Jed York

49ers head coach search: unless York and Baalke have a trick up their sleeve, the choice is Fangio

I wasn’t in the locker room the morning after the last game of the season, but according to the beat guys, star middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman and versatile linebacker (and impending free agent) Dan Skuta said they hoped the 49ers would keep Vic Fangio — either as head coach or defensive coordinator — as the 49ers look toward hiring a coach to replace Jim Harbaugh.

Vic Fangio 49ersAt the same time, the support from those players means a lot and not all that much.

— Since a lot of the negative rumors about Harbaugh centered on how certain factions of the locker room became disillusioned with his methods, one would think the 49ers brass would want to install a head coach who has the players’ respect. And since the guys on defense generally carried the team throughout Harbaugh’s tenure, their input should also carry some weight during closed door discussions between Jed York, Trent Baalke, Paraag Marathe and whoever else is involved.

— A player’s career could end at any time and the NFL’s battlefield/war imagery extends to the fact that the players are like well-paid soldiers: you need strong ones, but they are replaceable. In a cynical “next man up” landscape, the players have no choice but to play hard for whoever the team hires. “You wanted Fangio? Too bad, now go out and hit somebody.”

Yet, among the candidates the 49ers have reportedly contacted and/or interviewed, Fangio seems like the logical choice. The only choice, really. Admittedly, there are an incredible number of variables. I don’t know (1) how a coordinator with no head coaching experience (and that includes Fangio) would connect with players in a role that requires control over the entire team and not just one side of the ball, (2) what kind of practices they’d run, (3) how they’d “manage up” (deal with York/Baalke/Marathe), or (4) what vision they’d have for the offense, defense and special teams.

That’s why it’s much easier to grade Trent Baalke than Jim Harbaugh. We can look at players drafted, signed and acquired via trade and judge them on an individual level. There are some variables that will inevitably be missed — how the coach works with said players, luck with injuries, personal issues, etc. But I have absolutely no idea what’s going on behind the scenes between a head coach and his players, because that’s how most head coaches (Harbaugh, in particular) prefer it. So we judge coaches on wins/losses and improvement over time.

Without much to go on (it’s not like they’re going to broadcast each interview on 49ers.com), it’s difficult to determine how any of these men represent a better chance to win with this group than Fangio.

1. Rex Ryan: The 49ers just kicked a flamboyant, don’t-tell-me-what-to-do coach to the curb. There’s no way they’re bringing in Ryan, who doesn’t exactly fit with York’s desire to “win with class” and has no idea how to manage quarterbacks. If the 49ers aren’t satisfied with 8-8, they’d puke after taking a look at Ryan’s last four seasons in New York (8-8, 6-10, 8-8, 4-12).

2. Dan Quinn: Hiring Quinn, which would probably mean letting Fangio walk (it’s difficult to foresee a situation in which he’d stay on as a defensive coordinator after getting passed over in favor of the guy who held the same job in Seattle), would be a surprising move. The Seahawks’ defense finished first in points allowed in each of the last three seasons, and first in yards in each of the last two — so one could argue that Quinn’s defenses performed slightly better than Fangio’s.

However, Quinn has a built-in advantage with a boss who happens to be one of the best defensive backs coaches alive in Pete Carroll (which makes Greg Roman’s failure to get his offense going, with a head coach who spent a good section of time working on quarterbacking fundamentals, even more problematic … unless Harbaugh isn’t really a “quarterback whisperer” and/or Geep Chryst doesn’t know what he’s doing).

Maybe Quinn has that “it factor” that’ll blow York/Baalke/Marathe away during the interview process, but including him in this process seems an awful lot like a transparent attempt to learn more about how they do things in Seattle.

3. Todd Bowles: You can pretty much copy what I wrote about Quinn and apply it to Arizona’s defensive coordinator, except Fangio’s defenses have been better than Bowles’ units.

4. Teryl Austin: “It’s my pleasure to introduce the next head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Teryl Austin!” No offense to the Lions D-Coordinator — who has plenty of experience coaching defensive backs on some good teams — but it’s impossible for me to picture this sentence being uttered at a Levi’s Stadium press conference later this month.

4. Josh McDaniels: Good offensive numbers with Tom Brady, bad offensive numbers (and feelings) everywhere else.

5. Adam Gase: Two years experience as an offensive coordinator under Peyton Manning isn’t enough evidence that he’ll be a great head coach, no matter how much Jason La Canfora* loves him.

* I’m at the point now where whenever a national writer stumps for a coach, I just assume the coach in question has provided information to that writer. For example, Mike Silver should get 10% of Hue Jackson’s future earnings if he ever gets another head coaching position.

6. Mike Shanahan: York mentioned the Bill Walsh coaching tree during Monday’s press conference, making Shanahan an obvious choice (same with Mike Holmgren, who’s interested in returning to the sideline, but hasn’t gotten any play as a candidate for the 49ers as of yet). The key question: Can someone retreat back to “coach only” after getting a taste of personnel control? One of the least-understood parts of Harbaugh’s tenure was how much power he wanted over the roster. If he and Baalke indeed clashed over such matters, it seems unlikely that they’d bring in such a strong, established personality.

7. Jim Tomsula: It’s not his fault, as he’s paid his dues with his time in Europe and eight years as the team’s defensive line coach … but this hire would send a strange message to the players. The perception is that York and Baalke are comfortable with Tomsula, which — fair or not — paints him as a company man. If Tomsula jumps multiple rungs in the 49ers’ hierarchy, that almost certainly means Fangio is gone.

On what planet would replacing Fangio with Tarver be considered a good idea? Raiders fans would react to this series of events the same way as 49ers fans if the Raiders hired Roman to be their next offensive coordinator. Translation: lots of laughter and finger-pointing.

***

Fangio clearly wants the job, otherwise he wouldn’t have gone through an interview that lasted longer than five hours on Tuesday. Unless there’s something in his personality that either makes the 49ers uncomfortable (a possibility, since Fangio says what’s on his mind without sparing feelings) or makes him a better coordinator than head coach (something that’s difficult to pinpoint until a coordinator is given the chance to lead the show), he’s the strongest candidate. After all, Fangio was probably the team’s best coach over the last four years, and despite what happened in 2014, a lot of good things occurred over that period.

Disclaimer: That’s my opinion … and what the hell do I know? 

I have all sorts of crazy ideas. If Fangio isn’t the guy, I’d prefer the 49ers look toward the college ranks. And not Bob Stoops (someone who’s been linked to the 49ers in the past), Jim Mora (something about him that I can’t put my finger on makes him seem insufferable … maybe it was his time as a color commentator for FOX), or Brian Kelly (Jed loves Notre Dame guys, but as Tim Kawakami pointed out, Kelly hasn’t won a National Championship and has no NFL experience), either.

I’d go after Urban Meyer, Mark Helfrich, or maybe even Gus Malzahn — guys who’ve had success with running quarterbacks who’d bring some unconventional thinking to Santa Clara.

But let’s say they aren’t going to make a bold hire, which seems like a safe bet considering Baalke’s “reload” comment and the team’s supposed preference to move back to being a power-run offense. And let’s assume the 49ers don’t want to break the bank for their next coach (just a hunch, but I think this is the case as well). If that’s how the 49ers want to attack this, it makes more sense to go with Fangio over coordinators with similar credentials, veteran head coaches who’ve had their chances, or a coach that was under Fangio for four straight years.

(Which means they’re totally going to hire Tomsula, because what the hell do I know?)

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