Are The 49ers Cheap?

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The 49ers have finally and painfully assembled their coaching staff, reportedly reaching a deal with QB coach Geep Chryst to be the new offensive coordinator—but only after being turned down by at least four other candidates. That's a pattern, and it is one that hints at a worrying gameplan in Santa Clara.

When the 49ers broke with Jim Harbaugh, they also fired every assistant save one. It was a clear message from CEO Jed York that the failures of this season lay on Harbaugh and his coaches, and not on the roster assembled by GM Trent Baalke. It was the final shot in the years-long power struggle between Harbaugh and Baalke, and the GM clearly won out. But a funny thing happened: the Niners, eschewing or failing to land big names to fill their vacancies, ended up retrieving and promoting their own cast-offs. Chryst moved up to OC; Eric Mangini, who had been the tight ends' coach, was bumped up to defensive coordinator; and Jim Tomsula, management-friendly (but not camera-friendly) defensive line coach, received the head coaching gig.


It was the OC spot that was the hardest to fill. Before settling on (for?) Chryst, the 49ers talked to—and were likely turned down by— Rob Chudzinski, Lane Kiffin, Adam Gase, even Eagles WR coach Bob Bicknell. None could be convinced to come aboard. Why?

Coaches gossip, for one. There isn't a coach around the league who doesn't know at least something of what it's like to work under York's watchful eye and Baalke's meddlesome hand. The Mercury News's Tim Kawakami, who's never shied away from covering the team's backroom politics, goes in hard on the rudderless Niners and how the front office's haste to exert its dominance has stuck it with a bad reputation:

Now it's clear: Letting go of Harbaugh was the plan. That's it: Get rid of the guy who gave them all palpitations. Nothing more. There was no other thought put to this beyond dumping their nemesis and for that they planned and plotted and leaked for months and months.

Once they got rid of Harbaugh, you could see the relief washing over York and Baalke, and yet...

There was no plan beyond that.


So with that in the air... with Baalke's half-joking declaration of the team's offensive style out there... with Tomsula's stumbling media performances out there... with the overall sense that the 49ers were dismissive of the value of good coaching out there...

With the good assistants who left this staff — fired, jumped, whatever — landing on other staffs and telling everybody about the 49ers' atmosphere...

Well, that's how Adam Gase, Lane Kiffin and Chudzinski (among others) all can decide to pass on the 49ers.


Just because Jim Harbaugh isn't a pleasant man to work with doesn't mean his old bosses aren't unpleasant men to work for.

But there's a second possible reason the Niners' staff is all familiar faces and NFL Europe refugees, and if there's any truth to it, 49ers fans will not be happy with the direction the team appears to be taking. The theory was first raised by Steve Berman, writing at Bay Area Sports Guy, who noted that the team has gone from the well-compensated Harbaugh, who had the most expensive assistants in the NFL, to Tomsula, who is one of the league's lowest-paid coaches and likely has a staff to match.


It's in line with the York family's history.

The Yorks went from Steve Mariucci (Eddie's hire) to Dennis Erickson (cheap — a college guy who wanted one more shot at the pros) to Mike Nolan (cheap — a coordinator who also served as the team's GM until that idea proved disastrous) to Mike Singletary (cheap — no tangible experience besides looking and talking like a badass after a badass playing career) to Harbaugh (not cheap) to Tomsula (bottom-five-in-the-NFL cheap).


Then, Tuesday, Bleacher Report's Jason Cole (who was plugged in on the Harbaugh stuff from the beginning), went on the radio and just said it outright: the 49ers are being cheap.

"If you're only paying Tomsula three (million dollars), that gives you an indication of where you are in paying assistants. And I heard this before they hired Tomsula, that they're going on the cheap on the assistant coaching staff," said Cole.

"They don't believe in paying coaches right now. The word around the league in talking to people who are both coaches and who represent coaches, San Francisco is not the place to go to make money."


It should not be axiomatic that expensive or even established coaches make for better coaches. But there is reason to fret, especially because the Niners' only coaching-spending binge coincides with its only recent success, and because they just moved into an expensive new stadium that no one seems to like but has secure revenue streams, meaning there's less reason to put a top-flight product out on the field.

The front office has spent the last month hammering home just how replaceable it believes coaches are, that true leadership comes from the very top. That's not reassuring. The Chronicle's Ann Killion with the headshot:

"We don't raise division championship banners," team CEO Jed York said last month, by way of explaining why the team was "parting ways" with Jim Harbaugh. "We don't raise NFC Championship banners. We raise Super Bowl banners. And whenever we don't deliver that, I hope you will hold me directly responsible and accountable for it."

But, in truth, York has never raised a Super Bowl banner, unless Uncle Eddie allowed the 14-year old from Youngstown to give a tug on the halyard the last time such a flag was raised.