Colin Kaepernick said he hugs Chip Kelly before every game. Sunday’s hug, however, had the feel of a goodbye embrace.
And it was.
Two hours after the 49ers fell 25-23 to the playoff-bound Seattle Seahawks, they announced that Kelly, who was in his first year as San Francisco’s coach, and general manager Trent Baalke, who was in his 12th with the team, had both been fired.
It was the first time San Francisco, riddled by upheaval over the past two decades, had parted ways with both the coach and general manager in one fell swoop since 2004. Coach Dennis Erickson and general manager Terry Donahue were let go after going 2-14 that season, posting the same number of wins the Baalke-Kelly combination produced.
CEO Jed York will hold a news conference Monday to discuss what amounts to a do-over in the scouting and coaching departments. When the 49ers begin the 2017 season, they will have their fourth coach in as many seasons.
York told Baalke of his decision Friday and Kelly about an hour after Sunday’s game. “These types of conversations are never easy, especially when they involve people you respect personally and professionally,” York said in a statement.
The statement came less than a year after the 49ers signed Kelly to a four-year, $24 million deal. “Chip’s going to be here for a long time, period,” York said at the time.
News of Kelly’s imminent dismissal broke a day before the game, but it didn’t seem to dull the 49ers’ effort. They opened a 14-3 lead on the same squad that routed them 37-18 in Week 3, and they held the Seahawks to 87 rushing yards.
But the same elements that plagued Kelly and San Francisco throughout the year were conspicuous as well. Their offense disappeared for a long stretch of the second and third quarters, during which their lead turned into a 22-14 deficit. Kaepernick completed his first 10 passes, and the 49ers had 198 yards of offense at halftime. At the end of the third quarter, however, they had 189 yards.
Still, after the game Kaepernick and his teammates were filled with praise for Kelly, especially how he handled a tumultuous year that not only involved a 13-game losing streak but 19 players being sent to injured reserve.
“There was a time in the last two weeks – I mean I looked around the locker room and there were guys who, I didn’t even know what their names were,” said left tackle Joe Staley, the longest tenured 49er.
“Turnover was crazy; we had a ton of injuries coming down the stretch,” Staley said. “And nobody really blinked. Everybody was just kind of coming into work. We could have really, really, really lost this football team. And I thought (Kelly) did a good job of just keeping everybody focused throughout this kind of crappy season.”
Kelly and the 49ers also dealt with one of the year’s biggest stories in sports – and in American culture – in Kaepernick’s national anthem protest. Many believed the quarterback’s decision not to stand during the anthem would roil the 49ers’ locker room. It didn’t, and Kaepernick in the past has credited Kelly.
“The resilience he’s shown with the circumstances that have gone on this year, I appreciate that,” Kaepernick said Sunday.
He also said his relationship with York and the team’s top contract negotiator, Paraag Marathe, has improved this season. Kaepernick is signed for next year, but he is due to make nearly $15 million and the 49ers may release him because of that. Kaepernick also can opt out of his contract and enter free agency.
After taking over for Blaine Gabbert in Week 6, Kaepernick got sharper as the season wore on. His 122.3 passer rating Sunday was his highest since last year’s win over the Baltimore Ravens and his best ever against the Seahawks.
Running back Shaun Draughn, substituting for Carlos Hyde, led the 49ers with 68 receiving yards. Wideout Jeremy Kerley, one of three 49ers receivers who played Sunday that were added to the roster after training camp, had 61 receiving yards.
Kelly was asked if he had the tools to be successful this season.
“We don’t control the roster,” he said. “So our job as coaches is to create an environment where our players have an opportunity to be successful and that’s what we have to do. I don’t look at, ‘I wish I had this. I wish I had that.’ We were fortunate for the guys we had and we tried to coach them as hard as we could and as well as we could.”