The Niners fell hard. Did they have to?
After the most recent Niners loss, this time to the New York Giants, there has been a lot of chatter about Jed York’s offseason comments requesting accountability for the team’s performance and whether he indeed deserves blame for the miserable start to the season. It was during Jed York’s December presser where he sat side by side with Trent Baalke and attempted to explain the rationale for Jim Harbaugh’s termination that York uttered the now infamous “win with class” and “hold me accountable” mantras. The Niners had finished a .500 season, certainly disappointing after a 12–4 2013, in which they missed the Super Bowl in heartbreaking (and knee-shredding) fashion.
For most teams an 8–8 finish, especially after a season playing largely without their two All-Pro inside linebackers, is not preferable but understandable and absolutely not grounds for cleaning house. But for the Niners, it was a much more complicated story than just on field performance. The owner-head coach-general manager trifecta of York, Harbaugh and Trent Baalke had become an untenable, dysfunctional mess, with York and Baalke joining forces leaving Harbaugh as the odd man out. Taken at face value, this reads as a junior high bullying situation — and maybe it was, only Niners insiders can know for sure — but Harbaugh’s reputation as an abrasive personality, unable to work with management preceded his tenure with San Francisco. And while his divorce from Stanford did not seem as publicly acrimonious, he seemed to leave both organizations with about the same number of friends.
Could a more diplomatically savvy owner have cooled the relations between Harbaugh and Baalke and lengthened the tenure of a talented coach? Probably. Would Harbaugh’s antics, ego and abrasiveness still have caused him to run himself out of town? Probably. In last week’s excellent post, Bay Area Sports Guy also noted that Harbaugh will likely never maintain a long tenure with any organization, but diverges on the primary reason for his itinerant tendencies.
While BASG points to Harbaugh’s tendency to push his players to their absolute limits, another contributing, and possibly leading factor, was Harbaugh’s inability to play nice with his bosses. Viewing Harbaugh’s departure as an inevitability, though one possibly sped up by York’s similar inflexibility, the search for a new coach was also an inevitability — and where Jed York’s call for self-accountability begins.
It also, however, is when describing the Niners began to feel like describing an epic Greek tragedy. What makes the Niners’ hiring process so frustrating is that they at least made intimations toward hiring high caliber candidates such as Mike Shanahan, Adam Gase and Vic Fangio before landing on Jim Tomsula. Simply looking at the vastly different backgrounds and philosophies of these men, it’s not a surprise that the coaching search proved directionless and disastrous, seemingly led only by the egos of Trent Baalke and Jed York.
While Shanahan, Gase and Fangio have generally disparate backgrounds and styles, they did offer one extremely important commonality that the eventual hire was lacking — an ability to garner the respect of a divided locker room solely by sharing their resume. Fangio had just come off a year in which he was missing two All-Pro players and a stud pass rusher, but still managed to implement a scheme that led to a top-tier defense. Maybe some of the credit belongs to Peyton Manning and his obsessive knowledge of opposition’s defenses, but Adam Gase was the mastermind behind the Broncos’ nearly unstoppable offense. Mike Shanahan may have left the Redskins on less than ideal terms, but he still walks into a locker room and has two Super Bowl rings to his name, something only a handful of coaches can claim.
It was widely reported that the Niners made an offer to Gase, contingent on Jed York maintaining control over assistant coaching hires. Gase wisely turned down the not-so-gracious offer and to take the offensive coordinator job with the Bears and York’s ego driven search led him to settle for Tomsula, a man willing to accept whatever contingencies came with job.
Not only was Tomsula the least accomplished candidate, but it was clear that he was (and is) willing to take orders from ownership. Under the best of circumstances, uniting a divided locker room as a new head coach is problematic, but Jim Tomsula’s problems became something of a completely different nature with a wave of mostly unexpected retirements. It seems pretty clear that the exodus that started with Patrick Willis and ended with Anthony Davis was not something that Jed York was counting on.
Given Chris Borland’s post-retirement statements, it’s unlikely any sequence of events would have changed his decision to hang up his cleats, but it’s not that difficult to imagine that with a charismatic, accomplished coach at the helm, Willis, Davis and Justin Smith could have been persuaded to put another year of wear and tear on their bodies. The stumbling, bumbling, flatulence exuding Jim Tomsula is a much tougher sell.
Even with a semi-figurehead coach and a cleaned out staff, it’s easy to imagine the Niners as a different team with these players on the field. The secondary likely would have remained a mess, with Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver likely taking big money deals to play elsewhere, but the presence of Willis and Smith may have created a pass rush significant enough to take some pressure of off the likes of Kenneth Acker and Tramaine Brock. And while the addition of Anthony Davis on offense sounds minor, it could have done a lot to increase the comfort of struggling quarterback Colin Kaepernick, by allowing a more effective run game without completely wearing down Carlos Hyde or simply keeping him upright. Maybe that hypothetical Niners team isn’t a Super Bowl contender, or even a division winner, but they are probably at least a competitive team that is enjoyable to watch.
Here is where Jed York’s calls for self-accountability come into play. The Niners have been atrocious this season and some of that blame has to fall on York for caving to his hubris and hiring sycophant Tomsula. Whether the sequence of events that followed was a direct result of Tomsula’s hiring or just bad luck is a tougher question. The Niners’ misfortunate was probably a combination of bad decisions and bad luck, but a well-managed team can withstand a run of bad luck.
Some of the Niners misfortune was indeed bad luck. They were lucky to find a gem in Chris Borland, but extremely unlucky to have signed what was probably the most promising and youngest player in the history of the NFL to just walk away for health reasons. Willis, Smith and Davis must have had preconceived notions of retirement or career pause, but the organizational turmoil surely helped them with their decisions. The Niners hit a patch of bad luck and because of their internal dysfunction were unable to manage it and let it cascade into disaster.
Given York’s call for self-accountability, he must accept some of the fault for the Niners’ terrible season. There was a path that could have taken the Niners to at least mediocrity, but York took the path less traveled — and paved with sycophants. However, even if York does accept complete responsibility for the direction the Niners season has taken, that means very little for fans and players. Holding an NFL owner accountable with more than an empty apology is essentially impossible — especially now that the Yorks have their new stadium. The only way to truly hurt York is through his wallet, and fans can stop buying tickets, but this is unlikely to make a meaningful impact.
York can make promises to spend more money on free agents or improve the coaching hiring process, but there is no reason to believe he will follow through. Profit is his bottom line and promises about the future should temper fans’ anger while keeping them in the seats and lining his pockets with their hard earned cash. The Niners have fallen far and fallen fast and now Jed York is nowhere to be found. You can bet if they do manage a successful rebuild over the next few seasons, York will emerge from whatever hole he is currently hiding in to be held accountable for the success.