancied himself a running back (which, by the way, never sign $137 million dollar contracts), tried to make a cut on Chiefs DB Steven Nelson and, well, you can see what happened. The quarterback collapsed in a heap, and not only did the Niners not score (although a TD on the next play by C.J. Beathard was negated by a non-existent Offensive Pass Interference call), but the season was, for all intents and purposes, over before the third game even finished. This, combined with the loss of newly signed RB Jerrick McKinnon at the end of practice before the season opener and a host of other smaller injuries, has left the Niners a shell of their potential, as they lack the depth in key areas–especially quarterback–to continue their upward trajectory.

While the beginning of the season–a gauntlet that included away games at Minnesota, Kansas City and the Chargers, along with a tough trip to Green Bay on Monday Night and the Rams at home–was always going to be tough, regardless of who was quarterbacking, the loss of Garoppolo has certainly turned winnable games against the Chargers, Packers and Cardinals (twice) into either end-to-end defeats or demoralizing late-game collapses. So a team that might have had wild card playoff aspirations is now the mathematical favorite for the overall number one pick in next spring’s draft. Yesterday’s loss, a 18-15 sad-fest at Arizona, which featured a 5-3 halftime score and some of the most absolutely abysmal attempts at football I’ve ever watched (and yes, I watched every minute of the game, including the final drive, where Larry Fitzgerald once again stabbed the Niners in the heart). At this point, the top pick in the draft, even if it is edge rusher extraordinaire Nick Bosa, is little consolation; losing this often and in this manner is getting old.

You see, while there is a sort of badge of honor worn by fans of bad teams (sorry Browns fans), after a lot of losing, that honor fades into something more like disgruntled fanbases, and, in the case of the 49ers and their relatively new home in Santa Clara, fans giving up on the team altogether (although some of that may have to do with being far away from San Francisco, extreme ticket prices and a whole half of the stadium that is significantly hotter than the other). For a franchise that is among the most successful in NFL history (5 Super Bowl titles, tied for second most in league history with the Cowboys and Patriots), this is difficult to swallow, especially from the opposite end of the country, where the team being bad means it’s harder to watch games and team merchandise is only available through online resources.

Still we Niners fans are reminded that this is a process, and that season was likely to be a roller coaster ride, even with Garoppolo and McKinnon in the backfield. To make matters worse, the defense has been sloppy, with second year players regressing or not living up to draft position on every level (Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster and Akhello Witherspoon) and unable to generate much in the way of a consistent pass rush from the edge. And even though it has played well as a unit in spurts, even in the team’s only win, they allowed a certain victory to nearly fall apart late in the game. And outside of Sunday’s game, every team has scored 24 or more points, leading to their averaging the 5th most allowed points through the halfway point of the season at 29.5 and the second most overall points, just one fewer than the Cincinnati Bengals. Garoppolo might have been able to mask some of that, yes, and it’s unlikely he would have turned the ball over quite as often as Beathard has (17 total this year, including 5 in the week 5 loss to Arizona, pretty much accounting for all of the Cardinals points), and also likely that a stronger offensive unit would help the defense stay off the field and play from behind less, but the defense is showing it wasn’t quite there yet. But the rebuild is definitely stalled by the two majors injuries, and Shanahan and his staff aren’t quite up for working with the poor depth the team possess, usually the last thing to get shored up when a team gets gutted like the Niners did last off-season.

Yet hope is not lost. Every week I’ve gotten an email from SB Nation asking me questions about the NFL, and every week the survey ends with the same question: “How confident are you with the direction of the franchise at the moment?” This is a loaded question, but one I’ve always answered the same since before the season started: confident. Yes, the team is 1-7 with a Thursday night date with the Oakland Raiders, a long week and then Monday Night Football against the New York Giants–both at home–coming up, and yes, both of those teams are just as bad, if not worse on the field than the 49ers right now. But I say confident because I know this wasn’t the plan for this year, and that with another off-season to build the defense and depth at various positions, and with a rejuvenated starting QB and RB tandem back on the field for 2019, the franchise is still in good hands to turn this putridity around sooner rather than later. The 2018 season has been a disappoint, and at this point it’s looking like the team won’t even get back to the 6-10 record they posted last year, but overall I remain hopeful for the future and that eventually this front office and coaching staff will put all the pieces to get the team into contention and (hopefully) remain there for many years to come.

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