For the first time since 1985, this year’s Super Bowl will be held in the San Francisco Bay Area. Coincidentally, Super Bowl XIX in 1985 also marks the only time in NFL history when the host of the Super Bowl actually won the big game, as the hometown San Francisco 49ers beat the Miami Dolphins at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.
Now, only three years removed from a near victory in Super Bowl XLVII, to say the 49ers have declined would be kind. In the last calendar year, the team has reverted from a talented perennial contender to an epitome of mediocrity. Ironically, the man who is responsible for bringing the Super Bowl back to the Bay Area and hosting what may be the most-watched event in television history, 49ers owner Jed York, is also responsible for initiating and accelerating his team’s decline, teaching the world a lesson on how not to run an NFL team.
The 49ers team that nearly won a Super Bowl featured a plethora of young talent on both sides of the football and one of the best coaches at any level, Jim Harbaugh. By any account, Harbaugh is a near-unparalleled talent with his unique ability to turn around struggling programs by pushing his players. This strategy has its costs, and Harbaugh was known to wear out his welcome relatively fast, especially among team executives. As Harbaugh’s team trudged to an 8-8 finish in 2014, it was clear Harbaugh and the team arrived at an impasse and the two parted ways.
Ultimately, the man to blame in San Francisco is owner York. Although it was no secret that Harbaugh and 49ers General Manager Trent Baalke disagreed on many personnel issues, choosing between keeping a coach of Harbaugh’s ability and a general manager should have been a relatively easy decision. Instead the owner chose a GM whose player additions have been uninspiring and whose draft picks have been underperforming to say the least. For instance, in six years at the helm of the 49ers, Baalke has drafted only four Pro-Bowlers — one of whom was Aldon Smith, a man arrested five times in three years.
In his end-of-season press conference, Baalke likened the NFL draft to an educated crapshoot. But if that is true, then shouldn’t the 49ers do everything in their power to minimize risk by ensuring that they have superior coaching, even if they happen to miss out on more naturally talented players? Yes, Baalke drafted Colin Kaepernick, but he then put him in a situation that may result in a trade due to his unhappiness with the organization. The 49ers already lack a strong offense — they finished with the league’s lowest points-per-game total — but if they alienate Kaepernick to the point where he wants to leave, they will be without anything close to a focal point from which to build their offense. Baalke is directly responsible for this, and York shares in the blame because he has allowed all of this to happen.
Part of the personnel problem has been somewhat out of the 49ers’ control. An unusual number of high-performing players retired relatively early in their careers. In the summer of 2015, the 49ers lost lineman Anthony Davis, star linebacker Patrick Willis and linebacker Chris Borland to retirement, even though they were all at — or had not yet reached — their prime. It is difficult to directly blame management, but when you combine the inherently risky and violent nature of football with the then- and still gloomy future of San Francisco, it is equally hard to advise the players that staying put was a compelling situation.
Finally, in an attempt to atone for their mistakes, the 49ers hired former Philadelphia Eagles Head Coach and General Manager Chip Kelly. The appeal of Kelly is easy to understand. His offenses broke scoreboards at the University of Oregon and showed glimpses of doing the same in Philadelphia, but ultimately, Kelly is too flawed and is the wrong fit for San Francisco.
First, Kelly has never been credited with being a great GM. His personnel moves in Philadelphia cost the Eagles guaranteed money and draft picks while netting little in return. Having a coach who is not a great general manager is fine, but given Baalke’s incompetence, there is no recourse to save the team. Second, Kelly is not a skilled defensive coach. Despite a pricey defense, the Eagles were just below the league average. San Francisco was much lower, showing that it lacks both the coaching and roster to succeed. It is unlikely that Kelly can be a positive agent for change. Finally, Kelly’s offenses are inconsistent and rely on personnel he simply may not have access to; even with talented offensive players in Philadelphia, the team did not produce much, finishing the 2015-16 season with a losing record.
As Super Bowl 50 kicks off in York’s $1.3 billion stadium, it may be worthwhile to remember why his team is not playing while the teams of two of the better owners in the league, Pat Bowlen and Jerry Richardson, are competing for the ultimate prize. York may not win a Super Bowl any time soon, but with all of the dysfunction, drama and abdication of responsibility, he might just eek out an Emmy or Golden Globe.
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