Excited as they are about a revived San Francisco-Los Angeles rivalry, the 49ers are more focused these days on reviving themselves.
It’s hard to believe it was only a few years ago that Jim Harbaugh had the 49ers breathing the rarefied air of the best teams in the NFL. San Francisco made it to three consecutive NFC championship games during the Harbaugh era, from 2011-13, and nearly came back to beat Baltimore in the Super Bowl in the 2012 season.
But the 49ers and Harbaugh parted ways after an 8-8 season in 2014 — and overwhelming tension behind the scenes — paving the way for a forgettable 2015 season under Jim Tomsula, and finally the arrival of Chip Kelly this offseason.
Kelly, who went 10-6 in his first two seasons with Philadelphia, was fired with one game left last season and his team at 6-9.
Some critics of Kelly’s performance in Philadelphia argue his offense didn’t evolve with the Eagles. The coach shrugs off those suggestions.
“I don’t really care what people say or blog about,” he said. “I mean … we don’t sit in our meeting room and say, ‘Hey, somebody blogged about this. Let’s talk about this.’
“So, we’re just trying to get first downs and score points against whoever we’re playing that week. So, we’re not governed by what someone wrote or said. I never really think about it that way.”
In the past couple of weeks, the 49ers have encountered their share of distractions. Backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick caused a coast-to-coast controversy as he refused to stand for the national anthem in making a political statement. And fullback Bruce Miller was cut after being arrested for an alleged assault.
Part of the reason for San Francisco’s epic decline is all the retirements the team has endured, particularly on the defensive side, with the departure of linebackers Chris Borland (after one season) and Patrick Willis, along with dominating defensive lineman Justin Smith. Offensive lineman Anthony Davis retired, too, but only for a year. He’s back to play guard this season.
The 49ers have looked to reconstruct their defense through the draft, selecting a pair of prominent defensive linemen who played for Kelly at Oregon: Arik Armstead (who landed with the 49ers a year before Kelly arrived), and rookie DeForest Buckner, the No. 7 pick this spring.
Topping the depth chart at quarterback is Blaine Gabbert, a former first-round pick of Jacksonville who has won just eight of his 35 career starts.
“The one thing about Blaine is I think he’s got an outstanding work ethic,” Kelly said. “He obviously has the athleticism and the skill set to be a quarterback, but you continue to see him on a daily basis, how much film he studies, how much time he’s in this building, how much work he does on his craft.”
Gabbert showed promise last season when he made eight starts, completed 63.1% of his passes, and had a career-high passer rating of 86.2.
“Coach Kelly puts a lot of trust in us to go out and make plays,” Gabbert said. “That’s what you want as a competitive player. You want to have the ball in your hands. You want to be kind of leaned on to make the plays, score the points for this team.”
Among Gabbert’s top objectives is getting the ball into the hands of third-year running back Carlos Hyde, the 49ers’ most dangerous offensive weapon. He ran for 168 yards in last season’s opener, but was slowed by injuries and was limited to 302 more yards in the six games that followed. His season ended after that because of a foot injury.
Hyde is especially valuable back, Kelly said, because he doesn’t have to come off the field on third down.
“He’s great in blitz pick-up,” the coach said. “He’s also a threat to catch the ball coming out of the backfield. When you defend Carlos, you have to defend everything with him.”
Kelly believes in his system and believes in these 49ers. Asked this week what he learned from his Philadelphia experience that has changed the way he operates with the San Francisco, he had a simple answer:
“Put a lot more sunscreen on.”