NFL Draft Preview: San Francisco 49ers

“Continuity is vital,” legendary San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh once said during the glory days of the mid-1980s. “So many clubs don’t have continuity; as soon as the team has disappointment the coach is fired or his assistants are changed around and the players have to learn yet another system.”

Truer words have seldom been spoken, especially in the City by the Bay, which has suffered an abject absence of continuity since the Hall-of-Famer Walsh’s championship run.  Of the seven head coaches who have succeeded Walsh since his 1989 retirement, only one — George Seifert — has won the whole enchilada.

Almost as bad: since Canton inductee and Super Bowl champ Steve Young — successor to the incomparable Joe Montana — took his final snap in 1999, no fewer than 11 quarterbacks have called signals for the once-but-no-longer-dominant NFC franchise.  (Anybody remember Tim Rattay or Ken Dorsey?)  And don’t get me started on the parade of offensive coordinators and philosophies that marred the team’s last decade.

So now, as the continuity-challenged Niners ponder the upcoming draft, several key questions linger:

(1) Are the 49ers truly ready to compete, game-in, game-out?

The past several seasons, under former head coaches Mike Nolan and, especially, Mike Singletary, the team has swung wildly from emotional highs to despondent lows. Under the new leadership of the steady (but still fiery) Jim Harbaugh (who, like Walsh, arrived from Stanford), can the Niners sustain and harness their emotional energy and return to the balanced approach that won five Super Bowls and made them the perennial best of the West?

(2) Do they have the on-field leadership to thrive?

The Niners are a talented bunch on both sides of the ball (WR Michael Crabtree and RB Frank Gore stand out on offense, LB Patrick Willis on defense), but can this traditionally offensive-minded team marshal its resources effectively moving downfield? Starting QB Alex Smith has been an on-again, off-again partial success after the team drafted him with its first overall choice in 2005. For now, Harbaugh has expressed his confidence in his signal-caller. But there have been rumblings among Niners Nation that GM Trent Baalke will grab a new quarterback — presumably Mizzou’s Blaine Gabbert — with his first-round pick.

Which leads to . . . 

(3)  . . . who should (and will) the Niners draft?

Indeed, it’s possible the team will select Gabbert at No. 7 (the result of another mediocre season). But more likely, the team will shore up its weaknesses in the defensive backfield by grabbing whichever of the superb corners are still standing, either LSU’s Patrick Peterson or Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara. With the aging, expensive ($7.5 million this season) Nate Clements approaching the end of his career, a shrewd choice will present a strong mentorship possibility.

Still, ultimately, the draft itself won’t matter much if the team can’t right itself from an offensive and coaching standpoint.  In this sense, Smith and Harbaugh alone hold the keys to whether the team will, at long last, attain a modicum of the continuity that marked their championship years.

— Michael M. Rosen is an attorney in San Diego and an occasional NRO contributor.

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