The only way the 49ers will get out of this mess is if someone other than Jed York starts making football hires.
The Trent Baalke hire
When it was time to replace Scot McCloughan, York made it sound like he’d search far and wide for a new general manager. However, it was obvious to everyone that York had already set his sights on an internal candidate.
The 49ers are either creating a huge smoke screen to conceal their true desire to hire someone other than Trent Baalke as their general manager, or their GM search is a sham. Yet another league source said Baalke’s hire was a done deal. Not only that, reports and sources say his hiring has been in the works for several weeks.
That isn’t sitting well in some NFL circles as team president and CEO Jed York continues to interview candidates just so he can say he did his due diligence. Potential “candidates” have to feel that York is simply wasting their time.
It was a loosely-kept secret, and Baalke eventually got the job.
No one in this market has been more critical of Baalke than me. It started when I spent days researching every move he’d made as the GM for my “Grading Trent Baalke’s tenure as 49ers GM” story from Jan. 2, 2015.
I gave him a “B-” … which I actually thought was probably too generous at the time. (After the way he constructed the current roster, I’d probably drop his overall grade down to a “C” at best.) Other than pretty decent returns in free agency, a few trades, and the 2011 draft (which turned into another big pile of “almost nothing” this year), I didn’t get why so many 49ers fans and NFL observers thought of Baalke as some sort of personnel wizard, especially since the team’s roster has gotten weaker every year since the 2011-12 peak.
The Jim Tomsula hire
If Baalke had any part in selecting Tomsula as the head coach, I’d drop his grade down to a D. But I don’t think Baalke had much of a choice in that matter. Adam Gase got a verbal offer from the 49ers before York backed out, according to Greg Papa. According to Tim Kawakami, Gase was ready to become the 49ers’ next head coach, until the 49ers insisted that Tomsula was kept on as the defensive coordinator, which caused Gase to (wisely) head for the hills.
The 49ers also had rumored interest in Jim Harbaugh before the 49ers hired Baalke.
Let’s go through York’s history. Since being named team president in 2008, he has chosen Singletary, Baalke, Harbaugh and Tomsula. We can also add Paraag Marathe to that list.
“Think about it,” Marathe says, “bringing in Coach Harbaugh, having the resolve to hire Trent as the GM when Trent at that time in league circles was a relative unknown, but knowing Trent had the chops to be a really good GM. Shoot man, giving me a chance and putting me in charge of contracts without a ton of experience seven or eight years ago, even down to securing the naming rights [to Levi’s Stadium].”
Singletary was over his head, just like Tomsula is now. Baalke has had his moments, but he’s more or less a scout with weaknesses that become more glaring with each year, as the McCloughan players depart and are replaced with Baalke’s additions.
These coaches and executives were all York’s choices, and his football credentials start and end with being born to two people who own the San Francisco 49ers.
Harbaugh was a great hire (one who played no small role in the 49ers’ success when it came to selling thousands of pricey Stadium Builders Licenses), but either York’s tolerance for Harbaugh’s personality waned over the years or he didn’t do his homework before reaching out to the then-Stanford head coach. (Harbaugh is tough to deal with? You don’t say!) And when defending his decision to “mutually part” with Harbaugh, York said this to KNBR’s Brian Murphy:
Murphy: So was it football philosophy or personal philosophy?
York: “Football philosophy.”
How does York even have a football philosophy? He would further prove how out of his element he was when he described the kind of offense his team would feature this season.
The only way out of this
York isn’t going anywhere. CEOs are never fired when the only shareholders that matter are the CEO’s parents. (So please stop sending me petitions and #FireJed hashtags on Twitter, since they’re completely meaningless. A well-organized boycott of Levi’s Stadium could spur a few changes, but internet anger will lead to nothing.)
Plus, York is capable of some good things. Whatever you think of Levi’s, it’s nearly impossible to get a new stadium built in California these days and York played a major part in getting that done. And even though the partnership crashed and burned in legendary fashion, York lured one of the top coaching candidates around in Harbaugh. Marathe is considered to be a pretty good contracts person, although we don’t know that much about him.
The 49ers’ front office, at least from a football decisions perspective, is Jed, Paraag and Trent (although Denise York surely has veto power on all big-money decisions). Marathe is the President, and while he may have some numbers expertise, he isn’t a pure football guy. And this could be the problem. If York and Marathe, two relatively young executives who aren’t traditional NFL lifers, are making all of the decisions, the road will probably be rocky for the 49ers more often than not.
Until York reassigns Marathe (maybe he could give him some made-up c-level title, like Chief Cap Officer or something) and hires an actual football president, who then chooses a better GM than Baalke, who then hires a coach who’s better than Tomsula (preferably one who knows something about quarterbacks), the 49ers will never give themselves a chance to approach the perennial contender status they enjoyed in previous decades.
Many have said that York needs an elder statesman in the front office, a John McVay or Carmen Policy type. Some have even mentioned that he should bring back his uncle. I think York needs more than a senior citizen who can act as a sounding board. He needs someone with experience in coaching and personnel … someone with a true football vision for the future who doesn’t play favorites or let emotions get in the way … someone who can put York in the position where all he does is “sign checks,” which is what he maintained was the case years ago. Who that ideal president is, I don’t know. But the status quo has led to questionable internal hires and years of struggling, save for the all-too-brief Harbaugh window, and York doesn’t have the wherewithal to lead the business/revenue side and the football side simultaneously.