The 49ers did this to themselves. Created a mess.
They had opportunities to win each of the past four games and blew them. Now they’re 0-5, and no team that started a season with five consecutive losses has ever made the playoffs.
A series of bad moves led to this dreadful start for the 49ers. In chronological order, here are the five biggest football sins the Niners have committed in 2017.
1. Not hiring an offensive coordinator.
The 49ers first major move of the year was hiring Kyle Shanahan as the head coach.
I’m not knocking the hire. I advocated for it. Shanahan has the chops to coach offense, as he proved last season with the Falcons. He is an excellent offensive coordinator.
That’s why he didn’t hire an offensive coordinator for the 49ers. He made himself the offensive coordinator. This was his first major mistake. Call it Kyle Shanahan’s original sin.
It’s almost impossible to be a good offensive coordinator and a good head coach at the same time. Andy Reid can pull off both, but he has been in the league 1,000 years. Shanahan is a rookie head coach. He should have made things easy on himself. He should have hired an offensive coordinator as rookie head coach Sean McVay did with the Rams. Shanahan should be focusing on one job — being a good head coach.
An offensive coordinator’s duties are extremely time consuming. All the film he has to watch, all the game planning he has to do — those things take all week. A head coach can’t be Polaroid focused on one phase of the team. The head coach is supposed to have Panavision. He’s in charge of the defense and special teams, too. He’s the CEO of the team, not the VP of Offense.
By spreading himself so thin, Shanahan has underperformed at both of his jobs.
2. Assembling a coaching staff devoid of leadership and experience.
Shanahan can draw a clever play on a grease board and explain the play in depth to his players. But can he lead them?
Shanahan never was in a leadership position before this season. He has no leadership experience. He may not be a natural leader. Right now, he’s not Captain Kirk. He’s Spock.
Every team needs Captain Kirk somewhere on its coaching staff. Someone can deliver a message. Someone who can get his point across. Someone who makes tough decisions because he likes making them. Someone who motivates players, scares them if he has to.
That person doesn’t have to be the head coach. An experienced coordinator with a dynamic personality could be Kirk. Think of Wade Philips helping McVay in Los Angeles. But Shanahan didn’t hire an experienced coordinator with a dynamic personality. He hired Robert Saleh, a defensive coordinator who hasn’t been a coordinator before this year. He has no gravitas. Is learning on the job.
Shanahan assembled a staff full of coaches in training.
3. Neglecting the offensive line during the initial offensive overhaul.
After the first two days of free agency, the 49ers had signed seven offensive players: Two quarterbacks (Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley), three wide receivers (Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin and Aldrick Robinson), one tight end (Logan Paulsen) and one fullback (Kyle Juszczyk).
These veterans are upgrades over the players the Niners had on offense previously. But through five games, the offense is worse than it was last season. It’s averaging only 17.8 points per game — down from 19.3 points per game under Chip Kelly in 2016. Sinful.
During that first wave of free agency, the Niners didn’t upgrade their weakest offensive position — the offensive line, particularly the guards. In fairness, the Niners thought they had a good one in Joshua Garnett. He hurt his knee during training camp and is out of the season. Not the Niners’ fault.
But they knew they needed another guard. They knew Zane Beadles isn’t good enough to start. So after the draft, they signed Brandon Fusco, who also isn’t good enough to start. He’s cheap, and no team wanted him — he was a free agent for almost three months, on the discard pile.
The Niners should have made a bigger investment on their offensive line. They could have signed Ron Leary, one of the best guards in the league. He’s only 28 years old and comes from an outside-zone blocking scheme in Dallas, the same scheme Shanahan uses. Leary would have been a perfect fit for the Niners.
But Leary went to the Broncos for a contract worth $36 million over four years. The Niners had more than enough cap space to outbid Denver. They simply decided to go cheap.
Now the Niners have lost two games in which one or both of their guards allowed a sack or committed a holding penalty during crunch time.
4. Wasting the No. 3 pick in the draft.
After signing so many offensive players during free agency, the Niners had to prioritize defense during the draft.
Their biggest need was a quality cornerback, someone who can deny the other team’s best receiver the ball or even a glance from the quarterback. But instead of taking a corner with their first pick, the Niners took a defensive lineman for the third year in a row. They took Solomon Thomas. What a mistake. If we’re being religious about this, it was blasphemy.
Thomas would be fine if he were an explosive pass rusher like the Raiders Khalil Mack. But Thomas isn’t explosive like Mack. He’s not explosive at all. He’s not someone the offensive line has to double team or even worry about. He wasn’t worth the No. 3 pick.
The Niners should have spent that pick on a cornerback. Marshon Lattimore was available — he ended up going to the Saints, and already is one of the best corners in the league. He could have shut down the Colts’ T.Y. Hilton for the 49ers on Sunday. Hilton caught seven passes for 177 yards.
5. Failing to instill discipline and allowing the same problem to persist for two months.
During training camp, Shanahan focused on installing his offense. He should have focused on instilling discipline, too.
He never punished a player for committing a penalty during practice — Shanahan simply would move on to the next play. If players committed lots of penalties during a short period – which happened frequently — Shanahan sometimes would start a drill over again. But he did nothing to modify players’ behavior.
He should have pulled players out of drills who committed penalties. Or made them run laps after practice. Something. He had an obligation to make sure his team doesn’t beat itself with mistakes. Jim Harbaugh, a natural leader, a Kirk, recognized that obligation.
Shanahan had to instill these three commandments during practice. Thou shalt not false start. Thou shalt not line up in the neutral zone. Thou shalt not jump offside.
But he didn’t instill commandments, and now the Niners are the sloppiest team in the NFL. They lead the league in penalties with 9.8 per game.
Shanahan has had since August to atone for being too soft during training camp, but his players still make the same mistakes every week. They committed 10 penalties against the Colts.
Here’s what Shanahan can do: Make penalties the No. 1 critical issue for the team. Make penalties his new point of emphasis and enforce discipline. That’s his job as the head coach.
If he can’t reduce the penalties within the next month, he may need divine intervention to redeem his football sins. Failing that, he sure could use a wise old head on his coaching staff, a Moses.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.