I knew the San Francisco 49ers were not going to be very good this year but Sunday’s 40-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys was the equivalent of being thrown off a treadmill during the busiest hours of your gym’s operation. It’s embarrassing, it hurts and it leaves some nasty cuts, scrapes and bruises all over your body. But, more importantly, everyone at that gym will always know you as the guy/girl that fell off the treadmill. They won’t care about your name. They won’t care about your background. They’ll simply get a good chuckle every time you pass by. That reputation lasts longer than any boo-boo you got from the fall.

I understand the 0-7 Niners are trying to rebuild from the ground up. I understand that general manager John Lynch, who was given a reassuring six-year contract, took over possibly the least talented roster in the NFL. And I also understand that they will have the most cap room of any team in the league for the upcoming offseason and possibly the top pick in the NFL Draft.

All of these things are good in theory but bottoming out in the NFL hardly guarantees that a team will bounce back the next year or even the year after that. Take the Jacksonville Jaguars for example. They started rebuilding in 2012 and are just now starting to become a competitive team, albeit in the league’s worse division. They are not going to win a Super Bowl this season because they have Blake Bortles as their quarterback but over the last few years Jacksonville has done what the Niners have not: spent money on good free agents.

This year it was Calais Campbell, A.J. Buoye and Barry Church. Last year it was Malik Jackson and Tashaun Gipson. Sure, the Jaguars have whiffed on a couple of free agents over the years and drafting Leonard Fournette this year was a home run but, bringing in that talent and experience is what changes a team’s nucleus and builds a winning atmosphere.

The Niners, meanwhile, spent some cash in the summer to bring in Kyle Shanahan’s guys, Pierre Garçon and Brian Hoyer, but decided to let some serious talent slide on by to other squads. Receivers Alshon Jeffery and Terrelle Pryor Sr. were ripe for the picking but San Francisco decided not to pursue. Guards Kevin Zeitler, T.J. Lang and Larry Warford would’ve been huge upgrades but Niners’ brass instead chose to enter the year with Zane Beadles, a serviceable backup, as their starting left guard — he was quickly replaced by Laken Tomlinson after a trade. I could write up half a dozen names of defenders that could’ve been difference makers but I’ll get to the point: the Niners could’ve jumpstarted the rebuild and changed the conversation around the franchise by spending some cash.

Instead, they were OK with being the worst team in the league this year and the winless start is disappointing but not surprising. They’re trotting out 14 rookies every week and expecting them to learn the game while getting shelled. For some reason, the Niners have been spared the bashing and criticism that the equally bad Cleveland Browns, who are also 0-7, have received.

I’m not calling for CEO Jed York to fire Lynch, Shanahan or any of their assistants — that would be a huge overreaction. I still have some faith in both Lynch and Shanahan but I have two questions of their methods. How many free agents this upcoming offseason are going to want to sign with a team that has been absolutely dismal and directionless for the last three years? And how much more losing can the locker room endure without turning its back on the head coach?

Back to the Jaguars for a quick second. After Gipson left Cleveland to sign with Jacksonville, he was asked why he ditched the Browns. He said he wanted “to start winning.” That answer is both brutally funny and telling of how players see franchises. Before the 2016 season, the Browns had actually won four more games than the Jaguars since 2011 yet Gipson saw Jacksonville as a more appealing spot than Cleveland.

I still think that money can win over most players in free agency — especially young guys coming off their rookie contracts — but optics factor in heavily when trying to recruit guys. The Jaguars have spent plenty of money over the last three years and shown a commitment to getting better. The Browns have let several guys walk in that same span.

The Niners can bottom out for as long as they want. They can keep building up cap space and getting top 10 picks for the next three years if they please. But they have to understand the more futile they look, the less attractive they are to players that can actually make a difference when they step foot in the door and not after a couple of years down the road.

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