If San Francisco hadn’t won so many titles– several coming recently– you could almost feel sorry for 49ers fans for what has happened in the last two years.
Five years ago, the 49ers had gone 7-9, 8-8 and 6-10 under Mike Singletary, thanks to erratic play on both sides of the ball. The defense was mostly adequate; the offense had been mediocre. Singletary coached the way many former stars do– scream at players to play better, but never explain how.
Most stars are so talented that they’ve rarely had to think about what they do or why. They can’t break down the mechanics of playing and explain them to anyone else. The best coaches are usually the slow or undersized ones who had to do everything perfect to get by.
But then they hired Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh (who described the 49ers as his dream job) and jumped into the ranks of the elite. Harbaugh took over and did what a good coach always does:
- Clean out the deadwood.
- Develop players who were talented but struggling, due to technical problems
- Add people who could really contribute.
In Harbaugh’s first season, the 49ers improved from 6-10 to 13-3, reaching the conference championship. The offense jumped from 305 points to 380 (24th to 11th), largely because Harbaugh did two common-sense things:
- Quit rotating backs (Singletary had been futzing around with 31-year-old Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon) and let Frank Gore handle the load.
- End the silly fantasy that QB Troy Smith could play– and clean up some flaws in the delivery of former #1 overall choice Alex Smith.
The defense improved from 346 points allowed (16th) to 229 (2nd), with only two veteran acquisitions (CB Carlos Rogers and SS Donte Whitner) and one high pick (DE-LB Aldon Smith). Harbaugh’s primary change was dumping 34-year-old LB Takeo Spikes and 31-year-old CB Nate Clements and using the players Singletary had benched because they weren’t playing up to his expectations.
The 2010 team had two players make postseason all-star teams; the 2011 team had seven.
In 2012, the 49ers fell to 11-4-1, but reached the Super Bowl. Part of the reason was Harbaugh’s mid-season decision to bench Smith (who’d led the 49ers to a 6-2-1 record) and go with the QB he’d gotten in his first draft, Colin Kaepernick.
The 49ers went 12-4 in 2013 and reached the conference championship for the third straight season… but owner Jed York and GM Trent Baalke chose to perceive this as a grievous failure, for which Harbaugh was entirely responsible.
The coach tuned out and started looking for greener pastures. In 2014, the 49ers started 7-4– but when the rumors peaked, the team quit on the coach. San Francisco lost four of its last five games; Harbaugh bolted to Michigan (which he also said was his dream job).
And then the 49ers ‘brains trust’ did something to make it worse.
There are examples of a front office replacing a successful coach with his longtime associate and going onto better things. The obvious examples are Blanton Collier for Paul Brown (Cleveland) and George Seifert for Bill Walsh (San Francisco). The Giants had Jim Lee Howell (for Steve Owen) and Allie Sherman (for Howell).
Sometimes it works for a while. Mike Martz got Dick Vermeil’s Rams back to a Super Bowl. Don McCafferty won a Super Bowl after succeeding Don Shula in Baltimore. George Wilson won a title after Buddy Parker in Detroit. Jim Caldwell got the Colts back to the Super Bowl after Ton Dungy left. Jerry Burns had a winning record after Bud Grant retired. But the majority are cases like:
- Phil Bengtson for Vince Lombardi,
- Richie Pettibon for Joe Gibbs,
- Ray Handley for Bill Parcells,
- Bill Johnson for Brown (in Cincinnati),
- Al Saunders for Don Coryell,
- Marion Campbell for Dick Vermeil (in Philly),
- Nick Skorich for Collier,
- Wade Phillips for both Marv Levy and Parcells,
- Al Groh for Parcells (with the Jets), and
- The successors to George Halas’s three different retirements.
The team that has handled the issue best has been the Steelers, who moved on from both Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher. In both cases, they chose coaches who were not in the organization, had never coached under his predecessor– and, thus, were free to change whatever they thought needed to be changed.
The longtime assistant who asks “What would my predecessor do?” usually goes up in flames.
Expecting Jim Tomsula to succeed was particularly daft. Good coaches are aggressive and confident; Tomsula has been the consummate yutz.
Tomsula was hired by the 49ers in 2007 to coach the defensive line– the least prestigious job on the defensive staff. It’s not difficult to teach the techniques; the ability to succeed is based on physical skill. Line coaches get promoted to coordinator much less often than linebackers or secondary coaches; they tend to have spotty records as head coaches.
In 2007, Mike Nolan was the 49ers’ head coach.In the middle of the 2008 season, he got fired. The 49ers promoted Singletary (the assistant head coach and linebackers coach) as interim coach.
It’s not surprising that Tomsula wasn’t chosen to replace Nolan. But when Singletary got the permanent job, Tomsula didn’t get promoted to coordinator; Singeltary kept Nolan’s choice (Greg Manusky). Many coaches would have taken this as a slight and left. Tomsula didn’t; he stayed on as line coach.
When Singletary was was fired with one game left in 2010, Tomsula was named interim coach. He won the game, but the 49ers passed him over to hire Harbaugh.
It was the right choice; Harbaugh had done a fabulous job at Stanford (and everywhere else he’d been). But Harbaugh didn’t name Tomsula as defensive coordinator– even though he let Manusky go. He didn’t promote Tomsula to “Assistant Head Coach” or some other honorific. He just said “you can keep coaching the line if you want to”… and Tomsula stayed for four more years.
That isn’t how successful head coaches behave. They’re “Type A” personalities with enormous confidence in their abilities. An interim coach who isn’t given the job typically leaves. A position coach who has head coaching ambitions usually leaves if he is passed over for coordinator.
Tomsula was passed over twice for coordinator and once for the head coach’s job. That’s the sign of a shrinking violet– someone who wouldn’t do well as the head man.
And Tomsula hasn’t. He made his task more difficult from the outset with his choice of staff:
- Tomsula let Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator (Greg Roman) leave for Buffalo, but promoted his quarterback coach to coordinator. That meant both sides of the ball were trying to imitate the old regime. (Plus, you just know that a coach named “Geep Chryst” isn’t destined for glory.)
- As tight ends coach, he hired Tony Sparano. Sparano has coached tight ends, but he’s really a line coach. Plus he was a head coach in Miami and an interim head coach (for 12 games) in Oakland. (Had Mike Pettine hired Sparano, he’d be out of work already.)
- Tomsula, for reasons passing understanding, chose Eric Mangini to be his defensive coordinator. They hadn’t worked together; Mangini doesn’t run the same scheme the 49ers were using. Plus, he has a well-deserved reputation for playing office politics– of running down the head man to make himself look good. (He has been leaking pretty steadily all season long.)
Then there were the personnel decisions:
- The 49ers correctly decided not to re-sign Gore (who was 32 and is struggling in Indianapolis). But they decided to replace him with 30-year-old Reggie Bush (who can’t carry a heavy load) and Carlos Hyde (who hadn’t proven himself. Neither played well, both are now out for the year and former Brown Shaun Draughn is now the #1 back.
- The 49ers incorrectly decided to let LG Mike Iupati (who has been to last three Pro Bowls) sign with Arizona, His replacements haven’t replaced
- Their solution to TE Vernon Davis aging was… do nothing. Davis (18-30; 194 yards, no scores), Vance McDonald (21-30; 218, 2 scores) and Garrett Celek (19-28; 186, 3 scores) have combined to do less than Davis used to do on his own.
- San Francisco let underachieving WR Michael Crabtree sign with Oakland, and brought in underachieving WR Torrey Smith from Baltimore to replace him. That hasn’t worked out well, which means Anquan Boldin has been swarmed.
- Naturally they kept Kapernick. I don’t like quarterbacks who are ‘colorful’– they blow up. The ones who succeed year-in and year out are boring guys– Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikmann, et al… It doesn’t mean you have to be white (Warren Moon, Donovan McNabb and Russell Wilson so far, to name three) but it does mean you keep an even keel, not sound off a lot, not gets tons of tattoos or make videos. Relief aces in baseball tend to be the same way.
Kaepernick’s best season was 2012; he’d been slipping since then:
- 98.3 rating to 91.6 to 86.4 to 78.5 this year.
- 8.3 yards per pass to 7.7 to 7.0 to 6.8
- 10-3 TD-INT ratio to 21-8, to 19-10 and then 6-5.
This year, due to a decrease in the quality of the supporting cast and instability at the top, he was asked to do too much, blew up and has lost his job.
Defensively, they had some bad luck, In 2014, rookie LB Chris Borland suffered a concussion, had some lasting effects and decided to retire. He was a fine player and their #3 pick. But much of it is just the usual “new coordinator tosses out the old playbook, promises the moon and then underachieves” syndrome.
After starting the season 2-6– getting outscored 109-207 (that’s 13.6 points scored and 25.9 allowed), the 49ers changed quarterbacks. They have gone 2-2 since then, with an improvement in both points scored (17.3) and allowed (21). They beat Atlanta by a point, Chicago in overtime and had a credible loss (19-13) to Arizona. The only walloping (29-13) came at the hands of a Seahawks team that is trying to win out.
The 49ers aren’t playing well… but they also aren’t playing badly. This gives them a distinct advantage going into the game.
I didn’t identify the new San Francisco quarterback was, because I wanted to address him in this section. His name is Blaine Gabbert, and he is yet another example of how NFL teams botch quarterbacks.
Gabbert played in one of those fluffy little spread offenses at Missouri, where you don’t have to play good football to win. He displayed incredible raw skills and absolutely no polish. He didn’t start his freshman year– then decided to skip his senior year. He was green as grass; every draft analyst warned that he’d need to be developed over 2-3 years.
The Jaguars took him with the tenth pick in the 2011 draft– at least a round sooner than his production merited– then let him start 15 games as a rookie. After 10 starts in 2012, they tried playing Chad Henne. After three starts in 2013, they benched Gabbert permanently for Henne– then cut him loose after the season.
Harbaugh snapped him up. Partly it was because Harbaugh was the same kind of player when he was drafted in the first round (tall, rocket arm, ran well, no clue about offense); partly he just recognized a bargain. Gabbert spent the 2014 season as a backup., watching tape, sitting in meetings and getting coaching about mechanics.
He got his chance this season, and he’s 2-2. It doesn’t look like a fluke, either. He has an 89.5 rating, gets 7.6 yards per pass and is nearly at the 2-1 ratio of TD-INT you like (5-3; he threw two picks in his first game). Gabbert is 26, he likes to run (he’s gained 140 yards and scored once in four games) and he’s so big that he is unlikely to be injured.
The Browns could have had Gabbert, but they chose not to pursue him. They also declined to pursue Tyrod Taylor— then of Baltimore, now in Buffalo. He is 5-4 in his starts, with great stats (104.3 rating, 8.0 yards per pass, 17-4 TD-INT ratio).
Brian Hoyer has started 7 games for Houston and is 4-3. He won’t win you any prizes, but his rating (94.4), yards per pass (7.2) and ratio (18-6) are superior to Josh McCown.
Cleveland could have had Kirk Cousins or Matt Hasselbeck, whose teams are both tied for the lead in their division. They could have taken a flyer on Robert Griffin.
But they weren’t comfortable trying to develop or rehabilitate a player. So they ended up signing 36-year-old “Canvasback” McCown, because he once had five good games, and hoping Johnny Rehab would put all his demons behind him.
It blew up for reasons any sane observer could have predicted.
McCain is already out for the year (after missing two stretches of games) partly because he’s 36 and partly because he holds the ball forever (he’s seventh in sacks per pass attempt). And, of course, he’s still leading the league in both fumbles (9, tied with Miami’s Ryan Tannehill) and fumbles lost (6), which is what happens when you hold the ball until you get hammered. It’s a key reason he went 1-7 as a starter.
Johnny Rehab became Johnny Relapse, the Browns grossly mishandled him and they now have a quarterback that they can’t trust– that they’re playing in a vain hope to drive up his trade value. He knows they’re going to play him, regardless of what he does– that their threats mean nothing.
The Browns decided to start Austin Davis, based entirely on one quarter. They gave him one receiver who had been on the team more than a couple of weeks (Brian Hartline), had him throw 38 times and wondered why he didn’t play better.
This is the sign of a franchise in total disarray. You can’t even use hindsight to reconstruct what they were trying to do with their quarterbacks. The only reason the position isn’t in more dire share quarterback situation isn’t worse is that Jeff Fisher handed them a player.
Another sign of a rudderless team are the team leaderboards. On a good team– hell, even a bad team– the leaders in a statistical category will (barring injury) be the team’s best players. On a mismanaged team– one that plugs in people at random– you see all sorts of anomalies.
Draughn– despite joining the 49ers in mid-year and not knowing the playbook or the blocking system– has 182 yards in four games (3.3 yards per carry) and 1 TD. That production towers over the Browns’ options.
But there’s a better illustration of how the Browns have mishandled the running back slot. Draughn’s statistics as a Brown– two carries for 10 yards (one against the Jets, one against San Diego)– mean that he is still leading Browns’ running backs in rushing average.
The number two man– 18 carries for 60 yards (3.3 average)– is Robert Turbin, who also isn’t with the club. The Browns signed him knowing that he’d miss 4-6 weeks, burned a roster spot on him for 1/3 of the season, then cut him after less than a game’s worth of carries — spread out over three games.
A year ago, the Browns leading receivers were the two veterans– Andrew Hawkins (63 catches) and Miles Austin (47 in 12 games)– and rookie Taylor Gabriel (36, but for 17.3 a catch).
This year, Hawkins (who had 27 receptions in 8 games before he got hurt) has been largely ignored. Gabriel has been catching dink passes in the flat (26 catches for only 8.6 per catch). The notion that maybe the Browns could try to throw long to both Gabriel and Travis Benjamin is too advanced a concept for Flipper.
WR Marlon Moore is third on the club in yards per catch. Darius Jennings is tied with Gary Barnidge in receptions per game.
And, if this story is true, Barnidge had to negotiate his contract with the owner, because the GM refused to do it.
On defense, they’re not playing the veterans, not releasing them and not going with the high picks. It’s a mess at every spot; the inability to see the players will make it very difficult for the new management team to figure out what to do with the roster.
Gabbert is developing, but he still isn’t close to being a well-rounded quarterback. All he does is run around (he gained 75 yards against the Bears last week) and try to throw long passes to his receivers (and Draughn).
You wouldn’t think a guy like that would have a chance to win… except that Andy Dalton drilled the Browns doing exactly that last week. There’s no way Charles Gaines and Tramon Williams have a prayer of covering Boldin and Smith.
Gabbert has never responded well to pressure– and the 49ers’ line has been struggling (it’s given up 36 sacks). But the Browns’ defense would have trouble sacking canned goods at a food bank.
I wouldn’t expect Draughn to get much yardage. But he can catch passes– and Gabbert can run. I’d bet on San Francisco to score 21-24 points.
Can the Browns’ drunken quarterback get more? He probably won’t have Gabriel or Hawkins to throw to (concussions). Barnidge and Benjamin will try to play, but they’re both banged up.
The odds that he will be able to do significantly better than Davis did last week seems slight. He won’t have any help.
The 49ers still do a fair job of stopping the run (they’re ranked 18th in yards per carry), and the Browns can’t run. A competent coordinator– noting that he has had only three decent outings from Isaiah Crowell (and five bad ones) would be seeing if Squire Johnson (who has averaged 2.9 yards per carry) is as bad as he looks.
But this Flipper doesn’t like dry land any more than his TV namesake, so that isn’t an option.
While they have only 20 sacks, that’s still three more than the Browns. Plus Mangini is very good at disguising what his defense is doing… and Johnny Relapse hasn’t seen this set.
Finally, there is a chance for the 49ers to finish 7-9. In addition to the Browns, they play Detroit and St. Louis (They probably can’t beat the Bengals. At least they should have no chance.). They have something to play for.
The Browns have nothing to play for. The GM will be gone, the coach will be fired, everyone who can leave will and most of the rest of the roster will get purged.
I wasn’t sure if the Browns were taking plays off last week– when you’re getting slaughtered, it’s hard to measure effort. But unless they have an enormous desire to be 3-13 instead of 2-14, they should be coasting. They’re not rallying around the coach– they aren’t even answering back against the harsh words coming from all sides. Plus, some of the players probably can’t stand the overprivileged drunk playing quarterback– so they might tank.
San Francisco doesn’t have a good team, but there are just too many issues to pick this game for Cleveland.
Game Preview: San Francisco 24, Cleveland 10