Steve Young, the Hall of Fame quarterback who’s known as “bro” to loyal listeners of KNBR, joined Tom Tolbert and Ray Ratto yesterday for an all-too-rare media appearance in which Young isn’t stuck next to that know-it-all shill for the 49ers, Trent Dilfer.
Young is relatively unique among media types who refer to the 49ers as “we,” in that he’s both fair and honest in his critiques. So it’s no surprise that when Tolbert started the interview with a question about how the 49ers are perceived (the words “perception” came up at least 20 times during this interview) throughout this process of building a new coaching staff, the first thing to come out of Young’s mouth was a sound that appeared to be a combination of “ugh,” “err,” and “ah.”
“(Sound mentioned above) It is getting hard. I’m worried. I mean, obviously, we all touted this as one of the great staffs in football and I believe that to be the case. Clearly a problem with the owner and the general manager and the head coach, OK? But any discussions that I heard about early on were all about making sure that the staff stayed in place. I think that makes a lot of sense. As soon as that devolved and the staff kind of started to dissipate into netherworld places, that’s when I got really concerned. Because now we’ve got to put a staff together and now it seems like — whether it’s true or not — that people are actually opting away from us. So you can’t put a great staff together.
“And maybe that’s that perception you’re talking about, Tom, is that coaches out there, the perception is this might not be a great staff, so that’s not the place for me. And that’s where I can’t believe that that’s true, because the 49ers had risen to elite, top two or three teams in the league and that’s not just players, that’s also coaches and everything else. That’s where you talked about perception, that’s where it starts to really get you. That you’ve lost that perception that you’re the tip of the spear.”
Young on why the coaches seem hesitant to accept offers from the 49ers to work under Trent Baalke and Jim Tomsula:
“If the perception is that the general manager ran out one of the better coaches in the league, just perception now. If the perception is that’s the case, then the next guy says to himself, ‘Hmmm. I really have to make sure I’m OK with this, sitting tight with (Baalke). Or I could lose my job.’ People want to come into places where at least the perception is, ‘I can do my own thing. I can coach the way I want to coach. I can have some autonomy.’ And I believe that’s the case, reality is I think that’s the case, but the perception at this point is that it’s scaring people away.”
(When pressed by Ratto on why this is a Baalke-Harbaugh thing, when it appeared that the 49ers wanted Harbaugh out since the beginning of the year and it was probably a York-Harbaugh thing, Young agreed that the problem probably stemmed from the owner-coach relationship more than anything else.)
Here’s Young on the “perception” around the league of the head coach (this is about as close as Young is going to get to saying, “Tomsula?!?! Jim Tomsula?!?! What in the H-E-DOUBLE-HOCKEY-STICKS are they doing over there???”):
“This is a team that has one of the potentially, one of the best young quarterbacks. And so if we’re going to be a ‘run the ball’ offense, what does that say to his development? What does it say that we have hired a defensive line coach to be our head coach, when he’s talking about offensive football in an offensive town? So those are the challenges that even before trying to deal with some of the commentary around ‘run the football.’
“When Jim (Harbaugh) came, me too just went ‘Hooray, someone who can speak offense. Someone who can coach quarterbacks.’ Now, interestingly enough, (they) ran the ball a ton, played great defense. But the perception is still that we’re being taught by an offensive coach and led by an offensive-minded guy. It seems, in this town, that feels right.
“There’s even a bigger piece to it that if a defensive line coach is going to be our head coach, who are we? Who are we as the 49ers? What are we going to be? I think when Trent said, ‘We’re going to run the ball,’ we’ve got to get ahead of perception. Your guys’ point, 10 days (after Baalke’s comment about running the football), perception runs you over. And that’s the fear and anxiety that we all kind of feel. We don’t want perception to run us over. Because the reality is we’ve got a great roster. It hasn’t changed. A coach that everyone really likes and gets along with. And now build a staff that can go take advantage of it, go win. The fact that we can’t get people in, that’s where I’m worried the perception is running us over.”
Young on why “perception” matters so much in the NFL:
“Of course we’re worried … It’s not possession that’s nine-tenths of the law, it’s perception. In the NFL, it really matters. It’s an unnatural act to go run into each other. You have to get people really incentivized. You have to get a lot of momentum behind you and you have to get a lot of respect.
“These coaches around the league lean forward when they don’t respect you. It’s not that you can’t punch them in the mouth, too, but it makes it harder than they’re leaning forward than when they’re on their heels. The 49ers have gotten to a place where everybody they played was kind of leaning back. The perception was this was one of the best teams in the league.”
Young talks to NFL guys all week long, so to hear that this is “a real concern” is definitely, um, concerning:
“The one dissent around the league is that these guys have fallen. They’ve lost that money in the bank that you’ve made by being elite through those three championship years. So yes, it is a concern and you do lose real value when people perceive that you have. You’ve started the whole conversation that way. You know how I sense it and believe it. It’s a real concern.”
Throughout the first half of the interview (the part before they started talking about deflated footballs and the Super Bowl), Young definitely gave off a “people have been asking me, ‘What’s up with your Niners?’ for the last two weeks, and I’m sick of it” vibe:
“We’ve got to get people in place and the perception needs to be that we’ve got a great staff ready to go do it. That’s number one, has to happen, and sooner than later because through the Super Bowl, this is the big convention for football. Phoenix is the annual convention for anyone who’s involved with professional football, that’s the Super Bowl and it’s not just the game. It’s all the ecosystem around football, from every which way. A lot of stuff, this perception game that we’re talking about gets dealt with this weekend. To me, I don’t want to rush people, but can we get some people in some key spots where people say, ‘Oh, that’s a good guy. We can win with that guy. We need that.’?”
One can look at Young’s concerns and respond with, “Who cares about perception. If the 49ers win a bunch of games in September, that perception will fly out the window and be replaced with a brand new perception, and the Niners have the roster to do exactly that.”
Here’s one problem: even if you believe the roster is still elite, the “perception” problems Young noted aren’t just affecting coaches around the league, and/or skeptical reporters and fans.
Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole recently said, “The word around the league in talking to people who are both coaches and who represent coaches, San Francisco is not the place to go to make money.”
Today he shed some light on what a few of the players are thinking:
“In talking to two players, including three guys on offense, basically they were dismayed by this hiring and were disgusted in certain ways because they believe that this is just a sign that management has chosen to go incredibly cheap in terms of replacing the coaches who left. From inside with Tomsula. They went from inside with Eric Mangini to be their defensive coordinator. And then they’ve gone from inside to promote Geep Chryst from quarterback coach to offensive coordinator. And this is the same Geep Chryst who Colin Kaepernick regressed under.
“And so the players I spoke to said, ‘Why are we doing this? The only reason it seems that we’re doing this is because these are the cheaper options. These are the guys that are already there.’ So that idea that the 49ers are unwilling to pay is seeping into the locker room, and I think sapping the confidence of the players in the locker room.”