SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Trent Baalke steered clear of saying the San Francisco 49ers were rebuilding last January, after the Niners parted ways with Jim Harbaugh but before a rash of retirements and free-agency defections gutted the team’s roster.
The Niners, the team’s general manager said, were reloading.
The result? A season that saw the 49ers peak in Week 1, win four more games, including two in overtime after gimme field goal misses by the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams, and Jim Tomsula paying for it all with his job.
Surely, Baalke will admit now, with a new coach and philosophy in place under Chip Kelly, as well as another gutted roster, that the Niners are, ahem, rebuilding, no?
“I don’t think anybody in the National Football League will admit that they’re in rebuild mode,” Baalke said with a knowing grin following Kelly’s introductory news conference on Wednesday. “I think we’ve got a lot of nice young pieces. We’ve got several key veteran guys coming back. We’ve got a lot of ammunition over the next several months to improve this football team [in] free agency [and] the draft.”
That’s as close as you’ll get to an admission from Baalke that the Niners are indeed in rebuild mode, especially with Kelly himself saying he was looking forward to the salary cap space coming the Niners’ way (expected to be among the top three amounts in the NFL, per CEO Jed York) and the 21 draft picks the Niners expect to have over the next two years, with the No. 7 overall selection the first of as many as 12 this year.
Then again, Baalke himself said his drafting of late, especially the 2012 class, has not been good enough. Nor, observers would note, was last year’s free-agency class, highlighted by receiver Torrey Smith, who suffered through a career-worst season. And that’s not counting Reggie Bush, Erik Pears, Jerome Simpson and two guys who were later cut (Darnell Dockett and Shareece Wright).
And while Kelly is not really in a position to judge whether the 49ers are reloading or rebuilding, he was concise when asked what he wanted his team’s identity to be.
“I want them to be fearless,” Kelly said. “Pretty straightforward.”
And Kelly’s definition?
“Not afraid of any situation you’re put in,” he said. “There’s going to be time when it’s going to be difficult … adverse, but you have confidence based on your preparation that you’ll see it through.”
Whether they’re reloading, or rebuilding.