Good News - But 49ers Future Still Clouded
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 07, 2006

IT’S GOOD NEWS/bad news for the 49ers. The good news is that they were able to re-sign Derek Smith. The bad news is that they still haven’t filled the vital front office spot because top NFL executives don’t want to work for John York. Imagine.

Smith was the 49ers’ top priority among their potential free agents, as well he should have been. He has led the team in tackles each of his five seasons in San Francisco, establishing a team record of 189 in 2003. He is a nonstop player, and a particular favorite of coach Mike Nolan.

It would also have been disastrous to lose Smith, because linebackers are leaving the team in droves. The 49ers’ refusal to put the franchise tag on Julian Peterson for a third straight year means he is gone. Though Peterson will probably play better in his second season back from a torn Achilles tendon, I can’t fault the 49ers’ decision. He is not worth what he would cost with the franchise tag, and his agent, one of the Poston brothers, is notoriously difficult.

Andre Carter, who has never quite lived up to the 49ers’ expectations when they drafted him, seems determined to test the market. So, apparently, is Brandon Moore, who played surprisingly well last year.

Jeff Ulbrich will be returning from injury, but even so, a linebacker corps which seemed so deep and talented last spring that new defensive coordinator Billy Davis originally put in a 3-4 alignment, has been seriously depleted.

Losing Smith would have been a real disaster, yet, that seemed a real possibility. During last season, his teammates noticed that Smith was tired of the losing, not surprisingly; though the 49ers rallied for two late wins, they’ve still won only six games in the last two years.

There certainly would have been better opportunities for Smith on the free agent market. So, though no details were announced on Smith’s contract, they most likely overpaid for him. But this was one time when overpaying made sense.

As a general rule, it makes more sense to keep your own potential free agents, if you can afford them, than to try to go after free agents on the open market. A player’s value is affected so much by the system used and by the players around him that it is possible to seriously overestimate the ability of a player on another team. One example from the recent past: In 1998, the 49ers signed linebacker Winfred Tubbs, who had been a star in New Orleans in a system which allowed him to roam and use his athletic ability. The 49ers system was much more disciplined, and Tubbs was a disappointment.

This year, the 49ers re-signed wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, which I think was a good move. Pittsburgh receiver Antwaan Randle El, a postseason hero for the Steelers, is a free agent, but would he be any better than Lloyd or Arnaz Battle for the 49ers? Remembering the talent disparity between the 49ers and Steelers, I don’t think so.

The 49ers need to keep their good players home. Lloyd is not the go-to receiver they need, but he’s a valuable part.

THE CONTINUAL failure to get an experienced NFL executive to fill the void in the front office, though, is a serious problem.

This is not unlike the Raiders’ problem in getting a good head coach: With both franchises, good men don’t want to work with the team owner.

In York’s case, it’s his reputation for meddling in all club matters, large or small. He’s a classic case of the man who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He even lectured Bill Walsh on how to run an organization!

The problem is that York is fighting a shadow battle with his brother-in-law, Eddie DeBartolo, trying to prove that he can be a better owner. That’s a battle he can’t win.

Eddie gets far too much credit for the team’s great success in the 1981-95 period, when the Niners won five Super Bowls, but he knew it was important to stay out of Walsh’s way. He might give him an earful when the 49ers lost, but he never tried to get involved with strategic planning, either the daily workings or the larger picture. Walsh had total authority.

That’s not been the case at all for coaches or executives under York. He’s continually sticking his nose into matters that shouldn’t concern him. When Peter Harris was hired, he was supposed to be a buffer between York and the rest of the operation, but that didn’t work. Harris finally quit in disgust.

Word gets around quickly in a tight circle like the NFL, and competent executives are leery of coming to the 49ers. York has reportedly promised that they’d have autonomy, but they’re still skeptical. Who can blame them?

This is a critical time for the 49ers. Whether or not the league and the Players Association reaches agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, as I think they will, the Niners are in very good shape with the salary cap, with room to sign free agents. But the only one in the front office now who is competent to judge them is Scot McCloughan, and his emphasis has been on college players, evaluating them for the draft.

This is a time when the 49ers should be deciding who they might sign as free agents. It’s a time when they need to have somebody talking to other executives around the league about possible deals with their first pick, No. 6, in the draft. I think they’re better off keeping that pick and getting a potential Pro Bowl player out of it, but they should be aware of their possibilities. Nolan can’t do it because his connections are with other coaches, not executives.

Overall, I thought McCloughan and Nolan did a good job with the draft last year, though the overall grading will depend on the development (or not) of quarterback Alex Smith. But the NFL is much too complex these days to have just two men with football backgrounds at the top.

THE SIGNING of Smith was great news for 49er fans. It would be even better if York would announce that his only visits to San Francisco next fall will be to games, and that he intends to leave the operation of the franchise to those with the competence to do that. He could still play owner – his favorite role – at NFL league meetings.

No, I don’t expect that to happen. York just can’t keep his nose out of the operation. Until he does, the future of the 49ers will remain clouded, at best.


BOOK BAG: If you love music as I do, you’ll enjoy Bruce Jenkins book on his father, Gordon Jenkins, “Goodbye.” Bruce has many great inside stories about both his dad and the music business. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and it has a permanent place in my library. Bruce was a longtime colleague on The Chronicle, of course, but he did not solicit this mention nor give me a book; it was a Christmas gift from my wife.

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