At the conclusion of the 49ers’ historically awful 2-14 season, CEO Jed York to hit the reset button on his stumbling franchise, firing general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Chip Kelly on Sunday.
York’s decision is another drastic step for a 49ers franchise that has been in a tailspin since letting go of Super Bowl-caliber head coach Jim Harbaugh at the end of the 2014 season.
The 49ers will now have to hire their third head coach in as many seasons. York will have to pay two former coaches — Jim Tomsula and Kelly — millions to not helm his team. He’ll have to pay another coach a hefty sum to take on his reclamation project in one of the NFL’s most volatile front office atmospheres.
York will also have to convince a new general manager that they can turn this team around, and he’ll likely have to pay handsomely. He will also likley need to relinquish some of the precious control and power he had while Baalke did his bidding. After all, no true football mind would be crazy enough to willingly step into Santa Clara under the pretense that York will be micromanaging his decisions.
But despite all that, the firing of Kelly and Baalke has given the 49ers something that they haven’t truly had since the departure of Harbaugh — a fresh slate.
The 49ers have a legitimate chance to rebuild their franchise in a new direction now. Not a Baalke-controlled direction like the last two years have been. But a legitimate, bonafide, brand-spanking-new direction.
Of course, York’s most important hire will begin with who he’s able to convince to be his general manager. But his departure from Baalke has opened up more new doors for the team than perhaps any head coach could have.
It was Baalke who continued to draft so poorly that he sunk the 49ers from a Super Bowl contender to a No. 2 overall pick in just three years. It was Baalke whose personality not only pushed out the last great head coach that the 49ers had, but who continued to limit their ability to find and hire a capable replacement. And it was Baalke who was unable to entice any prevalent free-agent to the 49ers, despite their massive cap space this last offseason.
With Baalke gone, York has the ability to hire someone who can fix these issues. He needs to find a guy well-respected in the NFL, someone who is able to draft and scout talent, and someone who can form positive working relationships with both players and coaches, providing more opportunities for the growth of the team in what’s sure to be the most important offseason for the future of the franchise in a really long time.
Will mystery-GM be able to draft a wide receiver? Will he be able to entice key veteran players to stay on his roster? Will he be able to put aside his ego to work with strong personalities? Will he be able to restock the 49ers roster with talent?
Maybe. But there’s at least a lot better chance this happens with whoever walks through that door rather than who was formerly in it.
York’s decision to part with his longtime confidant is also significant in its own right.
A lot of blame has been heaved York’s way because of the crumbling state of the 49ers. And rightfully so. But his willingness to get rid of Baalke has shown that even he’s had enough.
I believe that York truly wants to win now, something I may not have said at the beginning of the year. But his willingness to step away from Baalke, and to pay three head coaching salaries in an effort to turn his franchise around, shows a genuine level of care for the state of the 49ers.
Whether his eagerness to win again is business-related is another topic. But you gotta start somewhere.
Baalke’s leash was long. This call was probably three years too late when York had to decide between Harbaugh and his front-office mate. But it finally happened, and for that, we can all have a little unbridled hope.
Unfortunately for Kelly, however, his leash was not as long. And he was tied up in Baalke’s failures just as much as his own.
The former head coach inherited a lowly 49ers roster that was only further depleted as the injury bug sent 19 player to the injury reserve list throughout the course of the year- including star linebacker NaVorro Bowman early in the season.
It’s hard to say that Kelly really had a fair shot with the team. But it’s also fair to say that, despite the level of talent and injuries that occurred throughout the year, Kelly didn’t really do much to prove that he deserves to stick around for another year.
Under Kelly’s watch, the 49ers defense went on to allow the most total yards, rushing yards and points allowed in franchise history. Sure, losing the best player on your roster to injury in Bowman is sure to hurt, but Kelly offered little in the way of explanations or potential fixes to his historically bad unit throughout the course of the season.
And for someone who is supposed to be offensive-minded, having the league’s 31st ranked offense, who averaged just 308.1 yards per game while scoring just the 27th most points in the league, doesn’t really bode well for your ability to sell your coaching prowess in that category.
Kelly’s tenure with the team will go down as significant for a multitude of reasons.
Any time you want to complain to people, you’ll be able to tell stories of how you toughed it out during the winter of 2016, where you watched the worst 49ers team in recent history lose 13 games in a row under Kelly’s watch.
But you’ll also be able to say that Kelly’s failure to coach this team into a few more wins was the straw that broke York’s seemingly unwavering determination in keeping his front office intact.
Because of that, January 1, 2017 wasn’t just the start of a new year, it was the start of a potentially new era for the San Francisco 49ers.