Bill Walsh not only hand selected Terry Donahue to be the next great mind in the 49ers organization, but he also spent years grooming him to be his successor. Yet since Donahue has had the reigns with the club the 49ers have made many poor personnel decisions and appear to have done little if anything other than fight the salary cap. Towards the end of last season I began calling on Donahue to really show us something this year, especially after he signed such a lucrative contract. Donahue simply could not. And so I wonder, was Bill Walsh so wrong about Donahue? Or was Donahue hindered by constraints forced on him by owner John York. I suppose the only way we will find out is if Donahue gets another job in the NFL. It was time that the 49ers had a fresh start – again. York alluded to exactly that. But if after all these years of mediocrity we find out that Bill Walsh was right about Donahue we might be regretting this move for the next three decades.
At 2-14 the 49ers were a bigger disappointment this season than last. A fresh start is exactly what this team needs; unfortunately I am still not certain that a fresh start is what this team will get. I was not in favor of the firing of Steve Mariucci. Not only did I think the 49ers handled it with no tact whatsoever, I to this day think ‘Mooch’ is a great coach, and the reason the 49ers have had any success under owner John York. Dennis Erickson was not on my short list of coaches to replace Mariucci. His record in the NFL was mediocre, he was not from the Bill Walsh family of coaches, and quite frankly I thought he lacked the intensity and ability to discipline his teams. The events of his signing seemed to indicate that he was the only coach who said ‘yes’ to any offer to be with the team so the 49ers grabbed him. Two years later I still think Dennis Erickson was the wrong man for the job – only now, I also think he is a very nice person and wish him the best.
York proved on Wednesday that he learned a few things as he begins a new era for the 49ers for the second time now. He learned that he should be at the press conference when he fires a coach, though with the firing of Terry Donahue too I do not know who else could have held the conference. He also appears to have learned that looking for a new coach early in the off-season should yield better results than waiting until the top prospects have already been snatched up before beginning your own search. These are valuable lessons. But while York has shown he has learned some, there is plenty I am left worrying about.
For starters, York knows very little about football – so little in fact that he could not single out who would be in charge of the coach search. He alluded to using the 49ers family both internal and extended – so that could mean Bill McPherson, Bill Walsh, John McVay or well anyone. York also suggested that the team would search for a coach first and a general manager second. This is a very interesting suggestion considering general managers typically have authority over coaches and the draft is coming up before the season. I cannot help but wonder if York is trying to shift the hierarchy within the 49ers, or if he is keeping the door open for a combined GM/coach despite him saying otherwise at the press conference. Still searching for a head coach first will likely seriously limit the candidates willing to accept the general manager position. I am further worried about York’s plan to maintain Terry Donahue personnel department and salary cap plan. Donahue was fired, should his ideas and staff not be subject to review also? I also wonder what gives anyone the idea that York will hire the right man for the job considering his lack of football knowledge.
York promised a return to dominance on Wednesday, but I remain insecure about his ability to find the right people to restore that dominance to this team. Further, despite York appearing to be willing to spend money, I do not see what would lure top candidates to San Francisco even if York could identify them. York also mentioned that his coaching search would include candidates with NFL experience and with a record of winning. Unfortunately the two can be separated from each other. Dennis Erickson for example fit that mold, and yet under his direction the 49ers tanked. What York should be looking for is someone who has had success at the NFL level.
What worries me most though, above all else, York really had no clear plan for the immediate or distant future with this team. All York could do was comment on wanting to restore dominance to the organization. No doubt dominance is better than being dominated, but for the second time in two front office shake ups under York, the 49ers have no clear plan B. York does not know how the coaching search will commence; only that he thinks searching for a coach before a general manager is a good idea. York has no set plan for evaluating the current staff or players to find areas of need. No clear list of candidates for the job (his ‘short list’ has 10 or fewer names on it, or so he said with some hesitance). In short, no clear plan. No clear direction. That is what worries me most about the team’s future.
All that being said, York said many right things in his press conference. He tried to bring the fans back on board, tried to use the word dominance as often as possible, suggested a stadium was priority 1-b for the team right now, sounded as if he was willing to open his wallet up to get the team back on track, and said the team would be aggressive in restoring prominence to the team. These are all good signs. Unfortunately it will take more than just a head coach, general manager, and quarterback to get this team back on track.
I am all for the fresh start, I think it was much needed and if the team gets the right people in place could be a very positive thing. Fans however should not look at this fresh start as a quick solution. The 49ers are in a mess from top down right now – that becomes clear the more one listens to the words of those within the organization. Erickson was apparently fired because of a failure to develop talent and his inattention to detail. Some players suggest that there has been little coordination between owner, manager and coach, noting that this contributed to the struggles of the team. That sounds awfully familiar to me though as I seem to remember a certain other coach who was dismissed for those very reasons. I think it is becoming evident that the 49ers need a front office that is coordinated and working on the same page, yet York was resistant to the idea of finding or demanding his key front office personnel to live in the Bay Area. There are glaring wholes in the personnel particularly in the trenches, defensive backfield and at quarterback. These wholes will have to be filled. The team has free agents, some of who are key, like Julian Peterson, and no manager to sign them right now. The team also has players like Ahmed Plummer who need to take a pay cut, and no manager too coordinate that right now. The team has a ton of young talent that has been developed so poorly over the last two years for many of them it might be too late. No quick fix is coming that you can be assured.
The 49ers return to greatness, should it occur under John York (stop laughing), will take a few years. The 2005 season should be spent trying to get the front office and coaching staff working together. Success starts at the top and feeds it way down, and so this has to be a priority. Providing the 49ers get the right manager and coach in place, a serious emphasis needs to be placed on developing talent, cutting losses on talent that is too damaged to develop, and in bringing in new talent and establishing the right foundation. This is the process that will take the most time. Two years total, easy. Three – quite possibly. And so the 49ers set sail on yet another three year plan. Before you know it a new decade will be upon us, and perhaps we can forget everything that happened between 2000 and 2010.
The coaching search should be an interesting one. York established the job requirements as:
Not exactly a long list of criteria, but it is a start. I’ll throw a few others into the mix as to what I am looking for. I want the next 49ers head coach to have been successful in the NFL. To be as close to Bill Walsh in ‘Walsh’s Coaching Tree’ as possible. To bring the West Coast Offense back to the 49ers (even in some hybrid form). To have ties to the 49ers organizations winning past. To excel in player development. To have a solid group of coaches that he cold bring with him to fill out the 49ers coaching roster.
Pete Carroll the former 49ers defensive coordinator, New England Head Coach, and New York Jets Head Coach, currently running a very successful program at USC appears to top the 49ers wish list. Carroll was the only candidate the 49ers had contacted by Thursday morning and has a ringing endorsement from Bill Walsh, who earlier in the season called Carroll “the most dynamic coach in all of football right now”. Carroll could bring with him Norm Chow, his offensive coordinator who is a very big name in college ball right now. Quarterback Matt Leinart who has not declared for the draft yet, could then become a serious possibility for the 49ers. Carroll has had some success in the NFL, winning the NFC West division title with the 49ers in 1995 and 1996 when the team had a top rated defense. He took the Patriots to the playoffs in his first two seasons with the club, but had little success as a coordinator and coach with the Jets. Carroll is an intriguing prospect who has been abundantly successful in college. My hesitancies with him are first, I do not think he will leave USC; second, I am uncertain if he can be a real winner in the NFL, and third he is not offensive minded (though his coordinator appears to have a good mind for the offense, at least at the college level).
Former 49ers coordinator, Super Bowl winning coach in Green Bay, and current Head Coach and General Manager of the Seahawks remains one of the most interesting prospects for the 49ers coaching position. Holmgren has strong ties to the Bay Area and has been successful in the NFL. His time in Seattle has sullied his once prominent track record, and his demand for a general manager position could be a problem. Holmgren may not even be available this off-season, particularly without compensation to the NFC West rival Seahawks. The 49ers need to take a hard look at him though, as at the very least he could bring the fans back on board. Holmgren is a good evaluator of talent, has had success grooming quarterbacks and is from very high up in the Walsh tree. He would be among my top choices for the 49ers coaching position.
Another former 49ers coordinator, Super Bowl winning coach, and current Head Coach is also named Mike. Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos is working his dream job right now and appears to be rebuilding the Broncos now that he has Jake Plummer. Shanahan could bring an excellent staff with him and has an eye for talent particularly at offensive line, quarterback, and running back. He is not likely to be available to the 49ers this off-season but there are very few people who would not want him as the 49ers coach. The biggest problem with Shanahan would be stealing him from Denver where he is very happy and showing that he can have success even without John Elway.
A direct descendent of Shanahan and a personal favorite of mine is Gary Kubiak offensive coordinator of the Broncos. Kubiak worked for the 49ers in 1994 and won a Super Bowl with the club. He is offensive minded, good at developing talent and is able to cater his offense to the talent on the team. Kubiak is very well versed in the West Coast Offense, and in the 49ers history and has been tutored by one of the best in the game right now in Shanahan. In my mind Kubiak would be an excellent place to start for the 49ers.
Jimmy Johnson is a high profile name that is available should he want to return to coaching or management. To be honest the idea of a former Cowboy running the 49ers makes me sick, but there is no denying that Johnson could be the manager in particular the 49ers are looking for. Johnson has an eye for talent and is very good at coordinating his staff and keeping players on the same page.
Jeff Fisher, head coach of the titans is another possibility. Fisher has told his team he is staying put though. The former 49ers defensive back coach has worked with George Seifert and Bill Walsh, but that was a long time ago. I am not as high on him despite his success with the Titans, as some others are.
Mike Heimerdigner also of the Titans, there offensive coordinator will likely be looked at too. He worked under Shanahan for five years in and currently runs a hybrid West Coast Offense, he might be able to bring a fair staff with him, as Jeff Fisher could, including defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and Titans president Jeff Diamond who could assume a general management position with the 49ers.
Greg Balche, Ted Cotrell, Romeo Crennell, and Brad Childress, are all coordinator that the 49ers interviewed in their last coaching search. Each appeared to turn down the team and sign bigger contracts where they were presently working. All of who also are quite accomplished in the NFL. The lack of ties between most of them and the 49ers past does worry me, as does the staff that they would be able to assemble.
Bob Stoops, and Jeff Tedford, are two college coaches whose names have been lingering around the 49ers since the Mariucci firing. Both could be receptive to a NFL opportunity but have little NFL success behind them. That is my biggest worry about either of these men.
John York has a two tough searches ahead of him. The 49ers players have thrown their support behind York, whether they are touting the company line or being honest we do not really know, but for the time being at least we fans have something we can get excited about. Something we can look forward too. Hopefully as the 49ers begin this new era they will do so with better people and a better plan than they have in the past.