With the team facing comically low expectations, the 49ers’ 2016 season is all about Chip Kelly

trent baalke jed york chip kelly

Football Outsiders recently published their “Early NFC Projections.” If they’re right about the 49ers, San Francisco could very well end up with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Football Outsiders has the 49ers finishing 4-12, which is even worse than the oddsmakers in Las Vegas (who mostly have the 49ers’ regular season win total over/under at 5 or 5.5). Football Outsiders projects no other NFC team to finish worse than 6-10. The Cardinals are projected to go 12-4, with the Seahawks close behind at 11-5. They have the Rams going 7-9, which would be their fifth straight season with seven or fewer wins since Jeff Fisher took over. That man deserves a raise!

How Fisher is still employed by Los Angeles is a mystery, but this post is about Chip Kelly. Now that Trent Baalke’s job is pretty much done — a declaration so absurd, it brings this photo to mind — it’s up to Kelly to make something out of this young and unproven roster that appears unimpressive and hole-ridden on paper. That’s probably why Football Outsiders wrote this when explaining their projection.

The 49ers are seriously talking about using Blaine Gabbert as their starting quarterback all year. They are getting used to yet another new offensive system, Anquan Boldin is gone with no clear replacement, and the strength of the rest of the NFC West gives San Francisco the toughest projected schedule in the league. At least the defense should rebound a bit after finishing 27th in DVOA a year ago.

The 2015 49ers were known for one of the most boring, conservative offenses in recent memory. However, it really was rather amazing how bad the defense was last year. The retirements of Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and Chris Borland stung, but five of their previous seven draft picks in the first two rounds were spent on defensive players. And with their head coach coming from a defensive background, and their defensive coordinator being the most decorated, experienced coach on the entire 2015 staff, the team’s overall defensive performance was nothing short of a massive disappointment.

Now the defense is supposed to get better under Kelly and Jim O’Neil. This wouldn’t seem like a lock to occur, except the bar was set so low last season. All of this while a new, quick-tempo offense is installed and, as Football Outsiders notes, the passing attack doesn’t boast many dynamic players.

One could look back and see if Football Outsiders knew what they were talking about in previous seasons. It’s impossible to predict the record for every team, especially in a sport as injury-volatile as football, but their previous projections might lend some perspective.

In 2014, they projected the 49ers to finish 9-7, which ended up being one game off. They had the 2015 49ers finishing 7-9 a year ago, and here’s the commentary that went with that projection.

San Francisco’s situation is a difficult one to try to model with statistics. We can penalize them for the loss of two starting inside linebackers — one of them, Patrick Willis, a perennial Pro Bowl star — and those retirements likely neutralize any benefit the 49ers will get from the strong probability that they are healthier on defense in 2015. However, the importance of a head coach is a subjective variable. Under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers tended to always play better than projections. Nobody outside of the organization seems to have any faith in Jim Tomsula as his replacement. What are numbers supposed to say about that?

Good question at the end. How about moving that a year forward — what are numbers supposed to say about these 49ers under Kelly? After all, he led the Eagles to consecutive 10-6 seasons before the bottom fell out in Philadelphia and he was fired after Week 16 — the Eagles were 6-9 at the time (the Eagles were projected to go 9-7 last season by Football Outsiders, FWIW).

Here’s what we think we know: the 49ers’ offensive line should be better, the quarterback is a complete wild card (Kelly said today on KNBR that he has “no idea” who the starter will be this season), the running backs and tight ends should be about the same, the wide receivers should be worse (unless they get a surprise upgrade in the form of someone like DeAndre Smelter or Eric Rogers), and the defense will be on the field a little more often.

Injuries aren’t a potential excuse, either. Not after 2015, when Antoine Bethea, Alex Boone, Reggie Bush, Garrett Celek, Glenn Dorsey, Shaun Draughn, Carlos Hyde, Colin Kaepernick and Michael Wilhoite finished the season on the shelf.

Will Kelly’s system and attention to details like conditioning and nutrition take this rag-tag bunch to heights no one expects to see until at least two or three years down the line? With no free agency additions to speak of, we’ll see how many wins Kelly is worth to this team compared to Jim Tomsula.

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