If hot seats could be cranked up in temperature according to absolute blame, the man with the chapped ass would be John York. He’s the one who put his son in charge of the family business, the San Francisco 49ers of Santa Clara, and Jed has allowed suite-and-club-level greed to fester in his hinterlands stadium at the expense of player behavior, professionalism, attrition, agronomy, sanity and, by extension, the product on the football field.
But the owner and his wife, Denise DeBartolo York, won’t be firing their kid, though the long-deposed Uncle Eddie surely wouldn’t fight the concept. And the kid won’t be firing general manager Trent Baalke, who couldn’t get along with a successful coach, Jim Harbaugh, and is such an erratic talent evaluator that his unearthing of Jarryd Hayne — via YouTube — is trumped by the embarrassment that no one from his 2012 draft remains on the roster.
Jed and Trent have created this fiasco. They still haven’t shown they can grow grass, let alone keep their players off the police blotter. As the season opener approaches next Monday night, linebacker Ahmad Brooks remains on the active roster despite being charged last month with misdemeanor sexual battery. Of all this franchise’s missteps, none is more alarming than allowing players to suit up for games after they’ve encountered serious trouble with the law (see McDonald, Ray; Smith, Aldon). Keep in mind that the NFL office, under commissioner Roger Goodell’s new disciplinary protocol for personal conduct, investigates each case and has not yet determined that Brooks belongs on the Commissioner’s Exempt List. Still, the 49ers continue to look bad on an intensely volatile issue because Jed and Trent rarely sit in front of microphones to take questions about this and, really, anything else happening in the franchise.
They leave it to their spokesman, new coach Jim Tomsula.
To be polite, he is not remotely prepared for the role or the burden, not that many men would be.
Thus, Tomsula has the hottest of seats in what is expected to be a dismal, if not disastrous, four months in Levi’s Stadium. Jed and Trent have positioned their longtime defensive line coach to be a stuffer in the trenches, absorbing all body blows from fans and commentators who already have spent the calendar year barbecuing this franchise from every direction. He is paid handsomely, $14 million over four years, to remain upbeat and paint a happy picture, such as the gush he delivered when asked about the team’s state entering Week 1.
“Our team, right now, in my opinion, is a team that’s in a good place. Guys that are working really hard,” Tomsula said. “There are things that we need to take advantage of these days and get more work on. Which we are. But I really like the team. I really do. It’s a team. I’ve always thought a collection of great talent that can put something bigger [together] than themselves. I think this is a team that’s a talented group and a group that is really into the team concept. I see them hanging in the locker room together, just those things you look for. I see that going on and that’s very exciting to me. There’s a whole general group that just enjoys working with each other.”
It all sounds very nice. That said, a word to the wise about York and Baalke: Don’t let them hide behind Tomsula, who, in an example of his everyman charm, calls himself “the only fat guy on the field.” It’s possible Jimmy T has absolutely no idea what he’s doing and will make for an easy target for critics — the way a similar no-name, Dave Campo, was in Dallas when Jerry Jones grew weary of high-maintenance coaches — but please never forget that Jed and Trent hired him. They could have brought in an offensive mind like Adam Gase, now in Chicago. They could have promoted their respected defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, also in Chicago. They could have dipped into the college ranks for Jim Mora Jr. or David Shaw. They could have made a pitch at Jon Gruden. Instead, they chose an outlier who never had been an NFL coordinator, much less a full-time head coach.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say he’s being set up to fail. But if Tomsula flops, his dismissal will be convenient for Jed and Trent, who can’t fire themselves though they happen to be Problems No. 1 and 1-A.
So, already sensing his fate, I find myself rooting for Tomsula. He inherits an unprecedented situation in the modern era of pro football, losing the gutted core of a roster that helped the 49ers to three straight NFC championship games and a Super Bowl. The talent and leadership drain has led to an almost unrecognizable team. A squishy-squashy offensive line, without Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati, will endanger Colin Kaepernick, who has not learned the art of quarterbacking in the pocket and may happy-foot and turnover-pile his way out of a starting job. There is one linebacker of note, that being NaVorro Bowman, and while he has exhibited remarkable strength and patience in recovering from a shredded knee, he can’t play defense by himself. The only way this team has a shot is by riding a Run-and-Hyde strategy, via running back Carlos Hyde, the most reliable weapon in an offense that didn’t score a touchdown in eight preseason possessions. If he pounds the ball effectively, then Kaepernick can use gadgets such as deep threat Torrey Smith, third-down back Reggie Bush, double tight ends Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald and, of course, rugby warrior Hayne.
But that doesn’t mean Kaepernick will stay upright, after his 52 sacks a year ago, or play very well. Blaine Gabbert, heretofore viewed as the league’s worst backup quarterback, may be pressed into service quicker than you think, either by injury or ineffectiveness. All of which will place more pressure on a defense severely weakened by the losses of Smith, Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and Justin Smith. Frank Gore, a level-headed 49ers cornerstone for years, spent the preseason telling one and all about the wonderment of his new quarterback in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck. “He runs meetings like a coach. Basically, I’m playing with a coordinator on the field. He’s a football God,” Gore said. “He sees everything, and he sees the big picture of everything.”
If it sounds like an indictment of Kaepernick, it probably is. “He’s different. He knows what’s coming,” Gore said of Luck. “He lets me know when [there’s] something I don’t see. He’s just different. How he’s in the huddle, off the field, in the meetings, he runs it. He runs the show, even in the offseason, he ran it. One day he had running backs, the next day he has receivers. He’s just different.”
Asked if he’d heard Gore’s remarks, Kaepernick said no. He seems oblivious to everything. “There’s not any concern on this team,” he said.
Oh, but there should be. The 49ers have one of the season’s most difficult schedules, compounded by a league-high 27,912 flying miles. Once among the most experienced teams, they’re now the seventh-youngest. America’s bettors have responded in kind, with wagering against the Niners so heavy that they’ve dropped from 4½-point favorites to 2½-point underdogs Monday night, when fresh-legged Adrian Peterson arrives with much-improved Minnesota.
Worse still, they’re expected to wear those hideous black alternate uniforms.
If nothing else, the look will blend sufficiently with the impending doom.