The 49ers packed a century’s worth of ups, downs, intrigue, controversy and profound happenings into this decade.
The past 10 years of this organization have provided a little bit of everything -- on and off the field, not to mention beyond the sports pages.
Here are the things I’ll first remember when thinking about the 49ers of the 2010s.
An unlikely civil rights activist
The offseason of 2016 was a pivotal time in the life and football career of Colin Kaepernick.
The 49ers worked out a trade with the Denver Broncos, but the deal was contingent on Kaepernick accepting a significant pay reduction from his fully guaranteed base salary of $11.9 million.
He declined. Any player in his position would have done the same thing. He remained with the 49ers, though he certainly was not happy with the organization. That offseason he also began going public with a crusade to fight racial inequality in America.
Kaepernick became a polarizing figure. His critics did not want to hear his message. His decision to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem was borne out of a conversation he had with ex-Green Beret Nate Boyer. Those against Kaepernick attempted to misrepresent his actions.
“I’m not anti-America,” Kaepernick said that season. “I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better. I think having these conversations helps everybody have a better understanding of where everybody is coming from.”
Through the first five seasons of his career, Kaepernick was not an easy person for media members to cover. His interactions with the media were often terse. But in 2016, he was accommodating and patient as he answered questions about social issues. In previous seasons, he went to social media with "Kaepernicking" and "7torms" as tools of self-promotion. But that year, he focused entirely on helping others who did not have a platform.
He was voted as the winner of the Len Eshmont Award, the team's most prestigious honor.
Really, the only memorable thing about the 49ers’ 2016 season was Kaepernick, and how he became a nationally known figure outside the realm of professional sports.
After the season, the 49ers’ new regime of John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan opted to make some changes, and Kaepernick did not return. Shanahan said it was a football decision. Kaepernick’s style of play was not a good fit for his offensive system, he said.
In the three seasons that followed, no NFL team has made an attempt to sign him. But his message is as loud as ever.
Moody and complicated: The Harbaugh years
Jim Harbaugh once wanted to bet me. I said Alex Boone was 6-foot-8. He said Boone was not quite that tall. I took him up on it. I won, but he never admitted it. Therefore, I never collected. A 49ers official later told me, “If you ever win against Harbaugh, you actually end up losing.” Therefore, I got off easy, I was told.
Truth be told, I mostly enjoyed the experience of being around Harbaugh nearly every day for four years. It was a challenge to word questions in a way that would not get one of his typical blow-off answers. But, sometimes, if he was in one of his moods, it did not matter if the question was well-constructed.
Harbaugh once described himself as “moody and complicated.” It’s why the relationship with the 49ers did not last beyond four seasons despite three trips to the NFC Championship Game and one Super Bowl appearance.
The Harbaugh years were an amazing time. He willed the team to the NFC Championship in Year 1, against all odds, really. They might have won it all, except return man Ted Ginn was injured, and the 49ers were forced to turn to Kyle Williams, who fumbled twice against the New York Giants.
The 49ers had the best team in football the next year. It was controversial, to be sure, when Harbaugh kept Alex Smith on the bench after he sustained a concussion in the middle of the season. Kaepernick did things never before seen in the NFL, including a 181-yard rushing performance in a playoff win over Green Bay Packers. But three incomplete Kaepernick passes to Michael Crabtree from the 4-yard line were the difference in John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens defeating his brother’s team in Super Bowl XLVII.
The third year featured an epic NFC Championship Game at Seattle. Richard Sherman tipped Kaepernick’s pass for Crabtree in the end zone, and Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith intercepted it.
That was it for the 49ers. Everybody acted miserable the next season. It was a joyless bunch in the locker room. Harbaugh and the 49ers knew their time together had run its course. It ended ugly, and that’s something you could have bet on.
Coaching swings and misses
You can tell a lot about a new head coach -- and his chances of being successful -- by the kind of staff he is able to hire.
Mike Singletary and Jim Tomsula had impossible times finding an offensive coordinator. Chip Kelly struggled to hire a defensive coordinator. The bottom line is no established offensive coach wanted to join forces with Singletary or Tomsula, and being a defensive coordinator for Kelly was a no-win situation.
The biggest head-scratcher was the decision to hire Tomsula to replace Harbaugh. An individual close to Tomsula told me at the time that if Tomsula failed, it would assuredly spell the end of Trent Baalke as general manager. After all, he said, “Who hires a defensive line coach?”
Baalke hired Tomsula over Adam Gase. It seemed as if Gase was far-and-away the better candidate. Gase was told from the outset that it was Baalke’s call. Gase thought he was getting the job, but Baalke went with Tomsula.
Baalke, however, was still around for one more hire: Kelly. But when Kelly was one-and-done, CEO Jed York decided to completely clean house.
No shortcuts in building a team
The first two seasons of Lynch and Shanahan consisted of just 10 victories. But 2017 and ’18 had a much different feel than those bad seasons under Singletary, Tomsula and Kelly. With Lynch and Shanahan there was not the dysfunction between management and the coaching staff that plagued previous regimes.
Shanahan’s offensive acumen was obvious. And despite some cries for a change at defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh always looked to be a competent, steady leader running a proven scheme.
Some draft selections simply did not work out, such as Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster. But Lynch and Shanahan connected big with such players as George Kittle, Fred Warner, Mike McGlinchey, Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel.
The acquisition to land quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo from the New England Patriots in the middle of the 2017 season was a franchise-changing move.
The 49ers lost a lot of close games the past two years. But everything they went through has, in some way, contributed to the team’s shocking rise in 2019 to become one of the NFL’s best teams.