After the 49ers had their “mutual parting” with coach Jim Harbaugh in 2015, CEO Jed York and G.M. Trent Baalke met the media together. On Monday, one day after coach Jim Tomsula became the one-and-done replacement for Harbaugh, York and Baalke met separately with reporters.
Intended or not, it created the impression that Baalke is now on an island. And he seems to realize it.
“I appreciate the confidence that ownership has shown in me,” Baalke said. “But I also understand the gravity of the situation and understand exactly what this fan base looks for and what this ownership looks for. It’s the San Francisco 49ers. It’s about championships. It’s about being in a position to compete for championships. You’re not going to win it every year. That’s unrealistic to think that. But to put yourself in a position to is really the ultimate goal and that’s what we’re striving to do.”
Baalke’s comments seem far more pragmatic than those of his boss. Last year, York debuted the now-infamous “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” routine. York was at it again on Monday, setting the bar at a level that only one of 32 NFL coaches per year necessarily will meet.
“Are you in need of somebody who you’re comfortable with, who makes you feel good when you’re in a room with them?” York was asked.
“We’re in need of somebody that can win Super Bowls,” York said.
“So, personality doesn’t matter?”
“We’re in need of somebody that can win Super Bowls,” York replied.
“Didn’t you have that guy?”
“We haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1994,” York said.
He’s right. And what has happened in the last 21 years? Has the franchise folded? Or has it thrived financially, like every other franchise — including the ones that have won plenty of Super Bowls and those that still haven’t won even one?
There’s a delicate balance for every owner to strike between fan and businessman. Of course the goal is to win a Super Bowl. But to make that the only indicator of success can strip the organization of patience, make the 49ers a team for which no one with options will opt to work, and ultimately turn it into a bottom-feeding franchise with an annual quest far more quixotic than realistic.
Really, what coach wants to go into a franchise with: (1) five Super Bowl trophies already in the case; (2) an owner who demands more of them now; and (3) a roster that isn’t remotely close to even qualifying for the postseason tournament?
York’s attitude is a recipe for a door that will revolve until the 49ers accidentally stumble into the next Bill Walsh. And the next Bill Walsh had better win Super Bowls quickly, because if he simply puts the team in serious contention every year and then (God forbid) wants to be compensated accordingly, the 49ers will remind him (and everyone else) that he hasn’t won a Super Bowl and otherwise refuse to find a way to work around the personality quirks and overall intensity that helps make a coach good enough to win Super Bowls in the ultra-competitive NFL.
For now, it’s unclear where the 49ers will look for the next coach who will win a Super Bowl or at least get them close to one. Baalke said no interviews have been conducted, none have been scheduled, and there will be no in-house candidates for the job.
Baalke also strongly suggested that they want a coach with experience. Given that Mike Holmgren has won a Super Bowl, been to another, and wants back in as coach of the 49ers, it would make sense to at least give him an interview.
It would make even more sense to drop the whole “we expect to win Super Bowls” routine and replace it with something along these lines: “We understand how competitive the NFL is. Our goal is to be competitive every year. To have a chance to make it to the playoffs every year. To have a chance to get to the Super Bowl every year. And if it ever happens that we end up with the right coach and the right quarterback who can take us to multiple Super Bowl wins, we’ll do everything we can to provide them with the support necessary to win as many Super Bowls as they can.”
Until York understands the difference between those two messages, he’ll get plenty of practice in conducting postseason press conferences explaining the latest decision to fire a coach or a General Manager.