Rodgers to Tomsula: The York mess

Welcome to the intersection of Dysfunction Avenue and Despair Way, site of the erector-set stadium where Taylor Swift finally went home and let the grass grow again. Here we find a convergence of repeated organizational failures that always lead back to one family name in every bungled circumstance.

Every. Damned. One.

Why is Aaron Rodgers, the better-than-Brady gold standard at the most important position in team sports, playing for Green Bay and not the 49ers? Why is Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers’ only successful coach the last dozen years, now creating prosperity at Michigan? Why was general manager Trent Baalke, who chooses his best-rated player on his weird draft board (regardless of need) and appears to have no clue what he’s doing, allowed to win the power struggle over Harbaugh? Why is Jim Tomsula, who approved a shotgun formation from his own end zone (leading to a safety) and appears to have no clue what he’s doing, serving as 49ers’ coach after Harbaugh led them to three conference title games and to within five yards of the NFL championship?

All dots connect to a York.

Jed or John or Denise, or all of the above.

The Super Bowl is coming in all its golden, 50th-anniversary glory. But to incensed Niners fans dumping their Stadium Builder’s Licenses, 2015 is the 10-year reminder of how their team owned the No. 1 pick in the draft … and took Alex Smith over Rodgers. It established a pattern that would define the franchise for the next decade — when in doubt, select serviceability or mediocrity over potential greatness — and it only would be fitting if Rodgers, son of Northern California and Berkeley, turned his first Levi’s Stadium experience into another personal masterpiece. He has become one of the planet’s biggest athletes, his status in the all-time quarterbacking order dependent on how many Lombardi trophies and MVP awards he wins between his age-31 season and retirement. Including all the greats, Joe Montana and Dan Marino and the rest, Rodgers might be the most complete quarterbacking package, with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning only wishing they had his combination of maneuverability and a cannon arm. Even in Wisconsin, they know he’s better — because he’s smarter — than his gunslinger predecessor, Brett Favre.

“We’re seeing a great player in a great stretch of his career,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy.

“It’s like watching Michael Jordan in his prime,” said Scott Tolzein, who, as Rodgers’ backup, may as well be a suite-holder.

Said Rodgers: “I’m not worthy of that comparison. I enjoyed watching Michael. I was a big fan as a kid.”

Rodgers is savvy enough to be a politician. He is brazen enough to speak his mind, cracking on Seattle’s God-crediting Russell Wilson with this comment after a victory over the Seahawks last month: “I think God was a Packers fan tonight, so he was taking care of us.” He is dating an actress, Olivia Munn, and they communicate often on social media about having as much sex as possible except on game days — to the point Rodgers was scolded by a gay columnist for “shoving his heterosexuality in my face.” Better still, he doesn’t have a “gate” attached to his name and has shown no evidence of needing shrunken footballs to aid his production. His numbers at Lambeau Field suggest he’s the greatest home-field quarterback ever, and there’s no reason to think he and the Packers won’t return to Santa Clara on Feb. 7.

So, why didn’t the 49ers see these possibilities in April 2005? Well, maybe because the two Yorks who owned the team, John and wife Denise, had allowed a storm of dissension to weaken the front office. Bill Walsh’s hand-chosen GM, Terry Donahue, didn’t get along with coach Dennis Erickson. Donahue also had issues with the Yorks. Erickson and Donahue were fired after the 2004 season, and the Yorks gave too much personnel control to their new head coach, Mike Nolan, who, as time would tell, shouldn’t have been the coach much less the acting GM. Like many NFL evaluators, he was torn between Rodgers and Smith … until a pre-draft interview in which Aaron showed a little too much confidence for Nolan, a disciplinarian who wore suits and ties on the sideline. Nolan liked the breezier Smith, as did the Yorks. There was some input by a young 49ers offensive coordinator, name of McCarthy, but not enough to matter.

The rest is infamy.

“I really don’t play those what-if games,” Rodgers said. “[Smith] went to San Fran, had a lot of different coordinators there, and I came here. … I’m happy where I’m at.”

McCarthy became head coach of the Packers the following year. He inherited Rodgers, helped facilitate the delicate transition from Favre and turned Rodgers into a legend. “They were both great prospects,” McCarthy said. “It was neat going through the process of the evaluation with both those guys. Obviously, it was a tough decision. It was made by people above my pay grade.”

It also helped that Rodgers was a backup behind Favre for three seasons. Smith became the starter in Week 5 of his rookie season for a team that would finish 4-12. He would have six offensive coordinators in his 49ers career, and it took Harbaugh’s arrival — there’s that magical effect again — to coax Smith’s best performances before Harbaugh also made the dramatic decision to replace a well-performing Smith with Colin Kaepernick in 2012. Smith moved on to Kansas City, where he is a fairly good QB but not blessed with the downfield arm to win the big one.

Where would the 49ers be today if they’d drafted Rodgers? Would he have clashed with Nolan, been diminished by the Yorks and had to deal with all those coordinators? Or would he have been so good, from the beginning, that the 49ers would have benefited from his long-term greatness? What we do know is that the Rodgers-to-Jordan comparison isn’t far off, for the reasons Rodgers states when speaking of his admiration for MJ.

“I think something inside him felt he wanted to put on a show every time he went out, because there was somebody in the stadium that hadn’t seen him play before,” he said. “The last game that he played in Sacramento, I was in the top row, and it was kind of a late-addition ticket. He scored 33 points that night. He always brought his A-game every night.”

Here in the Tomsula era, forced by son Jed York’s regrettable ouster of Harbaugh, Kaepernick’s game has regressed to the point that he soon may be playing for his future. It was alarming to hear Arizona defensive backs describe the 49ers as passing-game novices, with Tyrann Mathieu saying the playbook has been so simplified that it was easy to know what was coming in a four-interception, two-pick-six debacle. The situation was demoralizing enough for Kaepernick, who should be beyond complete meltdowns in his fourth starting season, that Tomsula waved off the passing game for a while.

“If you were in basketball, you would have called a timeout. Really, that’s the easiest and honest way I can say it,” the coach said.

Consider it another sign that Tomsula and his coordinator, Geep Chryst, are learning on the job. Given the monstrous ticket prices the 49ers charge, no head coach should be allowed time inside an incubator.

That, too, is a Jed York screwup.

“I keep going back to it, but we’re a work in progress,” Tomsula said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Is this is a rebuilding season, then?

“I’m not willing to go there. No, sir,” Tomsula said.

Please explain exactly what this is.

“Own it, fix it, move on. We don’t need that on a billboard,” he said.

The man with the billboards, actually, is Harbaugh. Predictably, he has made immediate progress in Ann Arbor, which means the dreaded scenario already is upon the 49ers’ bosses. The coach they dumped is doing great.

And the owner who dumped him — first name: Jed; last name: York — is a Bay Area pinata.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at Read his website at

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