Among the mildly encouraging comments 49ers CEO Jed York offered about his search for a coach and general manager was his desire to be “open and flexible to structure.”
That’s a start. Baby steps, but a start.
There is no one-size-fits-all paradigm for hiring general managers and head coaches in professional sports. The most common approach is to first select and empower the GM who makes personnel decisions, then collaborate on a coach who dictates philosophy and oversees the on-field or on-court operations. But as so many of today’s billionaire owners realize only belatedly, human beings aren’t widgets. Many of the more lasting marriages in sports are dynamic pairings of contrasting personalities, their hiring rooted in feel and intuition, otherwise known as the “gut check” impulse.
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Coach Bill Belichick controls the New England Patriots. Brian Sabean/Bobby Evans assemble the rosters and Bruce Bochy manages the Giants. R.C. Buford is Gregg Popovich’s left hand/right hand man with the San Antonio Spurs, but Popovich makes all the decisions. John Elway and Gary Kubiak were as close as brothers – and guided the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl win last season – and broke up only because of Kubiak’s health issues.
Conversely, there are coaching and front office combinations that are doomed from the start or questionable at best. Look no farther than Golden 1 Center. Kings GM Vlade Divac favors a free-flowing offense that features spacing, movement and pace, while coach Dave Joerger prefers to call plays and control tempo. It will be interesting to see how that works out.
But before everyone monitoring the 49ers’ search becomes brain-dead from reciting two of the most overused phrases in sports – “changing the culture” and “holding people accountable” – the maligned York deserves a few props for releasing GM Trent Baalke and coach Chip Kelly in a dramatic, if incomplete, cleansing of sterile Levi’s Stadium. Strangely, executive vice president Paraag Marathe kept his job.
Whether the head coach is in control, the general manager is in control, they need to be accountable to each other. That’s the most important relationship in the building.
Jed York, 49ers CEO
Kelly, of course, can counter with a compelling argument he should have been retained for these reasons: The talent level was subpar; he inherited and managed an almost impossible quarterback situation with Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick (both on and off the field); a one-year exam isn’t exactly fair; and because his general manager wanted apples (defensive clout) and he wanted oranges (offensive firepower).
Ultimately, what cripples Kelly’s cause is the fact scouting reports no longer travel by Pony Express. Although several 49ers praised Kelly’s tempered handling of situations while the club stumbled to a 2-14 record, his involvement in the personnel decisions during his previous job with the Philadelphia Eagles did him no favors in his new circumstances.
What GM wants to take a job alongside an incumbent coach who had input into player personnel at his previous stop? Only an established, respected and supremely confident league executive who believes his voice would resonate above all others – say, regarding which quarterback to draft – would enter such treacherous waters.
Good luck with that. Unfortunately for Kelly and York, the league isn’t bloated with successful GMs salivating at the chance to join a franchise that has burned through three coaches in three years and can barely cite two positives: The 49ers own the No. 2 pick in the draft and have plenty of cash to spend this offseason on free agents.
“There are some pieces here,” York said Monday. “I don’t think there are enough pieces, but there are some pieces we can build around.”
For all his stumbles, and alienating 49ers fans with his aloofness is among them, York hasn’t been a complete bust. He hired then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, a once-in-a-generation coach, his restless streak and quirky personality notwithstanding, and allowed Baalke to assemble a team that reached three consecutive NFC championship games and one Super Bowl. When the Baalke-Harbaugh-York marriage began souring long before Year IV, one wonders if York was (or is) ever plagued by this question: What if he stuck with Harbaugh and fired Baalke, replacing the departed GM with someone more compatible with his high-strung but immensely talented coach? Would the 49ers still be in this mess?
York also is responsible for hiring coaches Mike Singletary, Mike Nolan and Jim Tomsula. On Nolan’s recommendation, York brought in the respected GM Scot McCloughan, now with the Washington Redskins.
“Our actions have to speak for itself,” York said. “I’ve done it before. (But) that was in the past. I need to make sure that anything that I do is backed up by the results that are on the field.”
As to firing himself as CEO? No chance. It took decades to dislodge Donald Sterling and Marge Schott.
There are some pieces here. I don’t think there are enough pieces, but there are some pieces we can build around.
Jed York, 49ers CEO
But York, who said he plans to discuss the search with his uncle, former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, is known for leaking information before personally delivering the bad news, and he is name-dropping some interesting candidates and combinations.
Some of the coaching/GM combos mentioned in media reports as possibilities include include Patriots executive Nick Caserio and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels; Atlanta Falcons executive Scott Pioli and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, though the Broncos would seem to have a strong advantage given Mike Shanahan’s history with the franchise; and Seattle Seahawks executives Trent Kirchner and Scott Fitterer and offensive-line coach Tom Cable.
ESPN analyst Louis Riddick and Eliot Wolf, the Green Bay Packers’ director of football operations and son of longtime NFL executive Ron Wolf, also are receiving attention.
But as York embarks on his search, he said it best himself.
“We need to get the right people,” he said. “It can’t be that, ‘I have (control of) the 53-man roster and you need to go back to your office.’ We can’t have that. It has be these two guys on the same page, and when we disagree on a player, we need to know what to do. Whether the head coach is in control, the general manager is in control, they need to be accountable to each other. That’s the most important relationship in the building.”