NFC West: Steve Mariucci

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Things I noticed while watching the San Francisco 49ers during their minicamp practice Tuesday at team headquarters:
  • A fully engaged Randy Moss. When Moss wasn't making impressive catches over defensive backs such as Chris Culliver, he was engaged in other ways. Moss worked with quarterbacks Alex Smith and Scott Tolzien off to the side during breaks. He easily could have stood and watched those portions of practice. When the receivers were moving their drill into an area occupied by defensive lineman, Moss jokingly instructed them to vacate the area. Such details mean little when isolated. Together, they validate what coaches and teammates have said about Moss to this point.
  • Patrick Willis leaving practice. The Pro Bowl linebacker wasn't injured. The team said Willis left for personal reasons. Larry Grant took over for Willis. All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman was not there at all. He had an excused absence.
  • Rookie A.J. Jenkins getting deep. The usual disclaimers about minicamps apply. Rules allow defenders to cover, but not to defend aggressively. Still, the 49ers had to like seeing their first-round choice get deep for a reception along the left sideline.
  • Michael Crabtree's hands. Coach Jim Harbaugh provided welcome blog fodder when he called Crabtree's hands the best he'd seen. It's going to be a news event when Crabtree eventually drops one. He bobbled one Tuesday. Crabtree made an impressive deep grab from Colin Kaepernick with a defender running close by.
  • A couple of drops. Chris Owusu and Garrett Celek were among the players dropping passes.
  • Frank Gore as a receiver. Gore uncharacteristically suffered from seven drops last season. He made an leaping grab against Ahmad Brooks in this practice. A wideout would have been happy to have made that grab.
  • Steve Mariucci in attendance. The 49ers' ex-coach was on assignment for NFL Network. He watched practice with general manager Trent Baalke.
  • Nate Byham's knee. The blocking tight end has returned from the knee injury he suffered a year ago. Byham is wearing a brace on his left knee. He was emerging as a top blocking back before the injury. Rules against contact during minicamps make it tough to gauge a player's power.
  • Carlos Rogers' debut. The Pro Bowl cornerback made his offseason debut after resting a calf injury previously.
  • A few guys watching. Delanie Walker, Ted Ginn Jr., Cam Johnson, Darius Fleming and Joe Looney did not participate for various reasons. Rules prevented second-round choice LaMichael James from attending because his college class at Oregon has not yet graduated.

That's if for the time being. Back in a bit.
The Mike Nolan era in San Francisco produced more heartache than the 49ers would care to revisit, but the long-term legacy isn't so bad.

Eleven draft choices, including eight current starters and five Pro Bowl selections, remain on the 49ers' roster from the Nolan era.

The other NFC West teams have a combined eight of their own draft choices from the same 2005-2008 window. That includes six starters and no Pro Bowl selections for the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams.

Improved coaching and ownership have helped San Francisco get more from its talent. The current personnel department has also fared well in continuing to build, adding high-impact draft choices such as Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman.

Overall, the 49ers have a division-high 38 of their own draft choices. The Seahawks are closest behind with 34, including 26 drafted since Pete Carroll became head coach in 2010.

In St. Louis, new coach Jeff Fisher inherits a young franchise quarterback in Sam Bradford, but he has only one Rams draft choice from 2005-2008: defensive end Chris Long. Consider this one more way to define first-year expectations for St. Louis relative to the expectations when Jim Harbaugh took over in San Francisco. Fisher inherits so much less.

Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Tarell Brown, Delanie Walker, Patrick Willis, Larry Grant, Joe Staley, Vernon Davis, Ray McDonald, Parys Haralson and Dashon Goldson remain with the 49ers from their 2005-2008 drafts. Gore, Willis, Staley, Davis and Goldson have achieved Pro Bowl status. Those five and Alex Smith, Brown, McDonald, Haralson and (sometimes) Walker started for the 49ers last season.

Leroy Hill, Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Ben Obomanu remain with Seattle from that era. The Cardinals still have Calais Campbell, Early Doucet and Levi Brown.

The chart breaks down NFC West draft choices by how many remain with their original teams and by the head coaches who welcomed those players into the league.

The 49ers have two players from the Dennis Erickson era (punter Andy Lee, defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga) and one from the Steve Mariucci era (snapper Brian Jennings). They are the only team in the division with a draft choice remaining from five head coaches ago (Jennings). The Rams have one player, Steven Jackson, remaining from the Mike Martz era (four coaches ago).

Update: I reduced by one the total for the Rams under Fisher to reflect the fact that Cortland Finnegan was a Fisher draft choice in Tennessee, not St. Louis.

The San Francisco 49ers twice lost close games against New Orleans in the Superdome when the Saints were allegedly eavesdropping on visiting coaches from 2002-2004.

Coincidence? Evidence of malfeasance?

"There’s something missing here," said Bill Polian, the ESPN analyst and former longtime NFL executive. "I don’t know what kind of competitive advantage you can get."

The report by "Outside the Lines" cites people familiar with the Saints' game-day operations as saying Mickey Loomis, the Saints' general manager, had the ability to monitor opposing coaches from his private box during home games.

NFC West teams played three games at the Superdome during the period in question.

The 49ers suffered a 35-27 defeat at New Orleans in 2002 after the Saints outscored them 22-3 in the fourth quarter. They also suffered a 30-27 defeat there in 2004 after Aaron Brooks found Donte Stallworth for a 16-yard touchdown with 1:01 remaining. Also in 2004, the Seattle Seahawks claimed a 21-7 victory at New Orleans.

The NFL has already suspended Loomis, a former longtime Seahawks executive, for the first eight games of the 2012 season as punishment for his handling of the Saints' bounty situation.

The allegations against Loomis are damaging whether or not the Saints realized any in-game advantages.

"Mickey would have to know the verbiage of every other opposing team in order to translate it, and then he would have to do it instantly and find some way to communicate with his coaching staff and get it down to the field in time for it to be useful," Polian said. "That would be very difficult to do, in my opinion."

The Saints have strongly denied the allegations.

Steve Mariucci (2002) and Dennis Erickson (2004) were the 49ers' head coaches for the NFC West defeats in question. Erickson and Loomis worked together in Seattle years earlier.

Another NFC West alum, Jim Haslett, was the Saints' head coach at the time.

For the record: How Harbaugh streak rates

November, 18, 2011
Elias Sports Bureau has corrected information on the longest winning streaks since 1970 for first-time NFL head coaches.

The San Francisco 49ers' Jim Harbaugh ranks tied for fourth on the list with seven consecutive victories. His team would have to win its remaining regular-season games to tie Jim Caldwell for the top spot.

The chart breaks out the leaders. Just passing along.

Ronnie Lott witnessed one of the greatest coaching jobs in NFL history during the Bill Walsh years in San Francisco three decades ago.

The Hall of Famer thinks the 49ers' current coach, Jim Harbaugh, might be doing something more spectacular in leading the team to an 8-1 record against all expectations.

"This might be the greatest coaching that I've ever seen in the history of the game of professional football," Lott told Sirius NFL Radio recently. "It's his first [season as an NFL head coach] and not only is he hitting it out of the park but, man, he's hitting all the notes. Everything that you can think of, he's done."

Lott pointed to the 49ers' ability to play well and win under a first-time NFL head coach following a lockout-shortened offseason. The turnaround from eight consecutive non-winning seasons has been striking. Kenton Wong of ESPN Stats & Information put together a Harbaugh-related packet with the following key points:
  • Stanford went from 1-11 the year before Harbaugh arrived as head coach to 4-8, 5-7, 8-5 and 12-1 over his four seasons at the university.
  • The 49ers brought back most key players, notably Alex Smith, from a team that went 6-10 last season. Their eight victories this season match the rest of the NFC West combined. The 49ers have a .889 winning percentage, compared to .296 for the rest of the division. They are plus-95 in points. The rest of the NFC West is minus-198. The 49ers have one more road win (four) than the rest of the division combined.
  • Smith is on pace for career bests in yards per attempt (7.2) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (3.7).
  • Harbaugh's seven-game winning streak is tied for second longest by a rookie head coach since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Ted Marchibroda's Colts won nine in a row in 1975. Bobby Ross' Chargers won seven straight in 1992. Chuck Knox's Rams (1973) and Nick Saban's Dolphins (2005) each enjoyed six-game streaks. Corrected info from Elias: Steve Mariucci won 11 in a row during the 1997 season, his first with the 49ers. And Jim Caldwell went 14-0 with the Colts in his first season. Those are the two longest streaks.

This is the best start for a rookie NFC West coach since Mariucci's 49ers opened the 1997 season with an 11-1 record. They finished 13-3.

Mike Martz's St. Louis Rams went 8-2 to open the 2000 season. Mike Holmgren's Seahawks opened the 1999 season with an 8-2 record.

I've put together a chart showing NFC West head coaches' first-year records since 1997, excluding interim coaches.

Around the NFC West: Who gets the credit

October, 20, 2011
NFL coaches and personnel people tend to be very much attuned to the credit/blame handed out for putting together their teams.

They should be. Their jobs often hang in the balance.

Terry Donahue, Steve Mariucci, Scot McCloughan, Mike Nolan, Mike Singletary, Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh were responsible to varying degrees for putting together the suddenly world-beating San Francisco 49ers. Some helped more than others. Some arguably did more damage than good.

Matt Maiocco of points out which current 49ers players joined the roster under which coaches and personnel people. Noted: Teams often don't get enough credit for the moves they decide against making. The 49ers have shown restraint in free agency over the last few years, taking care to maintain balance in the locker room by rewarding their own deserving players, such as Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis. They could have gone after Nnamdi Asomugha this past offseason and many of us would have supported such a move, but they've done quite well with the much cheaper Carlos Rogers, and they didn't set a new pecking order in their locker room with his signing. The 49ers could have thrown money at Aubrayo Franklin and Dashon Goldson. They could have re-signed Takeo Spikes. Every one of those moves would have drawn public approval. Instead, the team paid Ray McDonald, promoted NaVorro Bowman and let the market settle on Goldson before re-signing him at a reduced rate. It's impossible to know how the season might have played played out had the team acted differently, but a 5-1 record makes every move appear a little wiser.

Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat details what goes on during quarterback meetings.

Bay Area News Group has a story about 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree tweeting that a Raiders fan police officer pulled him over and caused him to miss his flight.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with Rams receiver Mark Clayton, who is returning from the physically unable to perform list. Clayton: "It's been a complete year since I've done anything team-oriented and practice-wise. I'll feel like a college freshman kind of coming back in and getting started with everything again."

Also from Thomas: Sam Bradford remains hopeful about playing Sunday despite a sprained ankle. Thomas: "It occurred on the Rams' last offensive play of the game against Green Bay. Basically, the entire pocket collapsed on him and he got hit from a few angles. There was such a heap of humanity that game tape doesn't really show exactly how Bradford's left ankle was hurt."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic looks at what options the Cardinals had in signing a No. 2 receiver opposite Larry Fitzgerald. Somers: "I think it's unfair to place a ton of blame on the two receivers for the failures in the passing game. Quarterback Kevin Kolb has struggled the past three weeks, both with accuracy and decisions. The protection has been leaky. And there have been too many drops by everyone -- receivers, tight ends and running backs. It's important to note, too, that this offense is built differently than those in coach Ken Whisenhunt's previous four seasons. The Cardinals have threats at tight end, and everyone assumed the acquisition of Todd Heap would mean fewer opportunities for the second and third receivers. But the Cardinals have had trouble getting the ball to Heap and rookie Rob Housler, who have the skills to make catches deep down the middle. Those kinds of completions would relieve pressure on Fitzgerald, too."

Also from Somers: The Cardinals have made a couple of unnamed offensive tweaks, typical for a bye week.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren has no plans to coach again, according to what Holmgren told Sports Radio 950 KJR in Seattle. Holmgren on how long he plans to be with the Browns: "It’s hard to tell for sure, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be 10 years. We still have our home in Seattle. And like I said, the kids are there, the grandkids are there. And I don’t think they are going to be moving anywhere too soon. So our vision is to kind of get back to that area at some point. Exactly when that is (I don’t know). I would like to see improvement here and lay the foundation here so they can feel good about their team again before I make any changes at all." Noted: Holmgren's use of the word "they" to describe the Browns could simply reflect him adopting a Northwest mentality when speaking with people he knows from Seattle. It also could reflect his previously stated desire to have stayed with the Seahawks.

Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times is past the point of rehashing what precipitated Holmgren's departure from the Seahawks, and what it means now. Me, too.

Clare Farnsworth of provides an update from practice, noting that Tarvaris Jackson was a limited participant.

NFL Power Rankings: How they voted

October, 18, 2011
The last season in which the San Francisco 49ers fielded a playoff team, they peaked at No. 2 in ESPN's NFL Power Rankings.

That was way back in Week 11 of 2002, when Steve Mariucci, Jeff Garcia, Terrell Owens and Garrison Hearst defined the 49ers' identity.

The 2011 team is gaining ground quickly. Four consecutive victories, three of them on the road, have vaulted the 49ers of Jim Harbaugh, Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis to a 5-1 record and No. 4 standing in our rankings entering Week 7.

That is the 49ers' highest ranking since ranking tied for fourth in Week 12 of the 2002 season. They rose five spots this week, moving past New Orleans, Detroit, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Oakland.

"They are the real deal this year and have won more QUALITY games than any team playing," 81sanfranman wrote.

The 49ers have beaten three teams that currently have winning records (Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Detroit). They also won on the road against preseason NFC favorite Philadelphia.

"There will be some very hard words if the NFC West guy doesn't place the 49ers either No. 2 or No. 3," Hypchucky9 wrote. "We lost to the Cowboys, the Patriots lost to the Bills and the Ravens lost to the Titans. If the rankings are usually about power with regard to talent and efficiency, you would be hard bent to put us lower than No. 3."

The NFC West guy (that would be me) ranked the 49ers fourth. No one else ranked them higher. The Packers are the obvious No. 1 team. New England is more firmly established as a top team, and the Patriots have the better quarterback. Baltimore has won convincingly over teams that have periodically appeared among the top 10 this season (Pittsburgh, Houston and the New York Jets).

The 49ers are on the rise. They opened the regular season at No. 26 and have climbed from 16th to ninth to fourth over the past three weeks. They visit Baltimore in Week 12 and play a Monday night home game against the Steelers in Week 15. They'll have opportunities to move up even more.

Before taking a closer look at the rankings heading into Week 7, I'll pass along comments from our voters covering issues that stood out to me from their ballots.
  • Kuharsky downs San Diego: Paul Kuharsky ranked San Diego only 16th, 10 spots lower than anyone else ranked them. He pointed to the teams the Chargers have beaten while acknowledging San Diego cannot control its schedule. Kuharsky: "San Diego is definitely due for a big jump from me. I had them 12th before the bye and felt I needed to move up Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, the Giants and San Francisco. So, the Chargers suffered for it. Generally, I am reluctant to move a team up off a bye. Tennessee was also off and also suffered -- dropping from 10th to 15th."
  • Walker has Chargers' back: James Walker ranked the Chargers fourth, higher than anyone ranked them. Walker: "The Chargers aren't elite, but they are beating the teams on their schedule. I also like the fact they're starting fast this season, because the Chargers are notoriously slow starters."
  • Clayton on the Bengals: John Clayton, on why he has the Bengals only 21st, nine spots lower than Kuharsky has them: "Even though they are 4-2, the Bengals have won games against teams that are 7-16. They have been helped by the schedule."

OK, here we go ...

Rising (11): San Francisco 49ers (+5), Chicago Bears (+4), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+4), New York Giants (+3), Arizona Cardinals (+2), Baltimore Ravens (+2), Cincinnati Bengals (+2), Oakland Raiders (+2), Kansas City Chiefs (+1), New York Jets (+1), Philadelphia Eagles (+1).

Falling (8): Dallas Cowboys (-6), Houston Texans (-5), Washington Redskins (-5), Buffalo Bills (-4), Detroit Lions (-2), Minnesota Vikings (-2), New Orleans Saints (-2), Carolina Panthers (-1).

Unchanged (13): Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Tennessee Titans.

Deadlocked: We broke one tie this week. San Diego prevailed over Pittsburgh at No. 7 based on the second tiebreaker, overall record.

Like minds: All five voters ranked the Packers first and the Patriots second. Four ranked the Ravens third.

Agree to disagree: Twelve spots separated high and low votes for the Chargers. Five other teams produced high-low disparities of at least eight places. Let's take a look:
  • Chargers (12): Walker ranked them fourth, higher than anyone else ranked them. Kuharsky ranked them 16th, lower than anyone else ranked them.
  • Jets (9): Walker and Fox 13th, Sando 22nd.
  • Bengals (9): Kuharsky 12th, Clayton 21st.
  • Giants (8): Kuharsky eighth, Walker 20th.
  • Bears (8): Sando 10th, Kuharsky 18th.
  • Redskins (8): Fox 12th, Sando 20th.
Power rankings histories: These colorful layered graphs show where each NFL team has ranked every week since the 2002 season.

Ranking the divisions: Teams from the NFC North rank 12.3 on average, ahead of teams from the runner-up AFC North (13.0). The chart below shows how each voter ranked each division on average. Highest votes in red. Lowest votes in blue.

A voter-by-voter look at changes of at least five spots since last week:
  • Sando: Redskins (-8), Giants (+5), 49ers (+5), Bucs (+7).
  • Clayton: Redskins (-5), Giants (+5).
  • Kuharsky: Texans (-6), Titans (-5), Bengals (+6), Giants (+7), 49ers (+8).
  • Walker: Texans (-7), Redskins (-7), 49ers (+5), Bucs (+7).
  • Fox: Texans (-7).
For download: An Excel file -- available here -- showing how each voter voted this week and in past weeks.

The file includes a "powerflaws" sheet pointing out potential flaws in voters' thinking by showing how many higher-ranked opponents each team defeated this season. None of the top nine teams this week has defeated a team ranked higher in the standings. Buffalo, ranked No. 10, has defeated two teams ranked higher, New England and Oakland.

A quick primer on the "powerflaws" sheet:
  • Column Y features team rankings.
  • Column Z shows how many times a team has defeated higher-ranked teams.
  • Change the rankings in Column Y as you see fit.
  • Re-sort Column Y in ascending order (1 to 32) using the standard Excel pull-down menu atop the column.
  • The information in Column Z, which reflects potential ranking errors, will change (with the adjusted total highlighted in yellow atop the column).
  • The lower the figure in that yellow box, the fewer conflicts.

Tracing Ray Horton's coaching roots

February, 9, 2011
The Arizona Cardinals hired Pittsburgh Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton as defensive coordinator because they wanted to model their defense after the one the Steelers ran under coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Horton has worked with LeBeau for 12 of the past 14 NFL seasons.

The chart traces Horton's coaching roots back to his first job, under Norv Turner in 1994.

Thoughts on Ray Horton's hiring

February, 9, 2011
Thoughts after the Arizona Cardinals announced Pittsburgh Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton's hiring as defensive coordinator:
  • Horton has paid his dues. He's been a secondary coach or assistant secondary coach for each of his 16 seasons on NFL coaching staffs. A natural question: Why didn't he advance more quickly? One potential reason: Horton's bosses kept leaving the game. He has worked for Bruce Coslet, Steve Mariucci and Bill Cowher over the years. Those guys haven't been in position to help him get better jobs elsewhere.
  • The Steelers allowed Horton to reach the final year of his contract. They made sure linebackers coach Keith Butler remained on staff, presumably as their future coordinator. The Cardinals also wanted Butler first. That may or may not reflect negatively on Horton. It might just mean these teams prefer Butler.
  • Horton gives the Cardinals the Pittsburgh flavor they've sought for their defense. That could give the team a more focused vision regarding the players Arizona seeks through the draft. Coach Ken Whisenhunt should be more comfortable with this defensive coordinator.
  • Horton spent seven seasons under Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh and four seasons under him in Cincinnati. Ron Lynn was the defensive coordinator when Horton broke into the NFL as an assistant with the Washington Redskins in 1994. Norv Turner was head coach. Kurt Schottenheimer was defensive coordinator when Horton was coaching the secondary for the Detroit Lions under head coaches Marty Mornhinweg and Steve Mariucci.
  • The Cardinals have invested substantial sums in their secondary. Adrian Wilson and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are coming off disappointing seasons. Horton must get more from them. Horton coached Hall of Famer Darrell Green, who has worked with Rodgers-Cromartie during offseasons.
  • Arizona was among eight NFL teams that went into the 2010 season with an offensive-minded head coach and a defensive coordinator running a 3-4 scheme. Six of the eight defensive coordinators had backgrounds coaching linebackers. One traced his coaching roots to the defensive line. The Packers' Dom Capers was the only one with a background in the secondary. He had been a head coach twice before joining Green Bay.

The Cardinals have a news conference set to begin momentarily. Back with more in a bit.

What happened to the flagship 49ers

February, 3, 2011
STEVE YOUNGUS PresswireThe 49ers haven't won the Super Bowl since Steve Young held the Lombardi Trophy on Jan. 29, 1995.
DALLAS -- Sixteen years have passed since Steve Young defined his legacy while leading the San Francisco 49ers to their fifth Super Bowl championship.

The 49ers haven't been back to a Super Bowl since and they haven't even sniffed the playoffs since 2002. That was four head coaches and one interim coach ago.

Ten quarterbacks have started games for the 49ers since 2000; the number was 12 for the previous 19 seasons, and two of those guys are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The losing and instability stand in stark contrast to the standards two other proud franchises, Green Bay and Pittsburgh, have set in reaching this Super Bowl. The Packers and Steelers have weathered downturns and gotten stronger.

What happened to the 49ers? Who deserves the blame? Why? What will it take to restore the 49ers' status? Those were the questions I asked on the blog Wednesday. There was no shortage of material in the comments section, but one of the shortest answers summarized most of the feelings.

"Bad ownership picking bad leadership picking bad coaches picking bad talent," Claatuop wrote.

Total system failure, in other words.

It's the ownership

Green Bay and Pittsburgh feature arguably the strongest, most stable ownership situations in the NFL.

The Packers have had the same basic philosophy toward personnel since Ron Wolf became their general manager in 1991. Wolf has long since retired, but the Packers' current GM, Ted Thompson, learned under him. Green Bay has likewise run a version of the West Coast offense since Mike Holmgren became their coach in 1992.

The Steelers have had three head coaches since 1969.

The 49ers enjoyed stable ownership until legal troubles forced Eddie DeBartolo Jr. to give up control of the team in 2000. The team posted winning records under coach Steve Mariucci in 2001 and 2002, but Mariucci was out after that season and the team hasn't had a winning record in any season since.

"For the 49ers, it all comes down to ownership," caseytb4949 wrote. "After the Eddie DeBartolo fiasco, ownership of the team transitioned to his sister, Denise, who had little interest in the 49ers. Her husband, who exerted practical control of the team, was and is not a football guy. What's worse, his ego was such that it precluded him from hiring sound football minds. He hired an inexperienced GM, Terry Donahue, and forced out a winning coach in Steve Mariucci. His GM then went on to completely gut the team's talent."

Harsh words, but the evidence supports the general idea, minus the ego part. Quite a few comments suggested the 49ers have put business before football since DeBartolo's departure.

"It was 'Eddie D' leaving and the departure from the Bill Walsh coaching/personnel tree," kingjames988 wrote. "When you move away from what made you great, you almost always end up with less success."

John York and Denise DeBartolo York have handed control of the team to their son, Jed. Jed York, as team president, has shown he values the 49ers' past and the values that made the organization great, but there's little evidence to this point he knows how to return the team to its previous standing.

Its' the leadership

The 49ers have bounced from one leadership team and front-office model to another.

They've handed over total control to a head coach (Mike Nolan). They've had a GM (Scot McCloughan) work with a head coach (Mike Singletary) who had final say over the 53-man roster. They've gone without a GM (after McCloughan left the team abruptly last year).

The current setup is more traditional, with new coach Jim Harbaugh working under new general manager Trent Baalke.

Frequently shifting leadership has made it tougher for the team to develop players and maintain a consistent philosophy. Bad luck has compounded matters, as when offensive coordinators Mike McCarthy and Norv Turner took head coaching jobs.

The 49ers sustained Walsh's philosophy on offense and overall, at least to an extent, into the last decade. But Walsh's influence was eroding all the while. And when Donahue took over as general manager in 2001, Walsh was available only as a consultant. He was out of the organization by 2005 and died in 2007.

"Going from Walsh to Donahue was a complete swing-and-miss, and he fired Steve Mariucci after a year where the Niners went 10-6 and won one of the most epic playoff games of all time," Joey Barrows wrote. " 'Mooch' was perfect for the Niners and bad management messed that up."

What started as a reasoned explanation turned into a more emotional rant mentioning Dennis Erickson, Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, the York family's ownership, Turner and Mike Nolan. It concluded with, "And don't get me started on Mike Singletary. Dear Lord."

It's the coach

Walsh set the standard. George Seifert sustained the legacy. Mariucci maintained offensive continuity. They all won.

The 49ers haven't had a winning season since Mariucci lost an internal power struggle.

Singletary projected strong leadership, but he had never been even a coordinator, let alone a head coach. Nolan had never been a head coach, either. In retrospect, the 49ers could have benefited from more seasoned leadership on the sideline, particularly without more experienced leadership in the front office.

"It seems that every department performed poorly after Mariucci left," catterbu wrote. "There is also a certain chicken-egg sort of scenario that has taken place. Instability with coaching leads to poor development of players since the same coaches are not there for very long, which leads to poor performance and firing of the coaches. It's the cycle that must be broken. I think that many of us 49ers fans still love the team, but have almost grown numb to the pain."

Harbaugh has succeeded as a head coach at the college level. He has expertise on offense, something the 49ers haven't had in a head coach since Dennis Erickson replaced Mariucci. The 49ers ranked fifth in yards and ninth in points under Erickson while going 7-9 in 2003, but they parted with quarterback Jeff Garcia after the season.

Which leads to the next problem area.

It's the quarterback

[+] EnlargeJerry Rice
Justin Kase Conder/US PresswireFormer 49ers receiver Jerry Rice says the team's instability at quarterback has been a major reason for it's lack of success in recent seasons.
One of the greatest 49ers, retired receiver Jerry Rice, offered his thoughts Thursday morning between appearances on ESPN. He pointed to management problems and the 49ers' decision to draft Alex Smith over Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers with the first overall choice in 2005.

"I mean, there are certain draft choices that you make or you don't make and it's going to cost you," Rice said. "This guy (Rodgers) was right there at Cal. He wanted to be a 49er. But we decided to pass on him and go with Alex Smith. This is not all his fault, but Alex Smith at Utah was more of just a shotgun passer. That is a whole different scenario there. Then with him having so many offensive coordinators and stuff like that, it was major."

The 49ers won at least 10 games in every non-strike season between 1981 and 1998. Young played only three games in 1999 before retiring.

Joe Montana and/or Young were the quarterbacks during that brilliant run from 1981-1998. The 49ers had limited success with Jeff Garcia in subsequent years, but they haven't acquired or developed the right quarterback. Sometimes it's that simple.

"The Niners were once a team that was built upon a strong mixed offense," SFDM12 wrote, "but over the years they have had some key ingredients, but always lack one important piece: a stable quarterback that can handle the pressure and deliver."

Having the wrong quarterback magnifies problems that might not matter so much otherwise, whether it's losing a coordinator or making a mistake in the draft. Rice thinks the quarterback issue is even bigger now than when he played, because players are less apt to rally around a lesser one.

"When I played the game, if it was not Montana or Young, I had to do whatever I had to do to make that guy under center better, and I took pride in that," Rice said. "But with the guys today, they are not going to do that. If they feel you are not capable of doing it, they are not going to waste their time. You are done. It's a whole different generation of guys. I'm not saying they don't love the game, but I could tell with the Niners that they did not feel confident that this guy was the leader and they could win games with him."

For that reason, and because the 49ers have pretty good talent elsewhere on the roster, Rice said he thinks the 49ers should pursue a veteran quarterback.

The road back

The 49ers' ownership isn't likely to change. The leadership and coaching positions appear set.

Quarterback remains a massive question mark.

Harbaugh has a five-year contract and a clear offensive philosophy. He should be able to offer some continuity on offense, at least. And he has said he'll reach back into the West Coast tradition Walsh established three decades ago.

"That was the philosophy he was using at Stanford," Rice said. "It is very simple where these players can just go play football. I think that is going to help. I think having a GM in place is going to help because it takes some of the pressure off Jim Harbaugh."

They will, of course, need the quarterback.

"Since the hiring of Nolan, they have at least tried to do the right thing, and the roster talent has grown immensely," WakeTripper wrote. "With Jed at the helm, there seems to be a new attitude, more similar to the 'Eddie D' days. And now, capped with the hiring of Harbaugh and his desire to bring back the West Coast Offense, us longtime fans can at least have hope that the Niners can regain their team identity and return to their former status as one of the great teams in the league."
The San Francisco 49ers wanted Jim Harbaugh and will get him, marking a badly needed victory for team president Jed York and the organization.

ESPN's Adam Schefter initially used the phrase "expected to" when reporting news of the five-year agreement, a wise choice of words given the twists and turns associated with Harbaugh's various candidacies for jobs with the 49ers, Miami Dolphins and others. The 49ers has subsequently called a news conference for 6:30 p.m. ET.

When Harbaugh signs the deal, York and the 49ers will have scored a bottom-line victory in a bottom-line business.

Their handling of the searches for a general manager and a head coach opened them to criticism at times, but getting their guy was all that mattered in the end. The terms of the deal, reported as five years and $25 million, meant the 49ers were not lowballing Harbaugh when they offered about $5 million per season, even as the Dolphins reportedly offered $7 million to $8 million.

The 49ers now appear to have shown admirable restraint and patience.

Can Harbaugh coach? The success he enjoyed at Stanford suggests he can.

Will that success translate to the NFL? Many factors beyond Harbaugh's on-field coaching will determine whether he succeeds with the 49ers. He'll have to find a quarterback, put together a staff, help identify talent in the draft, manage personalities, communicate effectively and more.

The 49ers can worry about those things later.

For now, they can celebrate landing a high-profile coaching candidate amid significant doubts. For the first time since they hired Steve Mariucci, they have a young, ascending, offensive-minded head coach -- exactly what they wanted.

49ers have that home-grown flavor

April, 28, 2010
The 49ers have 39 of their own draft choices on their roster, five more than the league average, with 34 entering the NFL under Mike Nolan (20) or Mike Singletary (14).

This is largely a home-grown team.

The chart lists 49ers draft choices still with the team, broken down by drafted round.

Andy Lee, Shawntae Spencer and Isaac Sopoaga remain from the Dennis Erickson draft classes. Eric Heitmann and Brian Jennings remain from the Steve Mariucci classes (another player, cornerback Keith Smith, was drafted by the Lions when Mariucci was their head coach.

Why haven't the 49ers been more active in free agency? One reason: They like their current draft choices more than they did a few years ago, so they see less need to cover for draft mistakes.

Around the NFC West: Vick to the Rams?

January, 15, 2010
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wonders whether Michael Vick could be an option at quarterback for the Rams. Thomas: "As long as Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb are in Philly, Vick won't get a chance to start for the Eagles. But what about St. Louis? What seemed totally far-fetched last summer, as Vick was about to get out of prison, no longer seems like such a longshot in St. Louis. Because Vick remains under contract with Philadelphia, Rams general manager Billy Devaney can't speak publicly on the topic. But Devaney has consistently said the team will explore all options to improve the club. He has made it a point in interviews to note that the 'four pillars' approach is being softened this offseason. In other words, the Rams are more likely to take a chance on a so-called 'character-risk' player than last year at this time. Devaney worked for the Atlanta Falcons before coming to St. Louis, so he's very familiar with Vick. In fact, Devaney visited Vick in prison while Vick was serving 18 months for running a dogfighting operation."

Also from Thomas: The Rams have signed tight end Eric Butler and linebacker Dominic Douglas. Thomas: "Briefly promoted to the 53-man roster for a few days in late November following fullback Mike Karney’s neck injury, Butler spent the rest of the season on the Rams’ practice squad. Douglas spent seven games on the Rams’ active roster, and five weeks on the practice squad."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times shares what he expects to happen with the Seahawks' coaching staff. Defensive line coach Dan Quinn is expected to stay. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley also could stay. One thing to note: New coach Pete Carroll was with the Vikings when Monte Kiffin was there in the late 1980s. Kiffin mentored Bradley in Tampa Bay. That's part of what Carroll meant when he referred to the defensive coaching lineage he shares with some assistants from Jim Mora's staff.

Jason LaCanfora of says colleague Pat Kirwan could join the Seahawks as an assistant to new coach Pete Carroll, but not as a leading decision-maker. LaCanfora: "Carroll remains interested in close friend and former NFL personnel executive Pat Kirwan to be a part of the organization, but sources said the analyst wouldn’t be in a top personnel role. Instead, he would be an assistant to the head coach should he come to Seattle."

Bob McManaman and Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic check in with Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin, who missed practice again while recuperating from a sprained ankle. Boldin: "Everything is the same, nothing has really changed. It's better than it was a couple days ago, though, so I'm optimistic."

Also from Somers: Ken Whisenhunt and Sean Payton have turned around losing programs.

More from Somers: Expect Karlos Dansby to rake in big bucks this offseason. The $9.678 million Dansby earned this season wasn't bad, either.

Bob Young of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' pass rush could be key against New Orleans. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis on Drew Brees: "He's such a quick decision-maker, and a guy like that, the ball is going to be out of his hand before you get to him. A lot of teams in the NFC tournament right now have quick decision-makers with high accuracy and a lot of weapons to go to. It's tough to sack guys like that. You can have the worst offensive line in the world - and they've got a good one - and he'll still make a quick decision and get rid of it. That's going to be a big challenge for us."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee updates the 49ers' search for a special-teams coach, noting that Bobby April took a job with the Eagles. That means former Eagles special-teams coach Ted Daisher is available. Bruce DeHaven, the Seahawks' special-teams coach in recent seasons, also appears to be available.

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says his All-Pro vote at tight end went to Vernon Davis. Maiocco: "What pushed it over the top for me in Davis' favor was his blocking. In my opinion, he was the best all-around tight end in the NFL in 2009." Hard to disagree, although Davis' expanded role as a receiver meant he wasn't as involved in blocking. Davis was at times a dominant pass protector in 2008.

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says former 49ers coach Steve Mariucci would be a good choice as the next coach of the Raiders. Kawakami: "For a while Tuesday, it looked as if USC was about to hire Mooch. But stunningly, Lane Kiffin swooped in from Tennessee to grab the Los Angeles mega-job. Believe me, nobody is more startled by this development than Al (Davis), who loves the USC program and, to put it mildly, does not love Kiffin. But now Mariucci is without a team. Gee, is there one out there? Mariucci has a good history with skittery quarterbacks, so Al might be able to envision a solid Mooch-JaMarcus Russell pairing; plus, with his 49ers background, Mariucci could sell some tickets."

Wrap-up: 49ers 28, Rams 6

January, 3, 2010
The 49ers got what they needed Sunday: a victory to finish 8-8 and a reminder that there's still much room for improvement.

Finishing with a non-losing record was important for San Francisco because it showed progress in the big picture. The 49ers had posted losing records every season since the 2002 team went 10-6 with Steve Mariucci, Jeff Garcia, Garrison Hearst and Terrell Owens.

They are not losers any longer. The culture has officially changed.

Still, this game against the now 1-15 Rams was a struggle offensively for much of the game. Alex Smith passed for 23 yards in the first half and the 49ers had some problems in protection. They broke open the game late -- almost an inevitability given the state of the Rams -- but there should have been enough rough edges to get the 49ers' attention.

That can be a good thing for the 49ers. They do need to improve across the board on offense. That was clear in the first half Sunday and previously this season.

The Rams, meanwhile, can finally move past this season. They were ascending through the season's first half until injuries destroyed their already tenuous depth. They generally played hard and fought through the season's second half, but there wasn't much left to give. They'll have the No. 1 overall choice in the 2010 draft. They'll need to decide how to find their next quarterback. Will they take one first overall? Might they find a reasonably priced veteran stopgap?

It's tough to envision Marc Bulger returning under a contract scheduled to pay him $8.5 million.

The team must figure out a plan at quarterback while focusing on adding playmakers at wide receiver and even tight end. They also need help on every level of the defense.

Sounding off: NFC West on the airwaves

November, 5, 2009

Posted by's Mike Sando

The latest in our periodic spin around the NFC West radio dials:

101ESPN St. Louis: analyst Jim Hanifan

101ESPN St. Louis: reporter Jim Thomas

101ESPN St. Louis: reporter Brian Stull

101ESPN St. Louis: Trey Wingo (on Steven Jackson)

101ESPN St. Louis: center Jason Brown

101ESPN St. Louis: La'Roi Glover

101ESPN St. Louis: tight end Daniel Fells

101ESPN St. Louis: defensive end James Hall

101ESPN St. Louis: guard Mark Setterstrom

101ESPN St. Louis: Steve Spagnuolo (video)

101ESPN St. Louis: Marc Bulger


KNBR680: Mike Singletary

KNBR680: Dashon Goldson

KNBR680: snapper Brian Jennings

KNBR680: reporter Matt Maiocco

KNBR680: Steve Mariucci

KNBR680: Steve Young

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