The San Francisco 49ers are officially a train wreck. There are certainly some areas where things are not entirely bleek (Andrew Tiller, Aaron Lynch, Jaquiski Tartt, Arik Armstead, for example), but from a big picture perspective, things are not good. The 49ers almost beat the New York Giants, and then did beat the Baltimore Ravens, but those games were red herrings in this season. The team has talented players, but overall, they are a bad team.
A different way to put it is that this a bad organization right now. Just like there are good players on the roster, there are good people in the organization. The problem is that the leadership on top seems like they are either incompetent, or too narcissistic in the way they have dealt with things over the last year.
Back on December 29, Jed York and Trent Baalke met with the media to discuss Jim Harbaugh's departure as head coach. During that press conference, Jed York repeatedly said he was to be held responsible and accountable when the 49ers struggle. And I do mean repeatedly. I went back through the press conference transcript, and I counted 17 different times York used either the word accountable or accountability. You can read the full transcript here, or if you can stomach it, watch the vide here. At the bottom of this article, I've pulled out those uses.
Jed York put accountability on the table, but all indications are that it is nothing more than corporate buzz words. York has seemed to want to create more of a Silicon Valley vibe in the front office, and buzz words are certainly a strong step in that direction.
One of the many problems is that he remains out of sight for the most part, and is not really talking about much of anything. He'll tweet out offers of free tickets, but that's the extent of his dealings with 49ers fans. He has frequently been one to do more national stuff than local stuff, but even that has not really happened. He had some brief comments for Jason Cole at the owners' meetings a couple weeks back, providing some puff stuff about Colin Kaepernick, but that's it.
A year ago, Jed had this to say following the 49ers 19-3 Thanksgiving home loss to the Seattle Seahawks:
Given what we knew then, this was viewed by most as a shot across Jim Harbaugh's bow. It seemed less about apologizing, and more about scoring some points in a pissing contest with his coach. And York's behavior since then would seem to indicate that's all it really was. After the Steelers loss, York was a bit more gentle in his response
That appears to be his only post-game tweet reflecting on the game that just happened. 49ers fans have shown up strong for road games this year, but York has had nothing to say to them following bad losses. And he had nothing to say Thursday night following a second straight embarrassing home loss to the Seattle Seahawks. It would seem York only apologizes for losses when he wants to embarrass his coach.
There is plenty of blame to go around when it comes to this team. The players are not executing nearly well enough. The coaching staff is not making nearly enough adjustments. Trent Baalke has not done nearly enough to replace the departed talent. Some of the retirements were unexpected, but that does not take away from some of Trent Baalke's questionable drafting decisions the last four drafts. I get that blame can be spread far and wide.
But the buck stops with Jed York. Denise and John York are the owners, but Jed is the CEO and the supposedly front-facing part of his parents' ownership. It all comes back to him, and that is a scary proposition. He and Baalke came up huge with the Jim Harbaugh hiring, but that was mostly a no-brainer. They needed to make a splashy move in large part because of the new stadium. I think a stadium probably gets done without Harbaugh, but it definitely made selling SBLs and ticket packages a lot easier.
It is hard to say specifically who is responsible for what in Harbaugh's departure, whether it be Baalke or York, but York is the CEO, and so blame deservedly is going to fall on him. Now, we are faced with a situation that could be looking in one of two ways. These are not necessarily entirely mutually exclusive, but these are the two ways I see it:
1. The York family is incompetent - Jed legitimately thought Jim Tomsula could replace Jim Harbaugh, and Trent Baalke could replenish the talent this team was likely to lose (even before the retirements). If this is the case, this franchise is likely stuck in a quagmire for the foreseeable future. With Baalke not drafting well, and now adding a 2015 free agency class that is either useless (Bush, Dockett, etc), or misused (Smith), it is not like the team is trending in the right direction to generate interest from top tier candidates. Maybe somehow this turns around under Tomsula, but it is hard to see that happening. He seems in over his head. And if the Yorks are incompetent, he'll likely remain head coach into 2016 before getting fired, leaving this team in a tailspin for at least the next couple years.
2. The York family are greedy, like a lot of sports ownership groups - Old friend of the site Danny Tuccitto (Florida Danny) was driving through DC on Thursday, and he stopped by to watch the game. Danny's from Florida, and he brought up an interesting comparison. When the Florida/Miami Marlins were looking to build a new stadium, they put a ton of money into the team. Wayne Huizenga boosted payroll to win the 1997 World Series. When he could not get a stadium deal, he dismantled the team and then sold them. After John Henry's ownership, Jeffrey Loria purchased the team. He built up the team to win the 2003 and then tore that team apart. Eventually the Marlins did get a new stadium deal. In their first year in the new stadium (2012), they shot their payroll up over $100 million. They then put together a firesale that cut it down below $40 million in 2013.
Maybe the Yorks are content knowing they have their cash cow stadium. There are minimum spending amounts negotiated into the collective bargaining agreement, and the team will certainly spend money on players. The problem is they can then save plenty of money on the coaching staff and GM positions. If they are just in this to cash in, then this tailspin very well could last even longer.
I am sure the situation falls somewhere in the middle of those two suggestions, but either way, I am incredibly skeptical this team will be turned around anytime in the near future. Whether it's incompetence, cheapness, or anything else, it seems entirely logical to me that this thing is going to get worse long before it gets better. There are very talented players on this team, but this is an organizational issue more than a talent issue. Yes, the team could fire a coordinator or bench a starter, but when the problems start at the top, it all just seems like shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic.
It's incredibly frustrating to be pretty certain this is the case, and leaves me feeling helpless. Jed York says he wants people to hold him accountable, but you, me and Jed all know that is bullshit (site decorum is off in the comments!). Fans can choose to not go to games and not buy merchandise, and that technically is "holding Jed accountable". From a financial perspective though, NFL teams are going to be awash in money even if some of the fans are pissed at their owner. They'll still get their TV money, and a sizable chunk of that ticket money is going into a revenue sharing pot anyway. Luxury suite and club-level ticket holders account for some of the 49ers own big take-home money, but I do not expect a sizable chunk of that group to give up their corporate seats.
And so, the 49ers and the NFL win. Even when they're losing, they always win. And it's a helpless feeling right now.
Jed York press conference excerpts - December 29, 2014
JY: "I appreciate everything that you guys do for us and it's up to us to make sure we compete for and win Super Bowls. That's our only goal. We don't raise division championships banners. We don't raise NFC Championship banners. We raise Super Bowl banners. And whenever we don't deliver that, I hope that you will hold me directly responsible and accountable for it."
JY: "And again, I'll be the first to tell you, if we aren't winning a Super Bowl, you should hold me accountable. You should jump down my throat. I welcome that and I'm ready for the challenge."
How accountable are you and Trent for what went wrong this season?
JY: "We're all accountable."
Q: In what ways?
JY: "We didn't win the Super Bowl. If we don't win the Super Bowl, we're not executing on our vision. Our mission is very simple: the San Francisco 49ers win with class. We haven't won, and I don't think we've conducted ourselves with the level of class that I expect of our organization. We've had off-the-field issues. That's going to happen in sports. The level that it's happened here is not unacceptable."
JY: "You need to make sure people are accountable. That's up to me. We might not win the Super Bowl every year, but we can conduct ourselves with class. And we can conduct ourselves in a way that makes me proud. I'll put that on me. I'm not putting this on Jim and, please, understand this. Jim was..."
Q: But Jim was being held accountable and you guys weren't.
JY: "I'm accountable."
JY: "Look, again, you're talking about distractions and there are distractions for any team. And I can't say what undercut this season. There were injuries. There were media reports. There were a lot of different things and unfortunately we didn't overcome them. And ultimately it doesn't matter what the distractions were, it matters that we had an ultimate goal and we didn't achieve it. And I'm not pinning that on Jim, I'm not pinning that on Trent. Ultimately, that's my responsibility. I'm the one that people should hold accountable for a failure or victory. That's ultimately on me. So, again, here, I am not saying Jim is the reason why we didn't get to and win the Super Bowl this year."
Q: Jed, is Trent accountable for that then? He hasn't won a Super Bowl?
JY: Absolutely. Absolutely he's accountable."
Q: You've talked about accountability. You have a whole lot of fans who really don't know what happened. They know three good years, one bad year, and everything has changed. What do you say to them? Just trust you in a sense because you're not really revealing what actually happened. For the fans that don't know, what do you say to them?
JY: "Again, I don't think it's fair to Jim to reveal the conversations that he and I have had behind closed doors that we said are going to stay behind closed doors. So, I'm not going to betray that trust, whether Jim is the head coach here or not, I'm not going to betray that trust. And again, we're going to do everything that we can to put the right people in place. And we can say anything that we want today, I guarantee you if I know one thing, we are not going to win today's press conference. That's not going to happen. We're going to win by putting together the right staff and accomplishing the goals that we set out for ourselves. And I'm fully cognizant of that. And I'm fully cognizant that people might doubt what we're doing. That's fair. That's completely fair and I welcome that. But, we're going to put together the right group of people and I think we've made it very clear what our goal and objective is. And if we don't achieve that, you should hold us accountable."
Q: OK. Let's put Jim out of it for a moment. What qualities in Trent attract you and keep him here as the man in charge?
JY: "I think Trent's been a good leader for us. I think Trent has been good at being able to identify talent. He shares my vision of really it's Super Bowl or bust. And he understands that. We had a conversation the other day about where are we going and we need to get this right. Trent understands he needs to get this right. And there is no lack of accountability with Trent."
Q: What specifically, back to what you just addressed on what you could have done differently, anyone could have done differently to avoid the off the field issues?
JY: "I mean, I think the biggest thing is accountability. I think whenever you let accountability slip you let what happened happen. And I think we need to make sure that our players are held accountable."
JY: "And that's something that we need to hold [Aldon Smith] accountable for and we need to make sure that we keep him going in the right direction. And I hope everybody understands, whether they're here or not, I talked to the guys today, I talked about winning with class. I said, ‘you guys are responsible for how you act outside of this building. Don't get cut because of something you do off the field. You're the one's that control that.' And that needs to come directly from me. And when that slips you see level of accountability slip and that's not acceptable. If you want to blast me for something, by all means blast me for that. That will not happen. We might make decisions that people don't completely agree with, but we are going to hold our players and hold our coaches and hold the entire organization accountable for their actions."
JY: "Speaking of accountability, I'm going to hold [49ers director of communications] Bob Lange accountable for two more questions. Is this the best question [San Francisco Chronicle reporter] Eric [Branch]? Do you have the best question to end the day on?"