To start off the New Year, San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York fired his general manager and head coach. The 49ers’ firings occurred because team had finished the 2016 NFL season with a 2-14 record, only beating the Las Angeles Rams twice.
As York has often repeated, the team has not met a certain standard from year to year. Only this time, the team’s performance called for a change of course. In this case, that meant Trent Baalke (the GM) and Chip Kelly (the coach) had to go.
On Monday, York held a press conference which lasted nearly 30 minutes and the reporters he faced pulled no punches. Jed was also asked if he was competent enough to find the new coach.
Another question York also asked was about who would make the decisions. To that, he said he would ultimately make the decisions.
Another reporter asked if Jed should be CEO based on his standards for a coach and GM. Jed said rather defiantly, “You don’t dismiss owners.”
Many 49ers fans would love to dismiss Jed. Some are even clamoring to have his dad back, but I still remember what a disaster that was.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember John York being as bad as his son, but I would still rather do without the father retaking the reins. Unfortunately, 49ers fans may be stuck with Jed unless someone far more competent intervenes.
How Bad Was John York As an Owner?
John York made a number of mistakes when he was directly running the team (into the ground). The players despise him because he was a cheapskate and he changed the overall culture in the building. I despised him because he wasn’t Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. (York’s brother-in-law and the previous, “real” owner under whom the 49ers had won 5 super bowls) and he got rid of many of the staff members DeBartolo had brought on.
In a 2015 post, I pointed to Steve Mariuchi’s firing as being the catalyst for the 49ers’ downfall in the early 2000’s. Mooch frustrated me at times, but he was a good coach. He should not have been fired (at least not when he was), especially if there wasn’t a better coach out there.
When I look at things, it appeared that John York wanted to get rid of all traces of his brother-in-law’s influence and rebuild the team that way. If he succeeded, York could say he did such a great job and pad his ego.
But that’s not what happened. After two good years from 2001-2002 (which can be attributed to former coach Bill Walsh, whom DeBartolo had hired before he had to hand over the team to his sister, Denise), the 49ers would have 8 straight non-winning seasons. They would see good streaks, like 400-odd games without being shut out go they would eventually fall to the NFC West basement.
The 49ers’ lowest point would come in 2004. The team when 2-14 that year, too. That time, they also just swept one division rival (the Arizona Cardinals). So things have kind of come full-circle.
Where Did Jed York Go Wrong?
It starts with the way Jed York handled the coaching position with respect to his GM. Ironically, there was a time I felt younger York was doing an excellent job because of the way he handled his coaches. I applauded the promotion of Mike Singletary because Mike Nolan needed to be fired (but Singletary was also a bad head coach), but York rightfully changed course and hired Jim Harbaugh before the 2011 season.
When I heard Jim Harbaugh had been hired, I honestly didn’t know what to think. But there was reason for excitement. He pumped up his players, encouraged his quarterback, and the team was finally winning. The 49ers went 13-3 that year and reached the NFC Championship Game.
But everything came to a screeching halt when Harbaugh was fired.
At the end of the 2014 season, Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers officially parted ways. But as most of those who were following the situation already knew, it was inevitable.
The fallout had begun as late as the early part of 2014. Then, it was reported that Jed York might have looked into trading Harbaugh away to the Cleveland Browns, who had inexplicably let go of Rob Chudzinski after just one season.
There were also whisperings about contract issues. Presumably, Harbs wanted to be paid more to have a comparable contract to his NFL contemporaries, which wouldn’t count against the cap. Anyway, with each passing week and month, reports abounded alluding to the deteriorating relationship between Harbaugh and Jed York, with General Manager Trent Baalke being a factor.
Some people thought the reports were nonsense, but I did not. I felt something was off with Jed York and between Harbaugh and Baalke, especially looking at Baalke’s expressions and hearing him talk. There was an uneasiness there and a phoniness on York’s part. Also, I sensed that maybe Harbaugh was suffering from cage sickness, which I will explain later.
What This Reminded Me Of
Anyhow, I think most of the doubt was due to the disbelief that a team could stupidly get rid of a coach who had recently turned around a team’s fortunes, and who immediately had success at that. I could believe it because I remembered what happened with the Chargers after the 2006 season, which had a precedent after their 2004 season.
Marty Schottenheimer was the head coach and under him the Chargers returned to the playoffs for a few years … but he and General Manager A.J. Smith did not get along. It was completely stupid that two grown men couldn’t work together despite how they felt about each other personally, especially when the head coach ultimately had success. Isn’t that what’s most important?
Apparently, success isn’t the most important thing where egos are involved. (I can say the same for Harbaugh himself, and I have in regards to the quarterback situation.) This was true for the Chargers situation and now it’s true for the 49ers.
That said, there was no indication Harbaugh would have stayed past his contract. If we look at his past head coaching gigs, he never stayed longer than 3-4 years. He had about 3 years at San Diego State and 4 years at Stanford. His tenure with the 49ers ultimately lasted 4 years, but it could have been five if he wanted to finish out his contract. (Watch out, Michigan fans.)
The Marks of Incompetence
Still, the way Baalke and York handled the situation was nothing short of incompetence. And while I was comparing the two situations with the Chargers and the 49ers, the more recent situation looks much worse. There was possibly more dysfunction in the Chargers’ camp, but the situation in Santa Clara deteriorated much quicker, there was more press coverage of it, and it looked like Baalke and Jed York were more incompetent.
At least with the Chargers, there were concerns of the coaching staff being raided. AJ Smith actually make solid moves year to year, notably after Eli Manning threw a fit about the Chargers drafting him.
Baalke hasn’t really impressed me as a GM, besides acquiring all those draft picks and finding a few gems on defense, notably the linebackers. Overall, I would say he was a mixed bag, when you look at his record since 2011. Most of the players Baalke drafted since that year were busts, traded away, or retired early.
Well the retirements were beyond his control, but look at what happened to the picks. Most of those picks had trouble getting on the field, much less challenging veterans for starting roles. For example, LaMichael James and A.J. Jenkins (both drafted in 2012) were traded away and never heard from after the 2014 season.
Since that 2012 season, the team lost most of the roster.
Baalke never replenished the offensive line nor did he draft a good QB nor did he think to find a veteran to sit behind and tutor his young QB’s. Colin Kaepernick desperately needed these things in order to build on his 2012 performance and he never had a veteran helping him since Alex Smith was benched.
As a Side Note
Harbaugh even once said Smith did more to coach up Kap than the coach did. Given how Kap struggled in subsequent seasons and the questions I have about Harbaugh’s reputation as a “quarterback whisperer,” I am inclined to believe that.
Honestly, I have never forgiven Harbaugh for how he handled things in 2012 and I truly believe that moment truly signified the team’s downfall. It might not have showed up immediately in the stat sheets, but the team dynamic changed and Kaepernick’s regression gave some hard questions about Harbaugh’s legacy.
So in the end, I was not sad to see Harbaugh go, but the 49er fan in me hates the prospect that this team could be in for another 8-10 years of mediocrity.
That said, I just don’t like how Baalke and Jed York conspired to get rid of Harbaugh. Even if the coach’s act wore thin, these things should have been kept in-house and preparations should have been made to find a suitable replacement.
How were the details of the deteriorating situation leaked in the first place? And why didn’t York and Baalke look for a coach who was as promising or even better than Harbaugh? Why did negotiations with Adam Gase sour and why was Jim Tomsula ultimately hired as the head coach? (Many believe Tomsula was hired so he could be controlled.) Ultimately, I have to blame the front office for these issues.
As former NFL (and 49ers) quarterback Jeff Garcia would reveal, the Harbaugh situation was a repeat of the Mariuchi situation. Mooch was pushed out because of the GM at the time (Terry Donahoe) and the owner (John York) conspired to kick him out.
But this situation is even worse now. Two coaches, Tomsula and Kelly, were let go after only 1 year each. And Kelly’s staff is now owed a collective $69 million due to the early dismissal.
Furthermore: Three head coaches in as many years isn’t only a bad look, but it’s ultimately detrimental for the players. It’s ultimately about the culture.
What About the Culture?
As reporters on ESPN would point out, Jed York mentioned “culture” at least 16 times during Monday’s press conference. The young CEO talked about getting a GM and head coach that were on the same page and able to develop a winning culture.
However, York had done enough to destroy the culture of the team.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe a portion of that was beyond York’s control. The culture changed after Smith’s benching. The team was more reserved with him in there and it became rowdier with Kap as the starter.
But that still wasn’t toxic. York established a toxic environment for head coaches (and players) when he handled Harbaugh the way he did and subsequently hired Tomsula. Bi-products of those decisions were the early retirements of a number of players and the loss of good assistants like defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and Tomsula, who was lauded as a defensive line coach.
Right now, the 49ers franchise is a dumpster fire and it’s one Jed York created. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.
To be fair, Jed York’s uncle, Eddie D, didn’t know what he was doing when he first took over the team. But he found people who did. He was still a difficult person (to Bill Walsh, whom he threatened to fire numerous times), but he was great to his players and promoted a family culture.
What Happens Now?
I have little hope for the immediate future, but someone else needs to take the reins from Jed York. But I don’t want his father to take over the team again. They should ask for help like DeBartolo did.
And ultimately, I would like to see the current owners treat their players and coaches like family. It goes a long way toward promoting the right culture and setting a foundation for success.