Why the 49ers Are Perenially Useless

At the end of the twentieth century, many experts in the NFL community considered the San Francisco 49ers to be a model franchise.  Names like Walsh, Montana, Young, and Rice were synonymous with excellence and prestige.  The turn of the century, however, marked the beginning of the 49ers’ steady decline from a model franchise to the most under-achieving franchise of the 21st century.

Consider the following: (1) an overall 38-96 record; (2) an offensive – in both senses – high-water mark of 18th in points scored and 26th in yards gained over six years; (3) only one season with a positive point differential.[1] It is my contention that the arrival of Marathe and the Yorks in 2003-2004 marked the beginning of a listless and incompetent management team that is largely to blame for the team’s struggles. This entry examines the moves made and missed by the organization since the departure of Eddie DeBartolo, specifically those made by John York. In analyzing these moves, it will be shown that, because of mismanagement from 2002-2005, the organization lacked a vision and a plan for moving the franchise forward.

2002-2003

In January of 2003, Dr. York fired Steve Mariucci, marking the first of many short-sighted moves.[2] Citing Mariucci’s desire to “seek more power in the organization”[3] – a contested fact at best – York decided that it was best to oust a coach boasting a 57-39 record, and four playoff appearances, including the second greatest comeback in professional football history. Of interest to me is the notion that York fired Mariucci not for his mistakes on the field, his poor choices in selecting assistants, or his poor game plan; rather, Mariucci was fired because his: “desire for more power in personnel issues would interfere with York’s preferred flow chart for the team.”[4]

There are advantages to running organizations like a private corporation (efficiency, accountability, profitability, etc.) but it seems like this York decision was bad business and bad football.  Why didn’t York accept the fact that perhaps Mariucci was somewhat of an upstart,[5] and try to act as a manager rather than staunchly defend his corporate culture by ousting a winning coach? Why was York, as a manager, so miffed by the fact that Mariucci was courted by other suitors, as is often the case in the business world of talent scarcity?[6] Why did York, as a business owner, not have a clearly defined succession plan in place before deciding to fire his head coach? Once again, I concede that often the best way to run an organization is like a business; however, it seems here that York was unable to do even that. It figures that now the business is far from booming, and the front office must plead with its customers not to depart.[7]

2003-2005

The problems in this time span – some of the worst years in 49ers history – can be distilled to a few poor decisions by the front office:

Problem 1: The Hiring of Dennis Erickson and Terry Donahue

From the outset, hiring Erickson was a disastrous “surprise move,”[8] setting the 49ers back several years, due in large part to his problematic offensive system. It marked the end of Bill Walsh’s input and style on the 49ers, because “Erickson’s offense, which utilizes multiple-receiver sets and spreads the field, is much different from the offense Walsh brought to the 49ers and which has been widely copied.”[9] Walsh never would have hired Dennis Erickson.

Why would General Manager Terry Donahue hire a coach with a relatively mediocre college record, [10] who brought an offense unfit for the 49ers offensive talent at the time? Did Donahue believe that Erickson’s “Air Express” offense would work with a legacy West Coast offense and running backs in Barlow and Hearst largely unable to spread out? How would a system that requires multiple receiver threats supposed to work when only one outstanding receiver was in the starting lineup? Erickson wasn’t the man for the job: Garcia’s yardage decreased from 3304 to 2704 in just one year with his version of a spread-style offense at the helm.

Rather than beat a dead horse, I encourage readers to check out some of Tim Rattay or Kevan Barlow’s statistics in the 2004-2005 season.  Abysmal.  Naturally, the blame cannot all be placed on the coach, as there was a dearth of talent on the team at that time.  Nevertheless, it makes for strong evidence that the organization lacked a direction after Mariucci and Garcia[11] departed.

I point the finger at the front office for hiring Erickson in the first place.  Granted, York ceded this decision to Donahue, but he also stuck Donahue in a difficult position; Donahue’s timetable in finding a coach was curtailed and his familiarity with the pro system was lacking.[12] Although the decision itself was not rushed, it is, in my opinion, York’s fault for bringing in a GM who wasn’t fit for the time.  It is likely for this reason that the house was cleaned in 2005, again with no exit strategy.

Problem 2Incompetence in Negotiation

Ira Miller’s snapshot of the 2003 off-season highlights exactly why the 49ers front office failed in so many ways.[13] Faith in Tim Rattay, a “wait-and-see-approach” to Julian Peterson’s contract, and selection of Kwame Harris as Derrick Deese’s replacement stand out as the most problematic.  Everyone is entitled to make mistakes, and hindsight is 20/20, but I have never seen a franchise implode in quite the same way over one off-season.

Problem 3: The Selection of Alex Smith

Perhaps this problem deserves it’s own entry, but I maintain that the most glaring error of the Donahue era was the selection of Alex Smith as the Number 1 overall.  I don’t think that Aaron Rodgers’ success at Green Bay substantiates this, nor do I think that Alex Smith is innately untalented.  However, I do believe that, much like the selection of Dennis Erickson’s spread offense for an offensive group ill-equipped to run it, the selection of Alex Smith into a system with a poor offensive line and god-awful recievers doomed the franchise to failure.  Even if Alex Smith could have been the next franchise leader, there was no way it was going to happen with that group.

Consider this: (1) the four best receivers the previous year combined for just over 2400 yards; (2) they included discards like Cedric Wilson, Eric Johnson, and Arnaz Battle; (3) the running back the previous year had a meager 212 yards receiving.[14] The spread offense, which Alex Smith ran to great success in college, simply cannot function with the aforementioned personnel.  Granted, no offense can function with such lack of talent; however, it is mind-boggling why Mike Nolan would select a quarterback from the spread to play with that group of offensive players.

I point the finger, once again, at John York.  Rather than hire a GM, York cleaned house by firing Erickson and Donahue and sought no replacement for Donahue. These were necessary moves, but why not hire a GM? Why not give the team a person in charge of handling talent scouting and contract negotiation? Did York think that Nolan was cut from the same cloth as Bill Belicheck, who only recently enjoyed success as a GM/head coach?  Doubtful.  It seems to me that York didn’t want to spend the money on a general manager, and made do with what he had.  York, fundamentally, is an incredibly savvy businessman, and he felt that there was no reason spending another one to two million dollars on a general manager.  Now I can’t prove any of this, but I do believe this to be true.

The resulting situation cannot be understated – Alex Smith was not the man for the job, selected too early with no one to groom him, and doomed to fail with the (lack of) weapons that he could utilize.  And while the most proximate cause of Alex Smith’s drafting is Mike Nolan, the sine qua non of the decision belongs to none other than John York.  The decision to put him as the face of the franchise – undeniable when a quarterback is selected first overall – has set the 49ers back a half-decade.  Time and again York and the management have made excuses for his poor play, attempted to build around him (e.g. Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati), but in my opinion he was doomed from the start.  A full explication of this argument is outside the scope of this entry, but is coming in due time.  Stay tuned.

Moving Forward

Since 2005, more anguish, more mismanagement, and more bungling have taken place. John York has since handed the reins to his son Jed, who, in my opinion is at least trying to make the 49ers competitive. Most recently, Jed has stated that he intends to hire a GM, who will then hire a new head coach and staff, and seek his uncle’s advice on matters.[15] This is the ideal first step for any CEO to take: realizing that his instincts have been wrong, accepting that, seeking outside help from someone more qualified, and ceding decision-making control to a more capable party.

I’m not holding my breath.  It’s great that Jed is taking his time in scouting the field, and early reports have indicated Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh to be the next tandem.  My thoughts on that are undeveloped; however, only time will tell whether they go down like Carmen Policy and George Seifert or No One and Mike Singletary.


[3] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. Mariucci interviewed with Notre Dame, where York is an alum and contributor, and Tampa Bay.

[11] Why Garcia was asked to leave is something that confounds me to this day but is outside the scope of this entry. Some argue it was because Garcia’s play was declining, to which I retort with the 2007 Philadelphia Eagles.

[12] http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2003/02/12/SP205394.DTL (“Because the Mariucci firing was so unexpected, he had had no time to prepare for a coaching change. In addition, he was unfamiliar with pro coaches. His pre-49ers background had been in college ball”).

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One Response to Why the 49ers Are Perenially Useless

  1. Most Fundamentally Sound says:

    I find the criticism of Alex Smith contained in this article both appalling and incredibly offensive. Lest we forget, in 2010 Smith had the greatest statistical season of his career, compelling an anonymous commentator to dub him “the next Drew Brees.” In fact, over the course of the past two seasons (in which he made 22 starts), Smith has completed over 60% of his passes and has thrown 32 touchdown passes, against only 22 interceptions. If Smith’s statistics for these years were projected over the course of a full season, he would have thrown 24 TDs for the year, a feat never accomplished by Troy Aikman (despite being surrounded by arguably the greatest offensive line of all time, the greatest running back of all time, and one of the greatest wide receivers of all time) and not accomplished by John Elway (who too had offensive weapons that far exceed Smith’s) until his 11th season. The question, then, is not if Smith will one day be considered a greater quarterback than Aikman and Elway, but when. Most informed commentators would agree that the future looks brighter than ever for Smith, with Pro Bowl invitations, Super Bowl victories and possibly LD-Debate TOC championships looming on the horizon. Until then, however, Smith will continue to be subject to malicious and, dare I say, egregious criticisms such as the one articulated above by the author. For shame.

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