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San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

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After the Gold Rush

The once-proud San Francisco 49ers have been one of the worst teams in the NFL this season. Unfortunately for fans, the franchise’s problems run far deeper than this year’s coach, roster, or record.

Outside of the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium on Sunday morning, a man glanced skyward and cackled. He wore a red "FIRE BAALKE" T-shirt and had taped two handmade "FIRE BAALKE" signs to the side and rear windows of his Honda, and as he pointed up at a plane tugging a "JED, YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW #FIREBAALKE" banner over the tailgate lots, he said, "I can’t take credit for that one!" Ricky Helton is a longtime season-ticket holder who owns a NINERZ1 license plate, and in Week 14, he appeared delighted not to be alone in requesting that San Francisco CEO Jed York relieve general manager Trent Baalke of his duties. These days, with only the winless, hapless Cleveland Browns sporting a worse record, rooting for the one-win Niners mostly means rooting for massive organizational change.

It was only four seasons ago that the Niners lost by three points in Super Bowl XLVII, and advancing deep into the postseason was no one-season fluke: San Francisco also played in the NFC championship game the year before and after. Since then, however, the organization has parted with two head coaches, including Jim Harbaugh, who went 44–19–1 during his tenure. The team’s current coach, Chip Kelly, has yet to deliver the fireworks he was hired to bring. Lately, he has spent more time fielding press conference questions about his job security than he’s ever spent picking out visors.

Colin Kaepernick, once an exciting, scrambling quarterback and one of the NFL’s rising stars, now attracts more attention for pregame protests than in-game prowess. The team has allowed 30.2 points per game, worst in the NFL. Levi’s Stadium, the billion-dollar-plus facility that hosted the most recent Super Bowl, is increasingly empty. (It’s a good thing the seats are a festive Niners red.)

And many of the fans who are still showing up share a common refrain: This isn’t just about Kelly, or the underperforming one-two punch of Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert, or that one particularly embarrassing 45–16 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 6. This Niners season betrays front-office egos and ownership meddling; exposes a player-development process that does not seem to have developed many players; and illustrates the distinction between running a profitable, splashy business and running a winning team.

Blaine Gabbert, the 49ers’ original starting quarterback this season (Getty Images)
Blaine Gabbert, the 49ers’ original starting quarterback this season (Getty Images)

On weekends, the Silicon Valley office parks and hotel clusters around Santa Clara tend to loom conspicuously empty, like shiny, abandoned Olympic venues. Nearby, Levi’s Stadium sits next to an amusement park, some hotels, and not much else. The facility is 40 miles south of the 49ers’ famous former venue, Candlestick Park, but the disconnect between the team’s past and present isn’t only physical. These 49ers are a team with no clear identity.

During a bad season, there’s a logical progression of people to blame. There are the players, who drop balls and miss blocks, and there is the head coach, who calls dumb plays and smacks his gum in hi-def TV in an increasingly bothersome manner. There’s the general manager, who is theoretically responsible for having hired all the guys mentioned above, and there’s ownership, which can range from a shadowy Wizard of Oz entity to a controversial, omnipresent face. The worse the franchise, the further the blame needs to reach.

The 49ers, at 1–12, do not have a good roster. Kaepernick was pulled in the fourth quarter of an early December game against the Bears, having thrown for 4 yards on the day, and yet he continues to start because the team’s original 2016 starter, Gabbert, is worse. (You know things are bad when there are calls to take a look at young journeyman Christian Ponder, who is on his fourth team in six seasons.) Some of the top offensive talents who led the team during its deep playoff runs a few years back — receiver Michael Crabtree, running back Frank Gore — have since left via free agency. (Crabtree now plays for the Bay Area’s good team, the resurgent Oakland Raiders.) These Niners rank in the bottom five in yards per game, and because that impotent offense forces the already mediocre defense to take the field much more than it ought to, many losses have devolved into blowouts. The team’s only win came in Week 1, against a laughingstock Los Angeles Rams team that has since fired its coach.

The grim offensive output is particularly frustrating considering Kelly’s background. At the University of Oregon, Kelly was known for his freewheeling style, innovative schemes, and swagger. (He was frequently hailed as Big Balls Chip.) His three-season tenure with the Eagles was a mixed bag that included an NFC East title but also a power struggle over personnel decisions and control. But the high-octane play-calling on which he built his reputation has not been present this season. If it weren’t for the weakness of the roster, and the fact that this is only his first year with the team, there’s a good chance that his seat would be even hotter than it already is.

But Kelly hasn’t yet been in San Francisco long enough for the critiques to turn truly bitter and personal, the way they have toward Baalke and York. Baalke has been with the team since joining as a scout in 2005, has overseen the 49ers drafts since 2010, and was promoted to general manager in 2011 just before the Niners hired Harbaugh. In his first year as GM he won PFWA Executive of the Year honors as the 49ers broke an eight-season playoff drought.

But as the team has struggled over the past few seasons, the GM’s stock has fallen precipitously, and his departure is starting to feel like a real possibility. A Sunday report from CBS’s Jason La Canfora painted a bleak picture of Baalke’s future with the team, and on Wednesday, CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco suggested that Baalke may already have a landing spot lined up in Denver. Even Baalke’s defenders, like former 49ers quarterback Trent Dilfer, have managed to make things somehow worse: On Tuesday, Dilfer compared players to "groceries" and said it was the responsibility of the coaching staff, and not Baalke, to "develop, you know, to make the dinner and get the most out of the flavor of those players." Now Baalke’s name has made its way onto a derisive plane banner, a dishonor that until this season was typically reserved for York.

York is in his seventh season as team CEO and is the scion of a family that has owned the club since 1977. He has established himself as the face of the franchise on the business side through his dogged involvement with the fundraising and development of Levi’s Stadium. And while his parents, the team’s co-chairmen, remain mostly behind the scenes when it comes to the football side of things, York’s job involves being present day-to-day. As a result, he has become the target of criticism in all sorts of forms: from "fatherly advice" to derisive inflatable dongs. And then there are the planes.

A 49ers fan (Getty Images)
A 49ers fan (Getty Images)

Sunday wasn’t the first time that fed-up fans had chartered a snarky flyby over Levi’s Stadium. Last November, a plane bearing the message "JED & 49ERS SHOULD MUTUALLY PART WAYS" did loops above Santa Clara. A month later there was a new sign: "HOLD JED ACCOUNTABLE." Both slogans were ostensibly in reference to one of the more memorable press conferences in 49ers history, the December 29, 2014, gathering in which York and Baalke addressed the prior day’s breakup with Harbaugh. York and Baalke variously described what happened as "a mutual parting of the ways," "a mutual parting," "a mutual decision," and "fairly mutual." Between the two of them, they said the words "accountable" and "accountability" some 20 times.

This fall, when Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami characterized the atmosphere around the Niners as "a frothy mix of Monty Python farce, ‘Big Brother’ plotting, Stalin-era revisionist history, and of course, the patented Jed York/Trent Baalke spin-machine leak-o’-rama," he was referring in large part to Harbaugh’s final season. In the four years he coached the 49ers, Harbaugh made it to three conference finals and a Super Bowl. He earned AP Coach of the Year honors for the 2011 season. Early in his tenure, he supposedly jogged and played racquetball with Baalke. But his relationship with team management grew increasingly strained, and nearly a full year before his departure reports unflattering to Harbaugh began leaking out of the organization.

In February 2014, just weeks after the Niners went to their third straight NFC championship game, news broke that San Francisco had nearly traded Harbaugh to the Cleveland Browns, and CBS Sports reported that Harbaugh and Baalke were barely on speaking terms. Early in the 2014 season, Deion Sanders said on the NFL Network that the players wanted Harbaugh out. ("Personally, I feel that’s a bunch of crap," Harbaugh replied.) And Harbaugh’s reported issues with management weren’t limited to Baalke. The juiciest unconfirmed nugget of the whole affair didn’t make its way into the public sphere until the following summer, but it involved York walking into the room during a team meeting and Harbaugh telling him it was for "men only." The team finished 8–8 that season and missed the playoffs, giving the front office a perceived opening to make the move.

"We don’t raise division championships banners," York said at the December 2014 press conference. "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." The team’s record since he said that is 6–23. The URL for the GoFundMe account that raised money for the latest plane flyby this past Sunday included the phrase "MoreBannersThanJed."

And once again, the phrasing — YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW — appeared to be inspired by real-world events. Two months after his ouster, Harbaugh denied that the parting was mutual, and when after just one season the Niners fired Harbaugh’s replacement, longtime team assistant Jim Tomsula, announced via terse written statement, Harbaugh tweeted: "Do not be deceived. You will reap what you sow."

San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick (Getty Images)
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick (Getty Images)

If ever a game underlined the way this season has gone for San Francisco, it was Sunday’s clash of the titans against the Jets. This one actually seemed winnable: Like the Niners’, the Jets’ recent history is littered with the smoldering wreckage of discarded quarterbacks, cast-aside coaches, embattled GMs (one even got the plane banner treatment!), and a new stadium. Under Rex Ryan, the Jets went to, and lost, consecutive AFC championship games in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, a memory that seems so long ago. New York entered the Niners game with as many wins on the season — three — as quarterbacks it had started.

A Jets fan in a Namath jersey tried to bring a DRAFT BOWL sign into the stadium, but security deemed it a prohibited item. Earlier in the morning, as a tailgater waiting for the parking lot gates to open stood spread-legged on the back of his pickup truck spraying lighter fluid onto a big black industrial grill, the Mad Max: Fury Road vibe seemed appropriate for this sort of dystopia. A few feet away, a woman in a knit 49ers dress and a Santa hat discussed the latest rumor du jour — that the Yorks were thinking of bringing in someone like Mike Shanahan to oversee football operations — with a friend in a gold Starter jacket.

The 49ers, who rank in the bottom third of the league in interceptions, picked off Jets whatever-string quarterback Bryce Petty on his very first throw. They led 14–0 just a few minutes in. San Francisco running back Carlos Hyde scored a touchdown and ran for 141 yards in the first half. At halftime, cute little dogs did Frisbee tricks on the field. Rain threatened but never came. For a couple of hours, life was good. Then, bit by bit, everything crumbled, just as this whole season has.

It’s hard to say what was worse: that Kaepernick threw for 4 yards in the second half, or that when Jets coach Todd Bowles was asked postgame what his team had done to shut down the Niners offense, he began with: "Well, we didn’t do much." A Jets drive in the fourth quarter lasted more than eight minutes and culminated in a touchdown and a successful two-point conversion. In the final minute, New York tied the game with a 50-yard Nick Folk field goal. There’s no cheering allowed in a press box, but at this point there were a whole lot of snickers and groans. Many fans began filing up the stadium steps toward the exit before overtime even began, knowing how it was likely to end. They were right.

When Kelly opted to go for it in overtime on fourth-and-two from the Jets’ 37 yard line, it seemed like he might be up to his old Big Balls Chip tricks. But then he sent Hyde straight up the middle, a dud Red Rover attempt that ended with the running back, and the Niners’ slim hopes of some small celebration, totally stuffed. "It doesn’t really matter," Hyde said after the game when asked about his performance. "I’d take the win over the stats any day. I really wanted to win that one. I wanted to win all of them."

49ers GM Trent Baalke (Getty Images)
49ers GM Trent Baalke (Getty Images)

Hyde has rushed for 879 yards this season and is one of the few positives in Baalke’s draft history, which began when GM Scot McCloughan left the organization a month before the 2010 draft in what York termed a "mutual parting." (Now the Redskins general manager, McCloughan opened up in late 2014 to ESPN The Magazine’s Seth Wickersham about the struggles with alcohol that led to his departure from both the Niners and from the Seahawks after that.) McCloughan remains widely respected as a keen assessor of prospective talent, and many of his San Francisco draft picks, like Crabtree, Gore, and Vernon Davis, were crucial parts of the 49ers’ deep runs from 2011 to 2013. But by then, Baalke was the one reaping the benefits of positive association.

This season, however, has provided ample evidence that Baalke has struggled to make franchise-improving decisions. Baalke has characterized the 49ers as a "draft and develop" team rather than one that seeks to be aggressive in free agency. But his draft history has mostly ranged from unexceptional to, as in 2012, downright bad. He has been at the helm for long enough that the Niners roster now reflects his player personnel choices — and that Niners roster scares no one. Meanwhile, his skill set beyond the draft appears equally limited. Two of the most important decisions an NFL GM makes is who should be coach, and who should be quarterback. Tomsula’s one-year tenure and Kelly’s inauspicious start do not make for a good recent track record, and the team’s situation at quarterback is no better.

And even situations that might be bright(er) spots, like the season Hyde is having, or the recent five-year contract extension for Vance McDonald, have dark linings. In Hyde’s draft, Baalke considered trading up to pick Odell Beckham Jr., but deemed the price too high. Two days after McDonald signed, the tight end suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the Jets game. It’s unfair to cherry-pick these bits of hindsight and ascribe blame for an injury, but few San Francisco supporters are looking to give Baalke the benefit of the doubt. Instead, they’re left wondering why York has.

49ers CEO Jed York (Getty Images)
49ers CEO Jed York (Getty Images)

The Niners haven’t won a Super Bowl since the 1994 season, when York’s uncle and godfather, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., still owned the team. DeBartolo presided over five Super Bowl wins; he also pleaded guilty to a felony charge related to a riverboat gambling license. (The plea deal, which was part of a larger case against corrupt former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards, prompted Edwards to deem DeBartolo "the Linda Tripp of Louisiana.") And though his legal troubles did not prevent DeBartolo from being named to the NFL Hall of Fame earlier this year, they did cause something of a family schism back in the late ’90s.

In 1997, during the course of his legal issues, DeBartolo transferred the team’s majority ownership to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, who had previously been a part owner and president of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and who has her name engraved on the Stanley Cup. But by 1999, the siblings were locked in a legal dispute involving tax attorneys, debts, a couple hundred million dollars, real estate holdings, and the 49ers. An angry DeBartolo said then that he hadn’t chosen York as his sister: "Genes did that."

The team remained in the hands of York and her husband, John. In 2000, in a rare public interview, York lashed back in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle. "You know what I resent the most from all of this?" she said. "I didn’t ask for any of this to happen. It fell into my lap: the 49ers, the accusations, the scrutiny, all of it." In late 2008, the Yorks appointed their oldest son Jed, then 27 years old, to be team president. "I am here by six every morning and stay until late at night," he told Haute Living magazine the following summer. "Because it’s not my team. It’s not my family’s team. It’s our fans’ team. Because if they are not supporting us, if they don’t believe in what we are doing, then our team doesn’t exist."

But it is his team. The radio report suggesting that York might lose some of his football operations control was refuted days later by NBC’s Mike Florio. The question with York probably isn’t about his level of influence and control, but how he will learn from and use it. York is still a young executive who has spent the majority of his career working closely with Baalke, who publicly supported his ownership earlier this season, and who has, in turn, benefited from York opting to maintain the status quo at GM. But York is running out of football justifications for continuing to do so.

In October, after the brutal Buffalo loss, York’s cousin Lisa sent and later deleted a pair of tweets critical of the team and of York specifically. And DeBartolo’s recent Hall of Fame speech, which was more than 3,000 words long, went into great depth about the importance of family, but did not include his godson and nephew by name. All he said was, "I’m also privileged to be joined by my sister, Denise, and her wonderful family today."

As the team has gotten worse, the discrepancy between its profitability and its product has widened. Season-ticket holders have seen the value of their personal seat licenses sink. And on Wednesday, 49ers great Steve Young brought up these tensions on the radio, remarking that while the York family had undoubtedly boosted the price of their franchise, they have done so at the expense of the things that should really be valued.

"[The Yorks’] equity value in the team is their A game. It’s what drives them," Young said. "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. … That’s the biggest issue with the NFL, is that success doesn’t track to success on the field. So you’re not held accountable."

There’s that word again: accountable. In a testy exchange during the December 2014 no-more-Harbaugh press conference, several reporters had pushed back on York’s continued lip service to that idea. The implication was that York might be holding Baalke to a different standard.

(Katie Baker)
(Katie Baker)

So Jed, you have a coach that just averaged over 12 wins a year in four years. What will the expectation be for a coach coming in?

Jed York: "To win the Super Bowl."

Right away? In Year 1?

J.Y.: "We expect to win the Super Bowl every year. That is our goal."

And is that a reasonable expectation? So, what if that coach doesn’t win the Super Bowl in the first couple of years?

J.Y.: "Then we’re going to have to figure out if that’s the right fit."

Jed, is Trent accountable for that then? He hasn’t won a Super Bowl.

J.Y.: "Absolutely. Absolutely he’s accountable."

So when does that start coming into play?

J.Y.: "Do you have a stopwatch?"

Niners fans have been watching the clock ever since, waiting to see when those words will be backed up by action. Jesse Mendez, a season-ticket holder who is part of the die-hard "Empire Row" tailgate consortium, is the type of supporter who faithfully arrives at the stadium around 7:15 a.m. on a game day. "If they’re doing good, you gotta get here earlier," he said. But even he is reaching a breaking point. "If it’s the same GM," he said, "I’ll probably not come out to the games next year. I’ll still have my season tickets, because I’ll never let those go, but I’m not going to support this with money inside the stadium."

Helton, the man with all the FIRE BAALKE paraphernalia, said he didn’t think he could go that far. "Hey, I’m not a boycotter," he said. "I show up for the players." The open question among 49ers fans is when, or whether, the organization’s leadership will get back to giving those players the same support.

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