It’s been a rough season for the San Francisco 49ers. There’s no one to blame but CEO Jed York.
“We don’t raise division championship banners, we don’t raise NFC Championship banners. We raise Super Bowl banners. And whenever we don’t deliver that, I hope that you will hold me directly responsible and accountable for it.” — Jed York, the day he fired Jim Harbaugh
Since the regular season kicked off in early September, we at SI.com have critically examined almost every errant front office, coach or owner. Joe Philbin’s ineptness, Ryan Grigson’s meddling, Jerry Jones’s enabling, even Mike McCarthy’s play-calling have all received significant attention on our page.
But the sad situation in Santa Clara where York fired the successful, if enigmatic, Harbaugh, failed to replace him with a viable candidate, and instead elevated a position coach known as a loyal “yes man” with no real head coaching experience has not.
Our lack of coverage has come with a recurring yet simple explanation: what is there to say?
Jim Tomsula is indeed not the second coming of Bill Walsh, or heck, even Steve Mariucci? Duh.
The 49ers will finish deep in the NFC West basement at either 4–12 or 5–11? Predictable.
Colin Kaepernick regressed under the new regime’s listless play calling? Not remotely surprising.
The 49ers will not be holding up a division banner, let alone a Super Bowl banner, anytime in the near future without a sweeping change in mind-set from York. It was York who stood by as rumors were leaked last year of Harbaugh losing the locker room, and this year of Kaepernick doing the same. After he ousted Harbaugh, York went on somewhat of a misguided victory media tour letting the Bay Area know that the 49ers would now be “winning with class.” Of course the only one who did any form of winning this year was Harbaugh, who magically transformed a 5–7 Michigan team into a 10–3 Citrus Bowl winner, reestablishing the Wolverines as one of college football’s top programs.
York asked to be held accountable—now is his first, and possibly last, chance before the 49ers officially snatch the title of the league’s most inept franchise from the Cleveland Browns.
Despite a large contingent of the 49ers fan base pushing for his ouster, York is unlikely to fire himself. And short of an Eddie DeBartolo-like scandal, there is little hope for his ouster from York’s mother, and team matriarch, Denise.
But there are steps to change the trajectory of this previously storied organization. The first is that York needs to fully come to grips with the reality that his franchise has become a laughingstock in just a single year.
It’s time to clean house.
That starts with ending the Tomsula experiment. A nice guy by all accounts, Tomsula showed a lack of vision and inspiration throughout the season. A few goal-line stands aside, this team looked lethargic in 2015. Before the promotion, Tomsula was a very successful defensive line coach and that’s exactly where he should return.
General manager Trent Baalke is a bit of a tougher call. He did oversee the blockbuster 2011 draft that landed Kaepernick, linebacker Aldon Smith, cornerback Chris Culliver, center Daniel Kilgore and fullback Bruce Miller. And he’s been masterful in stockpiling picks for future drafts—the 49ers are likely to have 12 picks in the 2016 draft. But since ’11, Baalke has collected a number of busts, most notably wasting first- and second-round picks on A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James, respectively, in 2012. He’s no longer considered a draft mastermind.
The more concerning issue with Baalke is his perceived tight knit relationship with York and how keeping him around could be a deterrent in landing an attractive head coach should they fire Tomsula. This duo ousted Harbaugh after reaching the NFC Championship in three of four seasons. Think about that for a second. There are no shortage of prospects who would be thrilled with any head coaching gig but if you’re a hot candidate like say, Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, why on earth would you choose the 49ers over any other franchise? Add in the report that Baalke and York pulled an offer from Adam Gase last year because he refused to be bullied into making Tomsula his defensive coordinator and the gig becomes even less attractive. This also feels like a good time to mention that San Francisco’s current starting quarterback is Blaine Gabbert.
Mistakes happen in the NFL and in the post-salary cap era wrongs can be righted in a single season. But the only chance the 49ers have to do so if for York to lead them there. Drop the ego, apologize to the poor fan base who were duped into thinking another golden era had arrived, and get some trustworthy, proven personnel in there who can win football games.
The 49ers are at a crossroads. It’s York’s call. Does he see the light now, or have to grossly overpay for a respectable coach in a few years when the 49ers are so deeply embedded in the bowels of the NFL’s toilet bowl. Even a division championship banner won’t look so pedestrian to York at that point.