NFL

New coach, same story (and the clock ticks for Trent Baalke)

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It took less than a minute for it all to evaporate. The perception of the Seahawks as a broken team with the worst offensive line in NFL history, a gimpy Russell Wilson, and no way to consistently move the ball downfield. The perception of the 49ers as an upstart who could give Seattle a fight and beat the 9.5-point spread heading into this game, which turned out just like so many recent games at CenturyLink — worse, even.

The Seahawks are now back in a familiar position: favorites to win the NFC West. The division seems to be regressing as a whole, with the Cardinals losing badly to Buffalo. The Rams seem to be figuring things out after a weird and total collapse at Levi’s to start the season, so we’re back to the easy assumption most of us made when the season began.

That’s right, the 49ers are also in an all-too-familiar position: favorites to finish last in the division. The good news? With their glaring offensive needs, finishing last — not just in the NFC West, but overall — could be the best-case scenario.

Yes, this was Tomsulery 2.0. And Trent Baalke probably won’t be the team’s General Manager for long.

That doesn’t mean we should expect a midseason transition, unless the promotion of Tom Gamble to Asst. GM before the season signaled Jed York’s plan. The Yorks generally prefer to bring out the guillotine as a cleansing instrument after the last regular season game, so expect Baalke to wear a protective neck brace made of kevlar on Jan. 1, the day the 49ers host the Seahawks.

Today the 49ers dropped an all-time stinker in Seattle. It wasn’t just the final score (37-18 if you didn’t sit through the fourth quarter). It was how the game started — Christine Michael and Doug Baldwin slicing through a defense that resembled wet toilet paper. How the 49ers responded offensively arguably was even worse, with vanilla plays, short/ineffective passes from Blaine Gabbert (who isn’t even close to a long-term answer). That Gabbert only threw one interception and didn’t absorb a sack did nothing to wipe the stench away. Nor did scoring 15 puntos de basura in the last eight minutes of a game after trailing 37-3.

So, while Chip Kelly brought the English language back to the team’s press conferences, and a few of the faces on the field are different, this season has been close to a complete replica of the first three games of 2015.

  • Week 1: Blowout win late Monday night (they’re back, baby)
  • Week 2: Statistically dominated on the road early Sunday morning, on short rest, by a good team with some positive notes sprinkled in to keep the fans interested (tough game, not all is lost)
  • Week 3: Embarrassed on a Sunday afternoon by a division rival (reality is upon us, and it is unrelentingly painful)

How do we break this cycle? Kelly is safe. Gabbert isn’t, or at least he shouldn’t be. But who’s going to remedy this situation? Colin Kaepernick, even at full health and musculature, might represent an incremental improvement. But the answer is becoming clearer to all.

A GM who spends his ample draft capital mostly on defense, yet doesn’t have any pass rushers to show for it, shouldn’t feel comfortable in his current position. A GM who let his former star QB twist in the wind, seemingly confident that in Gabbert he had an option that no one else realized was franchise caliber, most certainly doesn’t feel comfortable in his current position.

The defense has shown glimpses of okayness. We can give Baalke that. It was excellent against the Rams and made some big plays in Carolina (while allowing 500+ yards, but nonetheless). But there are no surefire stars there, at least not yet. (The only players to register sacks were Ahmad Brooks and Glenn Dorsey, two players who are in the twilight of their careers.) And everyone thought Seattle’s offensive was impotent … until the second snap of today’s game, that is.

In the most important draft of Baalke’s career, he waited to draft an skill position player until round SIX. The first was running back Kelvin Taylor, who is now on the practice squad. Quarterback Jeff Driskel and wide receiver Aaron Burbridge capped a threesome of offensive draftees Baalke took in the sixth round; Driskel is a Cincinnati Bengal and Burbridge is looking for his first career NFL reception.

The 49ers started out 0-for-10 on third down, finally breaking the drought when Gabbert completed an 11-yard pass to Torrey Smith on 3rd-and-3 with under 12 minutes to go. Smith led the 49ers with 35 (yes, 35) receiving yards on the day.

The Seahawks were bound to have a game in which they showed that they’re still one of the league’s better teams, but the 49ers seemed pretty comfortable allowing them to regain their stride.

Talent, eventually, wins out. The Seahawks have stars on both sides of the ball, players taken in nearly every round of the draft who consistently win their matchups more often than not. The 49ers don’t have stars. They employ a roster that looks frustratingly similar to the mediocre group Baalke put together a year ago, a roster that looks worse with more exposure and will likely require years of patience to bear fruit. The Yorks didn’t exactly throw down big money to bolster this team, and that surely wasn’t Baalke’s call. But with the young Jedi’s hatred of Seattle and Baalke’s roster doldrums, patience has to be running thin. If the Yorks ever decide to bump their spending back toward the cap ceiling, it appears unlikely that Baalke will be the one doing the shopping.

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