Bill Walsh

Does Bill Walsh deserve blame for the 49ers’ past decade of futility?

By Guest Contributor Scott Warfe

The turn of the century was a time of transition. The nation was making a binary jump from 99 to 00. I too was making a numerical leap of my own, equally uncertain and weird. I was turning 16. These uncertainties and oddities were codified by a nation and its constituents as moments of great transformation.

The 49ers transformation, while certainly strange and uncertain, was more death than rebirth. Sparked by brother Eddie’s felony charge, Denise DeBartolo York effectually banned Eddie from 49ers football, taking complete control of the 49ers in 1999 (almost a year after Eddie’s conviction). Though the Age of Eddie has been canonized by 49er fans, the team that John York inherited was one marked by scandal and chaos.

Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark had run the team into the ground. In 2000, the NFL Management Council found that Policy and Clark had violated the CBA in negotiating contracts with Steve Young, Brent Jones, and others. The most egregious of these violations involve former first round pick Jim Druckenmiller. Druckenmiller’s rookie contract included a loophole that allows a team to prorate a signing bonus over six years against the cap, even though the sixth year was guaranteed to be voided. What’s more, according to Peter King, Clark “made a verbal side deal with Druckenmiller’s agent promising him that the first-round pick’s contract would be renegotiated within three years if Druckenmiller were to become a starter during that time.”

Policy and Clark never admitted their guilt, and ended up settling with the Management Council: Policy was fined $400,000 and Clark, $200,000. The 49ers too were disciplined as a result of the Policy and Clark’s improprieties. The team was fined $300,000 and had to surrender their fifth pick in the 2001 draft and their third pick in 2002.

Ultimately, although the 49ers would only suffer from the Druckenmiller negotiation misconduct for the proceeding two seasons, it was drafting Druckenmiller that would set them back for a decade and more.

Prior to the 1997 NFL Draft, the 49ers had recognized the need to find a quarterback who would take the reigns from an aging Steve Young. To ensure success in this matter, the team commissioned Bill Walsh to identify a successor. Walsh would eventually find his man, and the 49ers would draft the strong-armed Jim Druckenmiller with the 26th overall pick.

Sixteen picks later, the Arizona Cardinals would select the man Walsh wanted: Jake Plummer.

There proved to be one to many hands stirring the pot. According to Mike Silver, “Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark and Vinny Cerrato were the driving forces behind the decision to take Druckenmiller.” Policy et al were convinced that “Druck”—as they called him—had “the most ability, the strongest arm, the most poise in the pocket and the best ability to read second and third receivers.” Meanwhile, all Plummer had was an endorsement from Walsh, who believed Plummer would have “Montana like career, including the Super Bowls.”

Unfortunately for the franchise and its fans, this wouldn’t be the last time Walsh would be vetoed. It would happen again in 2000.

In 1998, Plummer would lead the talent-challenged Arizona Cardinals to the playoffs for the first since 1947. In 1999, Policy and Clark would take executive positions with the Cleveland Browns, and York, saddled with a crippling cap situation and no successor for Young, would tab Walsh as General Manager, giving him autonomous control.

Walsh’s second stint as GM would not go as smoothly as his first. In fact, his first off-season was marked by great players lost, not found.

Handcuffed by the cap, Walsh would lose myriads of starters, including Pro Bowl guard Kevin Gogan, Roy Barker (12 sacks in 1998), Merton Hanks, Marquez Pope, and Antonio Langham. And, what’s more, the ’99 draft proved unsuccessful.

The ’99 season would go no better for Walsh. Following a season in which the 49ers would lose 12 games and Steve Young, Walsh was attempting to redeem his dubious tenure. There was no better place to do that than the NFL Draft.

Walsh started auspiciously, parlaying the 3rd overall pick into the 16th, 24th, 48th, and 86th overall picks. He would not only seek to shore up their awful defense, but also find a long-term solution at quarterback. Going into the draft, pundits had Chad Pennington pegged to be the 49ers’ quarterback of the future, but the 49ers had somebody else in mind: Giovanni Carmazzi.

As with Druckenmiller, it is believed that Walsh had little to do with this decision. Ira Miller believes that Walsh was “simply deferring to the coaches.” Those coaches — Steve Mariucci and Greg Knapp — were, according to Miller, “high” on Carmazzi.

Despite Seattle’s Offensive Coordinator Gil Haskell’s negative scouting report—in which he noted that “it was like [Carmazzi] never played” — the 49ers drafted him with the 65th overall pick.

Three rounds and 134 picks later, the Patriots would select San Mateo’s Tom Brady.

Walsh-the-General-Manager/Consultant, as it seems, was again vetoed. However, unlike in 1997, the problem in 2000 was not due to a lack of control. To the contrary, it was the result of the control he had. Walsh vetoed himself because, as Miller pointed out, Walsh-the-Head-Coach loathed the “notion that a general manager could pick the players for someone else to coach.” And so, Carmazzi happened.

The following season would be Walsh’s last. He would leave the team in the hands of Terry Donahue, a man whom Walsh handpicked as his successor.

In all, Walsh’s second coming was like the Y2k scare and being 16: it was more hype than substance. His drafts were unfruitful, his free agent signings were ineffective (except Garcia and Garner), and his handpicked replacement was inept.

So, does Walsh deserve the blame for the 49ers’ past decade of futility? I don’t know, but I do know that John York doesn’t deserve it. Click here to find out why.

In addition to blogging on, Scott has been featured, and Follow him on Twitter@ScottWarfe.

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