San Francisco 49ers: Looking Back at 1979 Suggests How Long Current Rebuild May Take

The San Francisco 49ers are going through a complete rebuild this offseason, and it’s likely it will take a few years before the Niners will be contenders again. To gauge the time frame, let’s look back to an eerily similar time in franchise history — 1979.

The San Francisco 49ers just fired yet another head coach — the fourth in as many seasons — and had dismissed a controversial general manager, who was largely responsible for the demise of the franchise. All this after a lowly 2-14 finish in what proved to be an abysmal year.

Sounds like 2016, doesn’t it. But this is exactly what happened at the end of the 1978 NFL season.

History has a funny way of repeating itself, and we can look back to this parallel between the 1979 49ers and a Niners team entering 2017 with an uncertain future.

Why would we do this? Well, it helps to gauge how long it may take before San Francisco is relevant again.

Change the names out between these two eras in franchise history. Former general manager Joe Thomas is, perhaps, a more controversial figure than now-fired GM Trent Baalke. And we can look at the list of fired head coaches from the late 1970s as well — Monte Clark, Ken Meyer, Fred O’Connor and Pete McCulley.

Just like the 49ers of today, the 1979 squad had almost zero talent. At least then-owner Eddie DeBartolo had the sense to completely overhaul everything at the top. We can only hope CEO Jed York is honest about feeling the same way now.

Starting from Scratch

Thomas was, perhaps, the worst GM in franchise history. Students of the franchise will recall his controversial trade for a washed-up running back, O.J. SImpson, at the end of his career — a deal that sent numerous high-level NFL Draft picks to the Buffalo Bills.

Compare this to Baalke’s ACL-injury picks — wasted picks, in reality.

January 20, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers chief executive officer Jed York (left), Chip Kelly (center), and San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke (right) pose for a photo in a press conference after naming Kelly as the new head coach for the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium Auditorium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

January 20, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers chief executive officer Jed York (left), Chip Kelly (center), and San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke (right) pose for a photo in a press conference after naming Kelly as the new head coach for the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium Auditorium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

And the never-ending carousel of head coaches helped drop San Francisco into irrelevance.

DeBartolo wanted a fresh start. Just like York. And, likely, he knew it was going to take both vision in time.

Finding the Right Fits

Bill Walsh. Enough said.

Walsh was brought in to serve as the team’s head coach and general manager in 1979. His West Coast offense was still relatively new, and Walsh realized it was going to take a while to get the kind of players he needed on the team.

It didn’t start off well.

As shown in the A Football Life video below, Walsh’s first year as the top football executive was nothing short of horrendous:

Walsh’s first season also ended in a 2-14 finish. Why is this important? Well, the Niners probably aren’t going to be very good in 2017 either.

But it’s about the vision. And the patience to see it through.

Of course it didn’t hurt to land quarterback Joe Montana and wide receiver Dwight Clark in the 1979 NFL Draft.

And in 1980, those small improvements started to show. San Francisco went 6-10.

Then, of course, there was 1981.

No Perfect Parallel

The Niners went from a two-win team in 1979 to a Super Bowl champion after the 1981 season — a three-year stretch.

Of course, there will never be another Walsh or Montana again. But there are others. Exactly who has yet to be determined. They’re out there though, somewhere.

So in determining how long it will take this 49ers rebuild project, we can probably assess no shorter than this three-year period. San Francisco may not be able to land Hall of Fame quarterbacks and/or head coaches this offseason. Even if the Niners did, the turnaround would take time.

Recently, we put together a five-year plan for San Francisco starting in 2017. This is realistic. But it doesn’t shy away from how Walsh built a dynasty.

So we can expect some pretty hard times for the next season or two, while the next coaching regime starts to implement the initial phases of a rebuild process.

Hopefully, the noted improvement will come in 2018 and 2019 — a point at where the 49ers are considerably more competitive.

A few years removed from now, perhaps San Francisco is back in the discussion for a Super Bowl.

But it’s going to take a few of the right pieces to stick in place.

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