Thursday January 20th, 2005

When a team goes 2-14, equaling the worst record in its history, more than cosmetic changes are usually in order. And so it was on Wednesday, when the once-proud San Francisco 49ers cleaned house, unceremoniously sweeping head coach Dennis Erickson and general manager Terry Donahue out the door.

The twin departures of the two most important football decision-makers in the 49ers organization were a needed step in the right direction in San Francisco. But unless there's real change at the very top of the team's flow chart, Wednesday's news might end up addressing the symptoms, but not the underlying problems, that beset one of the NFL's flagship franchises.

We are talking, of course, about the leadership of 49ers co-owner John York, who has overseen the demise of a team that made consecutive playoff trips as recently as 2001-2002, winning 23 games in that span. Under York the past two seasons, the 49ers have lost 23 games, and fallen to the unaccustomed position of NFL bottom-feeder.

Why? Because ever since York dismissed head coach Steve Mariucci in January 2003, the bottom line in San Francisco has been the bottom line, with the notion of being competitive on the field taking a distant second place to financial restraint -- or responsibility, depending on one's viewpoint of the team's myriad cost-cutting measures.

Erickson's uninspiring two-year record of 9-23 as head coach is directly attributable to another set of numbers that York placed a greater priority on: Thanks to the $29 million of dead salary cap money that San Francisco labored under in 2004, the 49ers player payroll was a modest $64 million, the lowest in the league. It doesn't always work out this way, but in this instance, that league-low payroll produced a league's fewest amount of victories (two).

Erickson and Donahue on Wednesday paid for that lack of success with their jobs, but how much of a chance did they really have in San Francisco once York decreed that the roster had to undergo a drastic cap-slashing?

Until York -- the brother-in-law of lavish-spending former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo -- decides to give San Francisco a level playing field on the financial front, whoever inherits the head coaching and GM posts in the bay area will be fighting a battle without a full complement of ammunition. You can survive for a while with just such a guerilla approach in the NFL, but ultimate victory is out of the question.

Encouragingly for 49ers fans, there are signs that San Francisco and York are about to loosen the purse strings, that two years of losing on the cheap have either embarrassed the organization into spending, or swung the financial pendulum back into the black. In launching his team's coaching search/rebuilding program, York is said to be determined to show the NFL world that money will not be an obstacle to landing his man. Resources will be committed to the NFL's most pressing reclamation project, York insists.

We shall see.

"You'll see us take an aggressive approach to restore the level of dominance expected of this franchise,'' York said at Wednesday press conference. "We are going to rebuild a winning team for the fans. In the end that is what really matters.''

I'm quite sure York came a little late to that conclusion as far as Erickson and Donahue are concerned. But in the NFL, where another bountiful TV contract is always just around the corner, money will always buy you as many fresh starts as you need.

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