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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Will the Niners Implode in 2015?

Back in late 2014 I wrote that regardless of who the San Francisco 49ers hired as their head coach, they would almost certainly have a better year in 2015 than they did in 2014 ("Regression to the Mean and the 49ers' Next Coach"). There I argued this would occur because of a phenomenon known as "regression to the mean." As a FiveThirtyEight article noted ("There's Not Much Evidence A New Coach Will Help the Jets, 49ers or Falcons"):
Teams that change coaches have a strong tendency to improve the following season, which could be taken as prima facie evidence that swapping in a new coach makes a profound difference. But it also could simply be the residue of regression to the mean. A poor record is generally required for a team to consider dismissing its coach, but much of the differences in NFL team records is due to luck and not the comparative skill levels of the teams themselves. When that luck evens out, the team appears to improve, even if its underlying skill didn’t change all that much.
Add to this the likelihood that the 49ers would suffer as many injuries in 2015 as they did in 2014, it seemed almost certain that 2015 would be better than 2014.

Now, I'm not so sure. Largely because of the way management treated head coach Jim Harbaugh, the Niners had a hard time finding anyone who was willing to work for them (you know you're in trouble when even Lane Kiffin turns you down). They eventually hired Jim Tomsula, who by all accounts is a great guy and a talented defensive coach, but how he will perform as a head coach is an unknown. Since that time there appears to be a mass exodus from the Niners. To wit:
  • Frank Gore left for the Colts with an eye of winning a Super Bowl ring
  • Guard Mike Iupati left for Arizona, also with an eye to winning a Super Bowl ring
  • Cornerback Chris Culliver signed with Washington
  • Dan Skuta signed with the Jaguars
  • Michael Crabtree reportedly won't be back (it'd be hilarious if he signed with Seattle)
  • Pro Bowler Patrick Willis retired
  • Rookie Chris Borland retired
  • Pro Bowler Justin Smith is reportedly planning to retire
Teams always lose some players in the offseason. Losing so many high quality players may be unprecedented, however, and it's arguable that if the players believed they had a chance at winning the Super Bowl next season (which will be played at the 49ers stadium), not as many would have left or retired. To be sure, the Niners have been able to acquire some talent, such as Reggie Bush, Torrey Smith, and Jerome Simpson (the last calling into question the Niners' commitment to "winning with class"). However, I think it unlikely that these acquisitions will offset their losses, which does not bode well for the Niners' prospects in 2015. That said, if they do manage to have a good season, then Jim Tomsula may prove to be the second coming of Bill Walsh.

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