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Steve Young talks about Trent Baalke, 49ers ownership, lack of super-structure

The former 49ers quarterback cut to the chase in describing the issues for the 49ers, and really much of the NFL

Last week, Jason La Canfora reported that the San Francisco 49ers were looking to make some significant changes, and potentially install someone to run football operations. A president or executive VP title would be in charge, with the GM and coach reporting to him. We’ve seen back and forth on that between various reports, and we’ll likely find out in January who was actually right.

If the 49ers were to make such a move, might I suggest Steve Young? The former 49ers quarterback was on KNBR Wednesday evening, and he provided an intriguing opinion on what the 49ers lack, and really what a lot of the NFL lacks. He talked about the lack of real leadership on the team, and more broadly, the lack of a super-structure that you see in places like New England.

My guess is Young would prefer to not deal with the daily grind that can come from running the 49ers’ football operations. Even if he has a GM and personnel guys handling a lot of the minutiae, the guy in charge is still more than just, “here’s our philosophy, go do it.” So I get why he would want to stay away from that. But man, in listening to his comments on the 49ers problems, it would be great to have someone like that running things.

This transcript is specifically the 15 minutes he spent talking about the 49ers issues, and what they need. But the entire interview is 30 minutes, and as is usually the case when he is on KNBR, it’s fantastic. He opens talking about his kids getting older and making it easier to do these interviews. There was a story about him doing one while going through a fast food drive thru. He then goes into players in other sports getting rest days and how weak that is. They then talk about the 49ers for 15 minutes. The final 10 or so minutes of the interview is first about the rest of the league, and then some talk about what he and the hosts want for Christmas. There’s a fantastic story around the 26:30 mark about a stocking he got one year and then the same thing the next year.

At one point, Young is talking about how 15-20 teams around the league or just slogging along, making plenty of money and just going riding on a merry-go-round with nothing changing. He had a fantastic crack about Atlanta:

That’s where you start to see, otherwise you’re just the Chargers and the name ‘em, Detroit, Miami. Now, all of a sudden, maybe Atlanta, is it a vein that Atlanta hits? Because every once in a while, Atlanta hits a vein, and “hey, we’re pretty good.” And then “well, we don’t know what we’re doing.”

I highly recommend giving the entire interview a listen, but here’s the 49ers transcript. KNBR’s Kevin Jones got parts of it transcribed with audio attached (Baalke, Yorks, Gore), but I added in the rest in between from the 49ers segment.

If there’s much talent on the team:

No, especially leadership talent. Talent’s one thing, but leadership is another thing. And you have to have a core group of guys, and the don’t. And so it’s like, it becomes a revolving door. Very talented guys come through the revolving door, by the way. But there’s no there there. So until the right combination gets into the locker room, the chemistry gets going where people, remember football, Knute Rockne’s famous because he makes a speech and everyone goes and plays one for the Gipper. I mean, you need an incentive to play great football. And if you don’t have it, then you don’t have the talent.

So anybody who says, it’s the coaching, no, it’s chemistry, it’s a combination of things. You’ve got to get the right people in the right places to create that. And if it doesn’t happen then by definition you don’t have the talent. “Well, I have super measurables. He’s one of the five fastest guys in the league, and he can jump three, the third highest high jump of any standing broad jump.” And I’m like, who cares, can’t play.

Analogy to Tim Hardaway once talking about players with measurables saying, they can get up, but they can’t get down:

I love it! I’m using that one. Because Tim McDonald, towards the end with me and Tim, Carmen Policy had gone, Eddie had lost the team, and that last season, 98, we kinda had lunch up in Carmen’s office, because we acted like, there’s no GM, so we’ll be it, so we ate lunch up there, put our feet up, kinda decided everything. And it was amazing how accurate he was, afterwards, when he talked bout, we’d go through the team, and he’d say, that guy, no good. If I was gonna draft, oh man he was right.

If you pay attention in football, human behavior, well 50 guys with the physical nature of it, the truth comes out. More so than other sports, because of the physical nature of it. You can’t lie. The truth comes out, and players know whether you’re a fraud. They know whether you put in the time. And everybody in pro sports understands that intuitively, but more so in football.

The problem in the NFL is it’s a great meritocracy all the way until the owner gets involved. The owner, that’s not something you can change. And the real issue with the NFL, and it’s getting worse with basketball and baseball because the true equity values for the teams are getting so great, because live sports is the most valuable thing on TV. And so all of a sudden all the sports that were struggling through the years and had to win to make money, now are getting more like the NFL where you don’t have to win to make money. The greatest growth equity value teams are not necessarily the winners. In fact, if you think about the 49ers in the last 15 years since the Yorks owned the team, you’re talking about equity values that went from. I’m just rough now, $200 million in 2000 to well over maybe $2 billion. It’s like 10 times or more. It’s like in the Silicon Valley, that’s one of the great success story of any tech business anywhere.

And so that’s their A game. Their equity value in the team is their A game, it’s what drives them. It’s what drives most of the owners. It’s what matters. It’s what they think about. It’s what they talk about. And the B game, is whether we win some games. It’s not that, it doesn’t mean you don’t want to, or you don’t really want to, or it’s not really important, it’s just not the A game. And so when it’s not the A game, that’s the biggest issue with the NFL, success doesn’t track to success on the field. So you’re not held accountable.

So no matter what we decide to do here, and my opinion is when you’re 1-12 or 1-13 of if we end up 1-15, to me, by definition, everything in the parking lot, everything. Everybody, every living thing out to the parking lot. And nobody gets back in unless you can prove you’re part of the solution. I mean everybody. And that’s a tough thing to do because you might have to start over in all kinds of ways. But when you’re looking like you’re going to start in the revolving door of coaches and general managers and everything else, and the owners can’t, by definition, feel that rigor. They don’t feel that, even the people who love the team are like, “This everything, we’ve gotta, you know” and the people who are actually calling the shots, it’s not their A game. And so it’s like you kind of have to wait until they decide how they want to play it.

And the calculus is, should we start over? Should we wipe the place out? Should we leave Trent and then maybe do a coach? But that doesn’t look right because we kept a coaching carousel, so let Chip come. Who’s going to be with Chip? Because it’s all this calculus that has to go on. And it really, as an ex-player who’s been around a long time, it’s frustrating to watch. Because it’s never true merit, true everyone in the parking lot and you literally are barred unless you can prove your value that makes this thing move forward.

On Dilfer’s comments supportive of Baalke:

I mean, it’s OK. But the problem is is that there’s one job in football you’ve got to get right, and that’s quarterback. Every team that has no answer at quarterback, or is fading at that answer, let’s say the Rams, Phoenix, Chicago, Buffalo, I mean who else is just faded on that end and really has no answer? Those teams are the worst, they’re not going anywhere.

And so you give me all this grocery stuff, and I understand Trent has a great way of saying it, but the truth is, if you failed at putting that position in play, then you really don’t have a chance, no matter what you have around it. And that’s what we’ve seen, we’ve seen the floundering, because we don’t have an answer. We have nothing to build off of. But, you also don’t have leadership. Leadership is built by the personalities you put in the locker room, not just talent. So yes, you might have, and I guess Trent is right, talented guys and I guarantee you, you look at any NFL team they’re loaded with the best athletes in the world. I get that. But football is not won with just throwing out the best athletes in the world. And the best teams understand personalities and how it fits in their system. But the first thing you have to do is build the superstructure of who we are. What are we trying to do? Not just turn it over every year and just go get another guy, another coach, another player.

And the teams that are always good, and you go to the Patriots last week. They have built an incredible super structure. They get the most out of every human being because you get shamed on Wednesday when they fax you the game plan, fax, I can’t believe I just said fax. They email you the game, I said it because that’s what used to happen to me. You laugh. You laugh.

But when you get it on Tuesday night, and the whole thing is shredded, the whole thing from last week is shredded, and it’s a whole new game plan. Nobody else does that in the league. They’ve dumbed everything down because the CBA has taken away all the days with the coaches. You don’t get a chance to, we always talk about this, shorter training camp, you just, and football’s a glorified dance step. It’s how many times you do it. And it’s limited in football today, so coaches say I don’t have the time, and the guys don’t have the discipline, nor do they have the attention span to me to try and get the really complicated.

But the Patriots have leaned into that now for 15 years, and demanded that you go home and memorize — turn the TV off, turn the iPad off, and actually memorize, and if you don’t come memorized the next day, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will shame you. And Randy Moss talked about it, he goes, I never studied. All of a sudden I go to New England, I gotta go in or I get shamed.

So they develop this superstructure where they get the most out of everybody. Why do they always win? Because they’ve got it already in place. They know exactly what they’re looking for. And that leadership is already in place. So to be a champion again? We were there briefly. We had it for a brief moment, and it disappeared. And before it was just a little vein we hit. And I really believe that most teams every 10-to-15 years you do just by nature of drafting high and getting a bunch of guys, teams that don’t have that superstructure in place, who we are as a team, what’s our culture, what’s our plan, inevitably every 10-15 years, you hit a vein and you go. But it doesn’t have legs.

So we’ve got to develop what we had. We had it, the Patriots have it, there’s substantive teams in there that are always around the top. You can say Green Bay’s up and down, but they’re always, they’ve got it, they’ve got that leadership in there. Denver. I mean there’s just places it’s clear, and it’s been clear for a long time, if you’re going to be an upper echelon NFL team, there’s so much more to do than tell me that there’s a small differentiation against the players. That’s a small piece of the puzzle, no question, better coaching, you’re in charge. But unless you put that superstructure in place, that’s not about the coach, there’s this value that you have to make to what is a 49er? And that’s above the players, and above the coaches. And once you do that, now that’s what’s our, who are we? What does it mean to be a 49er? And that gets informed by the coach. And we get the leaders in the locker room, and those guys start to run the locker room. And then you have a chance to go win some games. Who cares what defense you play, who cares what offense you call. I’m telling you, it almost doesn’t matter. Look at the Patriots, it doesn’t even matter who plays. They just win. Now granted, they have one of the great players of all time, but I’m telling you, they’ve got the superstructure.

So, if you want to know about the 49ers, and you want blame, it’s all over the place. But it’s not one place. And until you can say to anybody, ‘What’s a 49er?’ — we knew what a 49er was for 20 years. We need to know again. What are the 49ers? What’s the long play? What’s the longterm play that we’re gonna have for who we are? And we’re gonna get people in place and we’re gonna bet on them for five, six, seven years. And we’re gonna get somebody who’s gonna bring in, we just gotta get … Or else we’re just gonna turn the turnstile like the other 15-20 teams in the league that are just turnstiles. Equity values are high. NFL’s insulated from any kind of economic downturns. The A game for all the owners has never been better. But there’s 15-20 teams that literally, they’re just on a merry-go-round. New guy, “oh yea!” The Rams, they’re gonna bring in, “I don’t know! Let’s make something happen.” Until they get all that in place, doesn’t matter.

On teams leaving the organization and not becoming good players elsewhere, contradicting Dilfer’s comments about it being the coaching:

I remember I was in Indianapolis a week and a half ago, when Frank Gore grabbed me, and he wanted to just scream and yell about it. He still, here he is, what, three years out from the NFC and he had so much emotion, negative emotion, about what’s going on and who’s in, and I will not break that confidence, but clearly, the guy is still super upset. Just grabbed me out of nowhere and wanted to talk about it. So something’s up. And it’s not just, it’s not simple. Now there’s no question, you need to develop players. So he’s not wrong, Trent’s not wrong. But that’s a small piece of the iceberg and would be foolish to think that’s the issue. The issue is bigger and broader and deeper.

By the way, I just said, that’s true for 15-20 teams as I go around the league. And some are developing, some are making this efforts. A team like Tennessee has made that kind of transition trying to figure out how to make it to the next spot. Oakland, who was horrible a couple years ago, been horrible for 15 years, seems to be happening, a group of guys in the locker room they’re developing the leadership. Got the quarterback, seems like that’s answered. You see that coming. It’s like, I called them Simba last Monday. They’re gonna be king, you can feel it, but they still have to do all the things to do it. But they have that, the coach, and the’ve got the consistency and the GM, and they’re kind of all on the same page, and that’s been happening for a while.

That’s where you start to see, otherwise you’re just the Chargers and the name ‘em, Detroit, Miami. Now, all of a sudden, maybe Atlanta, is it a vein that Atlanta hits? Because every once in a while, Atlanta hits a vein, and “hey, we’re pretty good.” And then well, we don’t know what we’re doing.

What is it that can really be staying power in the NFL? You lean into free agency, you lean into all the things that erode great football. You develop tremendous culture, you never give up on it. The Pittsburgh Steelers still, when I land in Pittsburgh for the Monday night game, and they talk about the defense. Even though they have horrible defense, “this is who we are, this is what we are.” But it’s like, you’re horrible, you’re terrible, it doesn’t matter. They sell off of it, this is who the Pittsburgh Steelers are. And so they’ve been good for a long time, an upper echelon team because they’re selling off something that very few teams have in history.

And they have a quarterback:

Thanks, Tom, for reminding me of my original point.