As the season wears on, the fog in San Francisco continues to thicken. Everything that can go wrong for the NFC West cellar-dwelling 49ers has. Players haven’t responded on the field to new coach Jim Tomsula. Colin Kaepernick, who quarterbacked this team to two NFC Championships and a Super Bowl berth, was gifted a clipboard for his 28th birthday this week. Owner Jed York, who preached accountability, has gone missing. Most of the Niners faithful have lost faith.
To try and make sense of it all, we talked by phone this week with three 49ers greats:
Carmen Policy served as President and CEO of the 49ers from 1991–98 after having worked for the organization since '83. He was considered one of the league’s top executives, and the 49ers won all five of their Super Bowls during Policy’s tenure. Today, Policy, along with his wife Gayle, owns Casa Piena winery in the Napa Valley. He’s also the director of the effort to bring the Chargers and Raiders to the Carson venue in Los Angeles.
Randy Cross enjoyed a decorated 13-year career with San Francisco in which he was a stalwart of the offensive line, playing both guard and center. Cross was a three-time All-Pro and won three Super Bowls (XVI, XIX and XXIII). He currently works as NFL analyst for CBS and co-hosts “The Rick and Randy Show” on 92.9FM in Atlanta.
Ricky Watters, drafted by the 49ers in 1991, served as the team’s starting running back for three illustrious seasons. Watters capped off his tenure in San Francisco by catapulting the team to victory in Super Bowl XXIX championship with three rushing touchdowns. He went on to play for the Eagles and Seahawks and finished an eleven-year career with over 10,000 rushing yards. Watters recently returned to the Bay Area last year, and is in his first season as the 49ers analyst for CSN Bay Area.
(Some responses have been edited for length.)
Describe what it's like for you to observe the current state of the 49ers.
POLICY: I can now look at [the 49ers] from the perspective of a fan as well as someone who had been involved in the organization with some pretty great memories.
As I’m sitting back watching what’s happening to the 49ers after they posted a very promising run under Jim Harbaugh, I find myself really disappointed, frustrated and, in some ways, confused. This was their moment to shine. They brought themselves back from a ten-year drought, and they have this brand new stadium and are set to host a Super Bowl. It’s disappointing to see them not take full advantage of the situation.
CROSS: It’s just sad, especially in the context of where they had been. They reached three NFC Championship games in a row, went to a Super Bowl and were thought of as one of the best teams in the NFL again. They were a team you could be proud of, they really were. And now the implosion and they lose it all.
It wasn’t just one thing. Between Harbaugh and the retirements and everything else, it’s just hard.
WATTERS: I just came back around here a year ago, as I had been living in Central Florida. So it’s really good to be around the players and in the midst of everything, but still out of harms way. I played for three teams but the 49ers hit home. They’re my heart and I want them to well so it’s very hard to see the current state of the team. But I have to believe with an organization like this and what they’ve been able to do, that they will get this thing rectified.
After the 2014 season, Jed York asked fans to hold him accountable for not winning. How should he be held accountable now?
POLICY: Whether of not he or she says it, an owner should be held responsible for how a franchise operates. Whether a coach says it or not, he should be held responsible for how the team performs. It’s just the way the business and the sport is built. That’s what comes with the job.
So whether they’re stating it or not public, they should be held accountable. And obviously the fans are doing just that.
CROSS: I’ll be honest. If I was a season ticket holder and paid that ransom that are seat licenses—since that stadium’s opened, what they’ve put on the field? I mean, he should be held accountable. And he should keep a low profile. I wouldn’t want to go out in public. Those big stadiums don’t get built for teams that play like this. They get built for teams that play like they were playing.
WATTERS: [Laughs] Actually I feel like everyone in the organization should feel a little bit of accountability. Everyone should be asking what they can do to make to the organization better. If it was me, I’d take some. The only thing that’s probably confusing a lot of people is that no one ever said this is a rebuilding year. No one ever said that this coach, Jim Tomsula, is an interim coach. That at least sets your expectation that it will be a rebuilding year. Whenever you lose players like they lost with 20 Pro Bowls between them, it’s hard to deal with. You can’t plan for it. People need to take that into account as well. [Management] got thrown for a loop, I believe, but I do believe they can pull out of it.
Was the team right to bench Colin Kaepernick, and what does his future hold?
POLICY: I don’t know if the team was right because I’ve learned that so much happens with the inner sanctum of the locker room that you don’t have the full story when you’re watching the game as a fan.
I don’t know what their options are. I don’t know how optimistic they are about Gabbert, what their relationship with Kaepernick is. I don’t know Kaepernick’s relationship with his teammates. So it’s impossible for me to second guess it but we do know the team’s not playing effective football
CROSS: I’m not really sure where he is on the proverbial learning curve. He’s a young quarterback, and he had a lot of success early. There are lots of questions into how much work he’s put into the art of being an NFL quarterback, and that to me is what will bite any player squarely on the backside are those hidden hours. Hours in the offseason and the studying and the film room. The ability to get your doctorate in that offense you’re running. I’m not sure he has an undergrad degree in that offense, much less a doctorate.
WATTERS: I’m a big Kaepernick fan because he was adopted. I was also adopted and feel like I understand what he had to go through. Also, he’s such a great athlete, you can’t help but be in awe of that and his upside.
But I think at this point he has gone backwards. There’s something going on. I’m hearing everything from locker room confrontations to him having some kind of love affair with the girl of one of his teammates, which is obviously never a good thing, especially for a quarterback. But I don’t think that all played into it. What really played into it is his on field performance. He’s become afraid to pull the trigger and you can’t do that in the NFL. You think of great quarterbacks like Brett Favre, they let the ball go and they trust their receivers in man-on-man coverage.
\When he missed Torrey Smith out there last week wide open, that’s Quarterbacking 101. The first thing you teach is the cadence. They look one way and call the cadence, ‘Blue 42’ or whatever, and you’re supposed to scan the field. He didn’t even do that, look to his left and see that his fastest receiver was wide open. I think when he missed Torrey that sealed his fate.
But he can get back. When I played with Steve Young he was struggling for a little bit and they brought in Steve Bono, but when Young went back in he was lights out.
What steps do the 49ers need to take to regain respectability and return to winning?
POLICY: I think its pretty clear that the 49ers need to come up with a sound plan and put people in place who can execute the plan—interact with their fanbase and do let them know that they have a plan and can execute and at least they have a chance of brining the franchise back to where it should be.
CROSS: It’s going to be a long road. You don’t replace that type of talent, not only from a coach standpoint but the talent physically—the guys who have walked away from the game. Guys with many years left who walked away. Guys were selected with some pretty significant draft picks.
When Harbaugh came there, I think that one of the reasons that job was so appealing was that they were so solid of the line of scrimmage. That’s the first place I look. Get the defensive and offensive lines back to the state they had been. You can find those gifted physical guys. Those big guys, though, they come along fairly infrequently, especially in the draft.
WATTERS: The first step is to bring someone like me in. I feel like the guys who have done it before aren’t involved enough. Guys who have won at the highest level and know what this organization is about. They need to figure out a way to get us involved. Bring us in as consultants. I know football, and know what it takes. I know a real player when I see one. I know whether he’ll succeed or fold under pressure, and they need people like in the organization.
We have a storied franchise, and I don’t know if they know how much we care. We will help if you have us be a part of it.
In addition, you want to have a great coach. I don’t know their situation with Tomsula, but I do know he was the defensive line coach. That’s a big difference than getting a guy like [Mike] Shanahan or a guy who’s won at a high level. Or a guy like Nick Saban who’s won at the college level. It’s a big difference between being a position coach and being the head coach and needing to have a whole team buy into your system. You also need to be a good motivational speaker. I had Lou Holtz, George Seifert and Mike Holmgren. All of those guys were good speakers and could motivate us. You need a guy who can really get guys to buy in. That’s the most important part of being a head coach.