There is a palpable “ummm” around the San Francisco 49ers these days. Not a hum, which is what you would expect with anticipation or excitement, but an “ummm,” as though one isn’t quite sure what to make of the new world order.
Or, frankly, even if there is one.
Yes, there is the new squinty-eyed face of C. Sherman Kelly, the man tasked with reinventing the face of the team (while still not having the power to fully affect the skeletal or vascular structure, which is for the moment the province of perpetually embattled general manager T. John Baalke). And we’ve all found amusement in the Colin Kaepernick tableau, in which his demotion coincided with his ascension to national touchstone.
But the 49ers as a football entity remain an amorphous blob, a team without expectations and with ready villains (Baalke and his boss, J. Edward York), thus making the start of the Kelly Era feel more like the end of some other era.
We’re just not sure whose.
It isn’t really the Harbaugh Era because that effectively ended when Jim was shown the door –- which was actually more than a year before he actually used it.
It isn’t the Tomsula Era, for reasons too obvious to explain again here.
It isn’t the Kaepernick Era, because as much throw-weight as we imagine he has had in San Francisco, he has started essentially fewer than three full seasons, and isn’t starting now. Backup quarterbacks don’t get eras.
It isn’t the York Era, because we are only in year 17 of a tenure that could last another 50, and there are still bales of tales to absorb between now and then.
It might be the Baalke Era, though a cursory search of his office will show that he is still at his desk and as such hasn’t finished defining his era yet. Don’t forget how two years ago, Reggie McKenzie was mocked as the worst general manager in football.
Eras are funny that way. They change until someone else comes in to start a new one.
So there isn’t a lot that is actually new here except Kelly, and he cannot fully be held responsible unless and until he has assembled a team he can truly call his own, in much the same way that it took the Raiders a few years to disentangle themselves from the Al Davis way of doing things and to whom they were being done.
And if you have neither expectations nor an unambiguous change in direction, nor even an easily scapegoatable on-field figure, what have you got, other than 16 games just like all the other years when you had 16 games?
Therein lies the problem with following the 2016 49ers. There is a new coach, working with an old roster and operating under the structure of the two coaches before him. The two people in charge of the non-game day machinations are still in charge, with the only difference being that there are no more lofty expectations beyond, “Get your league dues in on time, and don’t forget to turn up on Sundays.”
There will be a lot more pressure on Kelly in subsequent years, to be sure. The 49er job is a highly-paid abuse magnet, after all, which is why Jed York has always had a fixation on making the coach “the face of the franchise” despite the fact that the fan base decides organically whom the face actually is, and can sometimes do so by flying planes over the stadium and explaining just who they actually think is responsible for that sucking noise.
But for now, Kelly is in charge of something that isn’t fully his, and there is much transitioning still to do. Credit where due, he has deftly navigated the potential minefield of Kaepernick, which is a sign that he has not only learned from Philadelphia but is a nimble thinker when confronted with new problems. In short, he seems to have developed flexibility where once there was only evidence of a rigid my way-to-highway ratio.
But is this the Kelly Era? Certainly not, except in the technical sense. This is his mulligan year, which he as a fellow Irishman should understand. The 49ers are not his team, not yet. But it will be, and it will great fun watching how this happens, how quickly it happens, and how many people won't be here when it does. It's just standard era management in the modern era.