What goes into the making of a winless half-season?
By BARRY WILNER
The Associated Press
In this age of relative parity in the NFL, it is almost unfathomable that two teams would be 0-8 at their halfway mark. Yet there they are, the 49ers and Browns.
What goes into the making of a winless half-season?
Actually, so many things that there are considerable links backward. In San Francisco, that would be to the coaching tenure of Jim Harbaugh. In Cleveland, well, not quite back to the days of Paul and Jim Brown. But close.
The 49ers went 49-22-1 under Harbaugh and barely lost the 2013 Super Bowl to Baltimore. Yes, he’s a micromanager, has some unusual managerial practices and didn’t get along with his direct bosses in San Francisco.
But he won, and wouldn’t most everyone in the Bay Area take that right now, even with the turmoil?
“Of course it wears on you. Nobody wants to be 0-8. We’re here to win,” first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan says. “So it is tough. If you sit there and you think about those words and the record too much and, yeah, it will affect you big time
“But sitting and dwelling on that and worrying about your ego and things like that, it’s not going to make you play better. It’s not going to make you coach better.”
Where the 49ers really went wrong was in not finding the right replacement for Harbaugh. The team that had, in succession, Hall of Famer Bill Walsh, then George Seifert, then Steve Mariucci — combined regular-season record 268-141-1 with five NFL titles — promoted Jim Tomsula, a good company man but not in Harbaugh’s class as a mastermind.
He lasted a year, was canned when Chip Kelly was hired. That was a strange choice because Kelly hadn’t exactly had a smooth stewardship in Philadelphia and brought some of the same traits that led to Harbaugh’s departure.
Then there’s been the quarterback situation.
Since that Super Bowl defeat, Colin Kaepernick’s regression took him from a QB who looked as if he could be a star to being benched for Blaine Gabbert in 2015. He played better last year, when he also was kneeling in protest during the national anthem. His contract was expiring unless the Niners picked up an expensive option, and with the team seeking a new direction at the position, he wasn’t coming back.
Journeyman Brian Hoyer got the gig, lasted just over six losses, and third-round pick C.J. Beathard was elevated. This week, San Francisco made a bold move by dealing a 2018 second-round selection that could be quite valuable to New England for the unproven but highly regarded Jimmy Garappolo.
“An unbelievable opportunity came our way in the midst of what has really been a tough season,” said GM John Lynch, himself something of a reach as a hire because he had gone from player to broadcaster and lacked front-office experience. “Where we are right now is not fun. …
“Is that going to fix all our ills? Absolutely not. We had the opportunity to get better as an organization and we took advantage of that.”
So much more is needed.
The draft has been a wasteland for the 49ers. Former GM Trent Baalke’s refusal to draft skill position players — from 2013-16 the only skilled position choices in the first three rounds were RB Carlos Hyde and TE Vance McDonald — was damaging. Since 2012, the only draftee to make a Pro Bowl has been safety Eric Reid. That was four years ago.
This year’s debacle under Shanahan also has included a slew of injuries, and the Niners don’t have the depth to handle it. They need to mature, as a bunch of close losses displays.
Compared to the Browns, though, the 49ers are an oasis.
Cleveland has opened 0-8 for the second straight season. It’s not unprecedented — the Buccaneers lost their first 26, but they were an expansion team.
So were the Browns, back in 1999. Their record since is 88-208. They made the playoffs once, in 2002, and made a quick exit. Unlike the 49ers’ history in the Super Bowl era, the Browns have nothing to brag about since the originals moved to Baltimore and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue made sure Cleveland got another franchise.
No coach has a winning record for the “new Browns.” The best was Butch Davis at 24-36.
Hue Jackson certainly doesn’t come close, currently at 1-23. Considering Jackson went 8-8 in his one year as Raiders coach, also with a mess of a roster, maybe it isn’t him so much as the losing culture in Cleveland.
This is another team that can’t solve its quarterbacking woes, but on a scale of 1 to 10, they have flopped at minus-28 — the number of starters Cleveland has had behind center.
Recent ownership under the Haslams, who are 19-63, has led to the drafting of Johnny Manziel and the firing of coach Rob Chudzinski after one season (4-12 in 2013).
The latest try at QB is rookie DeShone Kizer, and it hasn’t gone well. At least Kizer is perceptive enough to know what’s going on and what it means.
“We have hung tight with some of the better teams in this league,” Kizer said. “At the end of the day, [that] almost doesn’t cut it, so you are going to accept 0-8 for 0-8, but understand that the line that we need to cross is very close. We feel pretty confident on offense that if we don’t turn the ball over and we eliminate some of those shots to our own foot that we are going to be able to go out and start winning some games.”
So, will either team emulate the 2008 Lions and go 0-16?
The Niners seem to have winnable matchups the next two weeks, hosting injury-ravaged Arizona and the tumult-filled Giants.
The Browns don’t have anyone who looks like a potential victim ahead, though trips to Detroit, Cincinnati, the Chargers’ half-stadium (NFL wise) and Chicago don’t look terrifying.
Then again, both of these squads are 0-8 on merit.