(Image via 49ers.com)
Option A for the 49ers organizational reshuffle has been sitting on the table since before the season began.
Promoting assistant general manager Tom Gamble makes the most sense for the San Francisco 49ers in 2017.
But does it make the most sense for a long term rebuild? As we await CEO Jed York’s heavy-handed fallout in Santa Clara, that’s entirely debatable.
First things first: Firing GM Trent Baalke and promoting Gamble is a loud and clear commitment to Chip Kelly. It’s an admission that no NFL head coach could’ve made magic with Baalke’s roster. Gamble’s 28-year NFL resume is worthy of a GM job, but this promotion is about providing stability for Kelly.
Gamble got to know Kelly when he was scouting Pac-12 games for the 49ers, joined him in Philadelphia’s front office in 2013, was fired by the Eagles in 2014 because of battles Kelly waged with Philly management over personnel, was re-hired by Baalke in 2015 and then was instrumental in bringing Kelly to San Francisco in 2016, according to the NFL Network. The Gamble-Kelly relationship is rock solid.
Gamble is also the safest move, optics wise, which sadly is part of the equation for the 49ers. York would be lying to himself and the world if keeping Gamble isn’t partly about saving face. Because by opening the GM search and firing Kelly after just one season, no matter the 2-14 record, York is further poisoning the perception of what it’s like to work in Santa Clara. People around this league talk, and none of the chatter is positive about York and the 49ers. By making just one slight tinker with the talent evaluator, York can pretend like the organization isn’t a mess.
That’s also the scary part about this theoretical promotion: Gamble and Baalke have worked together for nearly a decade, and they surely had a brief run of success early in the decade. But Gamble is a Baalke guy. He was in the room watching — or even contributing — to the GM fumbling draft picks and botching free agency the last two offseasons. They see the football the same way.
But this would be the most questionable part about promoting Gamble: The 49ers are not valuing the long view in their rebuilding project. Dismissing distinguished names like Mike Shanahan, Eliot Wolfe, Scott Pioli, Trent Kirchner would show a neglect for how a different set of eye balls could completely change the identity of who the San Francisco 49ers are.
Is York really okay with a consecutive shotgun marriage instead of hitting the reboot button for a clean start? What happens if the Gamble-Kelly combination goes 5-11 in 2017? Another January press conference and another firing? What’s the end game here?
Should the promotion happen, let’s give him a chance. The book on Gamble is that he’s an experienced, likable talent evaluator. He probably won’t challenge York’s authority like someone of Shanahan’s stature would. There will be no tension with Kelly. At worst, Gamble is the perfect placeholder for a season or two.
But Colin Kaepernick has said it. Others in the media have seen it. The fan base is begging for it: the 49ers need a culture change. The locker room needs to be infused with an entirely different attitude and up to 20 new players. The overall vibe of this franchise has to completely change.
Does Tom Gamble have the skills to be the visionary architect who can change the 49ers’ football philosophy? Is he the right man to lead the 49ers for the next four or five seasons?
If York goes with Option A, we’re about to find out.