SANTA CLARA — The more Chip Kelly keeps losing football games, the more he appears to be headed for a “collison course” year-end meeting with GM Trent Baalke, a source in Santa Clara tells KNBR.com
With nearly an identical roster, the San Francisco 49ers are a worse football team than they were a year ago. That’s almost impossible to fathom and it’s going to put pressure on Kelly with eight games still remaining.
For as much crap as we’ve thrown Baalke’s way, he’s going to have a clear argument to make to CEO Jed York after the season: Kelly has been a less productive football coach for us than Jim Tomsula, and we need another do-over.
Now, most of us would agree Baalke is more responsible for this tangled mess the 49ers currently sit in than Kelly, and he’s been driving the bus for years. You can’t win many football games with Quinton Patton starting at wide receiver, or when first-round picks are not making any type of impact on defense, or when you don’t have a legitimate quarterback. Baalke’s strategy of completely ignoring free agency might be his biggest sin considering this football team has little depth now that injuries have depleted it.
But Kelly’s faults are starting to surface: He hired defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, created a laissez faire culture in the locker room and failed to lobby hard enough for a new quarterback last offseason, instead putting his eggs in Colin Kaepernick’s basket.
It’s also the way the 49ers have been losing. The team is allowing 37 points per game since a Week-1 shutout, the offense is averaging just 5.0 yards per play and sloppy turnovers have become habitual. In their last three games against the mediocre Bills, Buccaneers and Saints, the 49ers have been outscored 55-9 in the second half. The defense is on pace to shatter all types of records — and not good ones. This falling-off-the-cliff type of season can’t be solely pinned on a lack of talent anymore.
Kelly’s biggest success in the Bay Area has been building believers in the locker room. Part of it has to do with him creating a more likable version of himself, part of it has to do with how well he handled the Kaepernick protest, part of it has do with his innovative X’s and O’s mind. Kelly will impress you in the film room with an array of concepts.
And you won’t find one veteran who will even question the coaching staff, which York should take note of.
“You can’t put this on the coaches,” Antoine Bethea said after a seventh straight loss, “not at all.”
What makes this debacle more intriguing, is that there have been zero reports of friction between Kelly and Baalke. For all we know, the pair of 49ers power players could get along well. But if the franchise has any type of backbone, someone is headed for the guillotine. The finger-pointing is about to ramp up. That’s human nature.
As linebacker Eli Harold said in the locker room Sunday, the 49ers aren’t just bad, they are the laughingstock of the league. You can’t enter next season without a major change of some sort, and relieving O’Neil of his duties won’t be enough.
The ball is obviously in York’s court. If York were to fire Kelly after just one season, and continue to pledge his undying loyalty to Baalke, it would be viewed as a disaster around league circles. A new head coach in 2017 would be the 49ers’s fourth in four seasons — a frightening number that shows York and Baalke don’t know how to identify the proper leaders.
So while many 49ers fans are fine with this team going 1-15 to earn a top draft pick, York might not be okay with that sentiment. The only real way for Kelly to feel comfortable about his job status is to win a few of the remaining eight games. Even though wins would feel like consolation prizes at this point, Kelly may need them for his reputation.
There is another concern: If York does opt to keep Kelly and hire a new general manager (what I would do), said GM might not be fully onboard with Kelly. York could make it a prerequisite for the new GM to work cohesively with Kelly, but it would create another uncertain power structure.
Promoting assistant Tom Gamble from within has been long suggested, but the argument can be made the 49ers really need a new set of eyes if they want to see real changes.
The biggest matchup left in the season for the 49ers isn’t the Cardinals, or the Patriots or the once-rival Seahawks, it’s Kelly vs. Baalke.
Due to York’s checkered history in decision-making, we really have no idea who will win.