The 49ers are closing in on a 1-15 season, a rarely achieved low in the NFL and one that ought to be automatic grounds for firing a head coach, right?
Well, usually but not always. Of the nine teams that have managed to go 1-15 since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, five have fired their head coach during or after the season, and three have given their coach another chance. Rich Kotite, who led a one-win Jets team in 1996, resigned and was replaced by Bill Parcells, whose team went 9-7 the following year.
Chip Kelly needs a win in his last three tries to avoid that ignominious list and is at risk at joining a couple of even more exclusive ones. First, no 49ers team has finished with fewer than two victories in the franchise’s 70-year history. Four squads have had two-win seasons, the most recent in 2004, after which the 49ers fired both the head coach, Dennis Erickson, and general manager, Terry Donahue.
If the 49ers lose out, they and the 2001 Carolina Panthers will be the only NFL teams to win their openers and then drop their next 15 contests in the same season. The coach of that Panthers squad, George Seifert, was fired at year’s end and replaced by John Fox.
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The 1-15 coaches who kept their jobs were the Rams’ Steve Spagnuolo in 2009, the Chargers’ Mike Riley in 2000 and the Cowboys’ Jimmy Johnson in 1989. Johnson and Spagnuolo – like Kelly – were in Year 1 with their teams. Johnson is the only one of that group who had long-term success, winning Super Bowls with the Cowboys in 1992 and 1993.
How can Kelly save his job? Finish on a high note, for one.
The 49ers are 13 1/2 -point underdogs Sunday in Atlanta and will be missing a trio of offensive starters, wide receiver Torrey Smith and offensive linemen Joe Staley and Daniel Kilgore. Their best chances for wins are next week against the Rams, the team they beat 28-0 in Week 1, and perhaps in the finale against the Seahawks. Seattle clinched the NFC West title on Thursday, and if they can’t change their playoff position in Week 17, the Seahawks might be inclined to rest their top players.
CEO Jed York and other team officials also will look at the way Kelly has managed the 49ers and how he is perceived by players. In that regard, the coach continues to get high marks despite low production.
Players like Kelly, enjoy his offensive system and, most of all, crave continuity following coaching changes the past two seasons.
“I would love for Chip to be back,” tight end Vance McDonald said recently. “I’ve really enjoyed playing underneath him. Again, his offense is a ton of fun, especially at the tight end position. Offensively, I like the way he’s always in attack mode and attack mindset. I appreciate that.”
The 49ers recently gave McDonald a five-year contract extension. Kelly noted that he is not involved in contract negotiations but acknowledged he was consulted before the deal was finalized.
“They asked me if I wanted Vance back, and I said, ‘Yes,’ ” Kelly said.
Finally, the team will monitor fan displeasure.
Attendance has been low since midseason and signs decrying the state of the franchise have been seen both inside and flying above Levi’s Stadium. But most have targeted either York or his top lieutenant, general manager Trent Baalke, who was part of the group that parted ways with popular – and successful – head coach Jim Harbaugh following the 2014 season.
Still, the backlash hasn’t been as visible as that of Saints fans in 1980, who wore paper bags over their heads at games to express their embarrassment over the one-win “Aints”. During the Panthers’ 2001 home finale, about 16,000 fans showed up for a meaningless game against the Patriots.
The 49ers’ stadium has been perhaps two-thirds full in recent weeks. How many will attend their final game on Jan. 1? Those who do may witness franchise history.
Coaches who have gone 1-15:
- 1980 New Orleans Saints. Coach: Dick Nolan. Fired? Yes
- 1989 Dallas Cowboys. Coach: Jimmy Johnson. Fired? No
- 1990 New England Patriots. Coach: Rod Rust. Fired? Yes
- 1991 Indianapolis Colts. Coach: Ron Meyer. Fired? Yes
- 1996 New York Jets. Coach: Rich Kotite. Fired? Resigned
- 2000 San Diego Chargers. Coach: Mike Riley. Fired? No
- 2001 Carolina Panthers. Coach: George Seifert. Fired? Yes
- 2007 Miami Dolphins. Coach: Cam Cameron. Fired? Yes
- 2009 St. Louis Rams. Coach: Steve Spagnuolo. Fired? No