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York examining past, present to rebuild 49ers' identity

Paul Sakuma / Associated Press
49ers owner Jed York is attempting to rebuild his team's identity following Mike Singletary's firing.


Jed York knows the big news to emerge from the 49ers' highly publicized general-manager search this week was that Bill Parcells' advice was sought.

The owner got that, and values what the Tuna told him.

The truth, though, is that Parcells is just one of the folks he's consulted. York, still just 29, is looking to draw from the experiences of those people, learn more about the business and pick up a few names that might fill a front office along the way.

And, accomplished as Parcells is, there's another guy that York is talking to that will likely have a little more influence on his opinion. That would be his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, who was the Godfather of the glory-years 49ers, and a man the organization has missed dearly since 2000, when a legal battle forced him to cede control to his sister Denise, who happens to be Jed's mother.

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"More than anything, he's told me to trust your gut," York said on Thursday. "The key is hiring the right people, who want to grind together, who enjoy working together. That's what happened here with Bill (Walsh) and (former director of football operations) John McVay. People weren't sure that Bill was the right coach, and after what happened with the Giants, McVay was questioned, too.

"Neither was the sexy hire. But they worked together, each guy was looking for the same thing, and knew exactly what the other wanted. You could tell exactly what the San Francisco 49ers were."

If you turn the dial to 2010, with York's uncle now gone for a decade, that is where the problem, as he sees it, lies most with a franchise that was once very much the New York Yankees of football.

The 49ers lack an identity.

Since the 2002 departure of Steve Mariucci, the final 49ers link to the Bill Walsh era, San Francisco has had three head coaches, two general managers and constant tumult in organizational structure. Predictably, the club has just one .500 season and no winning campaigns in that eight-year span, and will finish the fourth 10-loss season of that run on Sunday.

That's an amazing fall from grace for a franchise that posted 19 10-win seasons, 18 NFC West titles and five Super Bowl championships with three different coaches and three different quarterbacks in the 22 years previous.

And there were legends during that period of off-the-charts prosperity, of course. Walsh. Joe Montana. Jerry Rice. Steve Young. But it was about more than the individuals from York's view. The Niners won two titles without Rice and Walsh, and one without Montana. The point is, the organization was bigger than any one person, and finding a way to recreate that is York's directive now.

It's also why he's hiring the GM first.

"I think structure is important, and the GM is a key piece to that. There are few people like (Bill) Belichick that can run personnel and be the coach. It's very difficult," said York. "The best recent example (of sustained success) is New England, but look at the Atlanta Falcons or the New Orleans Saints. There, you had a general manager established who picked the head coach. Sean Payton was a name going into New Orleans, because he was with Parcells in Dallas, but Mike Smith wasn't well-known.

Phil Coale / Associated Press
The 49ers' last playoff appearance came in 2002, under then-coach Steve Mariucci.
49ers head coaches since 1997
Coach
Years
W-L
2008-2010
18-22
2005-2008
18-37
Dennis Erickson
2003-2004
9-23
Steve Mariucci
1997-2002
60-43

"But both those guys went to teams that weren't great, and you're seeing what they can do. And it's because everyone's on the same page. In Atlanta, you have great coordinators, great position coaches. You see the Saints bring in a defensive coordinator, and that took self-reflection. It took (Payton) saying, 'This is not about me, it's about the New Orleans Saints, and I need to take less money so we can bring in a defensive coordinator to help us.'"

That brings York back to the good old days, which he insists are something to learn from, but not totally try and emulate.

"We want to continue the legacy, but that doesn't mean we need to do everything like Bill and McVay," York continued. "You study it, but if you do what was successful 20 years ago, you're probably not going to have the same success. But you learn from what they did well, and apply stuff that can be successful. You have to make sure you're your own person, your own organization. You can't be someone else. Then, you'll fail.

"But the bottom line is, this is not about and won't be about Jed York or the GM or the coach. It's about the 49ers' success. And in that way, this should be similar to what Bill had set up here."

Rumors continue to float around late this week that Trent Baalke, the team's VP of player personnel, is destined to become GM. Baalke spent part of his NFL infancy under Parcells with the Jets, and became the 49ers' top football man last year after then-GM Scot McCloughan departed.

And since Baalke would be an internal hire, he's not the most popular candidate. But one thing York's learned to do is to not worry about perception, whether Baalke's the man or not.

His vision for the 49ers is, in the end, identical to his uncle's -- "a team that wins with class," as he describes it -- and he promises that the next hire will be free to shake the roster up (and there's some pretty decent talent there) in any way he sees fit.

He says that, in the last few years, the organizational philosophy has been "all over the place, we need to get more structured." So for now, he's not sure what the football vision will be come January, but he wants to be sure that, whatever it is, everyone in the building sees it the same way.

That's why he's more worried about finding the right name, rather than the big name, to lead.

"I've been a fan of the 49ers my whole life," York said. "I know what fans want. Results. They should be upset. I'm upset. We're not where we need to be. It needs to be obvious -- 'This is who the 49ers are. This is what the 49ers do.' We're lacking that."

Winning is everyone's goal. But fixing that, York knows, has to come first. And the GM hire, whenever it comes down, is what he hopes is the first step.

Going deep

Last offseason, Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik told his football people to take the list of prospective free agents, fold it up and put it in their back pocket.

What he saw was a class of college football players as good as any he'd evaluated since getting into the NFL business back in 1995. And eight months after the group was drafted, it's clear that Dominik's vision has come to fruition.

Last Sunday, the Buccaneers bludgeoned the Seahawks 38-15 to score their ninth win, and 15 rookies played in the game. Want perspective on that? The NFL allows teams to dress just 45 players on game day.

"Lots of people say they want to build through the draft, but we really meant it, specifically with this draft class," Dominik said. "When we did the purge of the roster (in early 2009), we wanted two things to stay consistent. First, we wanted to stay with the draft. And second, we wanted to win quickly with the young, because you gotta do that quickly in this league."

The Buccaneers scored big on a number of their draft picks, with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and receiver Mike Williams appearing to be the home runs.

But the draft, for Tampa, didn't end in April. Dominik made it a directive for the team to continue monitoring the rookie class, and be ready to pounce after the final cutdown in early September.

The result is, in effect, a second draft class of 2010 for the Buccaneers.

Dominik posed this group to me -- LaGarrette Blount (leading all rookies with 941 yards rushing) as a first-rounder, Ted Larsen (starting left guard for the last 10 weeks) as a second-rounder, Dezmon Briscoe (receiver who could start this week) as a third-rounder, Al Woods (rotational defensive lineman) as a fourth-rounder, Larry Asante (rotational defensive back) as a fifth-rounder, Will Barker (backup tackle) as a sixth-rounder and Robert Malone (the team's punter) as a seventh-rounder.

Wouldn't be a terrible start for a draft class, right? All those guys, believe it or not, were picked up after final cuts by Tampa Bay.

Maybe the biggest key in all this, Dominik says, has been the coaching staff, led by Raheem Morris, being fearless in heaping responsibility on the young players. It also doesn't hurt that there's a quarterback who's younger than both Blount and Williams carrying himself like a vet, which raises the bar for maturity for all the rookies.

"Coach Morris has done a great job challenging all the young players," Dominik said. "When he said we were the best team in the NFC, he wanted them to expect to be that. We've talked about 'The Race to 10 (wins)' and we're right there. It's that whole approach of 'Mentality before Reality.'

"He's reminding all of them that you don't have to be a six-year vet to be great, and to not let the learning curve be a reason why you can't produce."

The Buccaneers need to beat the Super Bowl champs on Sunday, and have a lot of things fall their way to make the postseason. Chances are, they'll be sitting these playoffs out. But there's clearly a foundation that's been laid.

Oh, and Dominik seems to have been on target with his assessment of that draft class. Four rookies were named to the Pro Bowl this week, and there are stories across the league of rookies with outsized production.

"This class is one of the best to come into the league in a long time," Dominik said. "That's why we went into it the way we did."

I know this truth ...

That, as York said, the big name isn't always the right name. In 2008, after striking out in an attempt to lure Parcells, Falcons owner Arthur Blank brought in Patriots college scouting director Thomas Dimitroff as GM to run the show. Last year, the Buccaneers trust the youthful Dominik to do the same.

Safe to say both hires have worked out.

Last year, I was given the idea to compile a list of young, prospective GMs as a reference, since far more such coaching lists exist. We'll try it again here. After talking to folks around the league all week, this is what I came up with (as separated into two categories). ...

Ready for their shot

Kevin Abrams, Giants assistant general manager: He's more on the business side than the personnel side, but has done an outstanding job managing New York's salary cap, becoming Jerry Reese's right-hand man in the roster building process. Abrams was originally plucked by former Giant GM Ernie Accorsi off the NFL's management council, and would likely bring a strong personnel director with him.

Nick Caserio, Patriots director of player personnel: This is a name you might not know, but you'll learn. Caserio was a college teammate of Josh McDaniels at John Carroll, and has served in a wide array of capacities in the Patriots' organization, serving as a college scout, pro scout, quality control coach, pro scouting director and receivers coach. He's been Scott Pioli's de facto replacement the last two years, and has overseen a pair of draft classes that seem to have set a strong foundation for the future.

Eric DeCosta, Ravens director of player personnel: It's a matter of when, not if, with DeCosta. He's interviewed in the past, and was in serious consideration in Seattle last year before removing his name from the search. DeCosta's comfortable in Baltimore, where he could wait and succeed Ozzie Newsome. But if the right shot comes along, he could be enticed. If that time comes, the possibility exists he brings Jim Harbaugh with him, and a DeCosta/Harbaugh team would be a pretty good one.

Brian Gaine, Dolphins assistant director of player personnel: A Parcells guy who helped build the Cowboys' talented roster during the Tuna's time there, leading the pro scouting department in Dallas, and has served as GM Jeff Ireland's right-hand man in Miami. One personnel exec put it simply: "A great one. It's a shame (the Dolphins) are in the tank now, because people might miss it with him."

Steve Keim, Cardinals director of player personnel: Rod Graves' right-hand man might suffer a bit of a perception problem after Arizona's swoon in 2010, but there's no denying the large role he played in the team's ascension over the last five years. Until he moved into his current role in 2008, Keim had served as Arizona's director of college scouting, running a department that was an organizational strength, and has served in a variety of roles in his 12 seasons with the club.

Omar Khan, Steelers business and football administration coordinator: Khan has handled the business side of the Steelers' personnel department since 2001. He's still just shy of 34, but is smart as a whip and interviewed last year for the Seahawks' GM position. His experience running the cap and building a roster will serve him wherever he lands, and there's a good chance that will be as GM wherever Bill Cowher winds up coaching.

Will Lewis, Seahawks vice president of pro personnel: He's a bit older than other folks on this list, but his wealth of experience should be an edge, and this former player has a reputation as a strong leader and solid evaluator. Lewis got his start on the personnel side, after working as a coach, under Ron Wolf in Green Bay, and was in the mix during the Browns GM search last year.

Les Snead, Falcons director of player personnel: Like DeCosta, Snead has spent a lot of time working through the ranks of his current organization, and in his time with the Falcons, has seen just about everything. More than just his football acumen -- he played at Auburn and has experience on both the college and pro sides of scouting -- he's seen the crisis management aspect of the job (seeing the Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino affairs) and is an extension of the New England tree, working with Dimitroff.

Ruston Webster, Titans VP of player personnel: Webster actually was a general manager, or an interim one at least, for a short time last year, after Tim Ruskell vacated the spot and before Schneider took it. He then relocated to Tennessee, and has a wealth of experience as both a college and pro personnel man, helping to build the glory-years Buccaneers of Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden.

Doug Whaley: Bills assistant general manager: Whaley's long been considered one of the best young scouts in the game, and the biggest question most had was whether he would ever leave Pittsburgh. Last year, he did, as then-new Bills GM Buddy Nix's right-hand man. He's widely considered to be the future GM in Buffalo, but will likely come up in conversation for other jobs.

Knocking on the door

Blake Beddingfield, Titans scouting coordinator; Chris Grier, Dolphins director of college scouting; Dennis Hickey, Buccaneers director of college scouting; Jon Robinson, Patriots director of college scouting; Cedric Saunders, Lions vice president of football operations.

I don't know a thing...

About what's keeping so many folks from understanding what a good corner the Packers have playing opposite Charles Woodson now. And it's not Al Harris.

One reason the team felt so comfortable cutting that cord was the presence of Tramon Williams, and Williams has played the role so adeptly that Green Bay saw fit to reward him with a four-year, $41.25 million deal.

How Williams was kept out of the Pro Bowl by DeAngelo Hall, considering both players' bodies of work, I'm not sure. What I do know is that he's now got 15 interceptions the last three years, including a career-high six this season, in a defense that's demanding on its corners, and Woodson's mentoring has been a big reason why. And it's not just on the field advice that's helped. It's everything, from a professional standpoint.

"The guys show me how to be a professional not just on the field, but off the field," Williams said. "You're representing the organization, you're not just representing yourself, when you're out here. And when it's on the field, it's film study and all of that. It's been just great learning from him. I don't know that I'd be the player that I am today if I didn't have a guy like that in my corner.

"I always felt like I knew how to do things well, but you get another guy who sees the game different -- I mean, that's a special player -- and he's able to share that with you, that's saying something about the type of player he is and guy off the field."

Williams said that the way Woodson can get through film, and apply it, is what he means by the seven-time Pro Bowler being different as a student of the game. It seems like it comes natural to Woodson, primarily because it does.

"You just gotta see him watch film, it's just faster, he breaks down things quicker, and over the years I've been gradually progressing to that point," Williams explained. "And this year, I kind of took off with it. When he sees a formation out there, he can break it down just like that and he knows what's coming.

"That's the way I've been this year, and it's all because of him. The guy shows me things on film, and things to look for, now I can do it on my own, watch it that way."

Maybe most interesting about the relationship is the difference in pedigree between the two.

Woodson entered the league as the only primarily defensive player ever to win the Heisman Trophy, and the fourth pick in the draft. Williams came in as an undrafted free agent from Louisiana Tech, spent much of his rookie season as a street free agent, before the Packers scooped him up that October.

Williams recognizes the difference, to be sure, and he reiterates his point.

"He's been special from Day 1," Williams said. "But like I said, he's been great for my progress."

First ...

A couple months back, I felt as if the impending labor strife was going to curtail the movement on the coaching carousel. Lots of folks in the league felt the same way.

Sure enough, with the regular season not even quite over yet, four teams have already bagged their coaches, and there figures to be more upheaval to come.

A reverse effect from the CBA? Don't scoff at the notion.

From a public relations standpoint, plenty of owners could be fighting upstream, if the labor situation gets chippy. The best way to mitigate that problem might be to create hope within your franchise. Teams like New England, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh don't need to do that, but others do.

And the best way to create hope isn't to keep a coach everyone's lukewarm on to save a buck. A move like that, in fact, could well leave a pretty serious blackmark on an owner's resume, and tag him as a boss who isn't serious about winning

So teams that are on the ropes with unpopular coaches going into final years of deals could actually be just as quick, if not quicker, to pull the trigger. For more on that, and other things from around the league ...

... and 10

1. Sunday night's de facto NFC West title game may draw sneers in some corners, but the two teams playing in that one appear to be ascending. And pretty soon, the joke may be on everyone else. Let's start with the Rams. A win on Sunday would make St. Louis 8-8, and they'd be just the fourth team to make it to .500 the year after finishing 1-15 or 0-16, joining the 1992 Colts, 1997 Jets and 2008 Dolphins. The Rams are doing it despite the fact that their starting quarterback (Sam Bradford), left tackle (Rodger Saffold) and right tackle (Jason Smith) came into this season with five combined career starts, and their two starting receivers -- Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola -- came into 2010 with an aggregate of 77 career catches. On defense, a young corps has emerged as well, with James Laurinaitis and Chris Long leading the charge. Both Long and Fred Robbins have hit career highs in sacks, a third starting defensive lineman, James Hall, is one away from doing the same, and seven different players have interceptions. The bottom line is that this club is emerging from the wilderness of a three-year, 6-42 disaster, and has an offense with an improving line and potentially-elite quarterback, while the defense is built tough up the middle. Because of a bad division, the team has arrived in a championship race earlier than most expected. But their growth is legitimate.

2. There are some ugly numbers out on the Seahawks. Real ugly. Every one of Seattle's nine losses has come by at least 15 points, the roster's erosion during the late years of the Mike Holmgren era and Jim Mora's short-lived stint is pretty apparent across the board. In fact, if Seattle were to make the playoffs, and they can become the first 7-9 team to do so with a win on Sunday, it would represent a surprise to even the folks in its own building. Fact is, this was a total rebuild, and even six or seven wins puts the Pete Carroll/John Schneider regime ahead of schedule. And by getting young players like Russell Okung and Earl Thomas in these types of championship situations, where the stakes are raised, the Seahawks are growing their program. But that doesn't mean the fervent Seattle public's on board quite yet. They see a team that's lost five of its last six games, and will likely go into Sunday with a quarterback (Charlie Whitehurst) this regime has already given up on, and they've decided they've seen enough. Strange but true: In a Seattle Times poll this week, fans voted that they'd rather see the club miss the playoffs than suffer the indignity of carrying the "Worst Playoff Team Ever" label. Wow.

3. It's hard to see Wade Phillips' name as a hot one, not after he was fired in midseason, with the Cowboys at 1-7, and not after Jason Garrett has pumped life into that team. But believe it when I tell you that Phillips' defensive acumen will be a hot commodity when pieces start moving on the coaching market in January. Our own Jason La Canfora reported earlier in the week about the possibility of Phillips going to Houston, and that could be the first flirtation in a series of them for the ex-Dallas coach, who coordinated defenses in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Denver and Buffalo. And the success of Dom Capers in Green Bay and Gregg Williams in New Orleans -- ex-head coaches who were called on to come in and fix broken defenses under offensive-minded head coaches. Williams won a championship in Year 1, and has turned the Saints into a top-five defense in Year 2. Capers has quickly given the Packers a facelift, making his ninth-ranked defense there the kind of big-play unit he had in Pittsburgh all those years ago. Both cases prove that an experienced coordinator can come in and marry his style with a head coach he might not have worked too extensively with. All that would make Phillips the kind of hire (and he went through this before with Marty Schottenheimer in San Diego) worth getting behind.

4. The quarterback-coach dynamic in Tennessee will be an interesting one this offseason. Word is that owner Bud Adams is loathe to pay Jeff Fisher the close-to-$6 million left on his contract to fire him, and is willing to go into 2011 with a lame-duck coach (like John Fox this year in Carolina), if need be. At the heart of any disconnect here is quarterback Vince Young, who appears to be assured of returning for a sixth season in Nashville. Sentiment in the organization is that Young can't be counted on, but so long as he's on the books, the team will be forced to tweak at the position rather than overhaul it. So expect the Titans, if Fisher is still in place and a major shakeup doesn't occur, to add pieces to compete with Young. Tennessee is a good bet to pursue a veteran -- probably a Matt Flynn-type in the "young backup" category -- and/or select a quarterback in the first three rounds of the draft. The idea then would be to swing the doors open for a training-camp competition that, at best, would either identify Young's replacement or give Young the push he needs. Trouble is, Young has used such situations to improve in the past, only to ultimately regress, which always puts the organization in a tough spot. But so long as Adams remains loyal to Young, the problem remains.

5. It has been interesting watching, this month, the maturation of the Colts' running game. For the first time since Weeks 4 and 5 of 2006, Indianapolis has rushed for 150 yards in back-to-back games, and that year was, of course, the Colts' Super Bowl XLI championship season. Big deal? You bet it is. A big part of the line's inability to protect Peyton Manning was the offense's overall inability to keep a defense off-balance. The running game has done that, as it did in 2006. If you go back to the Colts' playoff run that year, here are the rushing-yard totals for the club's four wins: 188, 100, 125 and 191. Manning may have been Super Bowl MVP, but Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes churned out almost as many yards as the QB threw for. So there's that, which isn't the only similarity to 2006. The other is the road the Colts have to take, through the wild-card round, which is forcing Indianapolis to take the stretch run of the regular season more seriously, to take care of seeding or, in this year's case, simply getting in. If Manning and Co. go on another run, it'll be interesting to see if Bill Polian and Jim Caldwell take a hard look at the team's approach to the end of the year, since that would make twice.

6. Some amazing numbers came out of the first-ever edition of Tuesday Night Football, and it really shows that, from a business standpoint, the league made the right move in pushing the game into the next available prime time slot. Had the game been held on Sunday night, considering the conditions, there was likely to be a large number of no-shows, which would have really hurt the team on concessions and other game-day related business. The flip side is that it would've created the type of weather game that usually brings in huge television numbers, but the change didn't exactly blunt the appeal of Eagles-Vikings. NBC won the Tuesday prime time ratings battle, and drew 23.7 million viewers, despite the change and having one non-playoff team with a rookie quarterback going. That represents just about a half-million less than the previous week's Packers-Patriots game, between two potential playoff teams in its regularly scheduled slot, and gave NBC its 11th SNF broadcast of the season pulling 20 million-plus viewers. Astounding.

7. Perhaps the two most interesting coaching searches ahead are those in Dallas and Minnesota, where interim coaches with serious cases to become full time are in the mix. Because of the Rooney Rule, the Cowboys have to have a "coaching search," and owner Jerry Jones has already said he plans to interview respected receivers coach Ray Sherman, which would satisfy the requirement. The Vikings, on the other hand, can just name Frazier head coach, since he's African-American, and the club's performance on Tuesday in Philadelphia seems to be evidence that he's up for the job. The team has some serious issues to take care of -- finding a quarterback is first (hello, Donovan McNabb), and some cornerstone young guys like Sidney Rice and Chad Greenway have expiring contracts -- but it remains a roster built to win now. And that means sticking with a coach the players believe in, and they do seem to believe in Frazier, which might mean status quo is the way to go. But even if the Vikings do keep Frazier, the organizational structure and chain-of-command that seemed to be non-existent at times must be addressed, and that could mean VP of player personnel Rick Spielman could wind up having final say over the roster that he lacked when Brad Childress was there.

8. Mentioned the Texans earlier in the column, and their situation going into the season's final week is an interesting one. Word is, as I mentioned on Twitter earlier in the week, that owner Bob McNair has been very interested in Bill Cowher. The trouble is that Cowher, if he goes anywhere, would like to have his own people in place. Remember, when he was in Pittsburgh, he worked in an organization with a singular vision, so he very much values a structure that has everyone on the same page. And there's the rub, that McNair is hesitant to detonate the football side of his organization completely. Talks could continue, but it seems that, if Cowher is out, McNair is leaning toward keeping Gary Kubiak and it'll be tough to go forward with that if the Texans start playing footsies with Cowher when the coaching carousel heats up next week.

9. I've been asked quite a bit this week about the comparison in punishment between Ben Roethlisberger and Brett Favre. So let's settle it here. Roethlisberger, as most of you know, was suspended for six games for violations of the personal conduct policy, and that suspension was reduced to four games. Favre this week was fined $50,000 and not suspended. There are a few differences in the cases. First, Favre wasn't found to have violated the policy. His offense was failing to cooperate with a league investigation (think "obstruction of justice"). Second, even if Favre had been found guilty of breaking the rules in the Jenn Sterger case, that one, as far as we know, was an isolated incident. Roethlisberger's offenses showed a pattern of behavior. Totally understand folks being frustrated with this thing moving along slowly, and I think the NFL is culpable there, since Favre's looming retirement should've created more urgency. But I do think that the two cases aren't all that comparable.

10. Finally, next week, I plan on pick my winners in this space for the postseason awards. So I figured I'd roll out my leaders for all of you to see now ... MVP: Patriots QB Tom Brady; Offensive Player of the Year: Falcons WR Roddy White; Defensive Player of the Year: Steelers S Troy Polamalu; Offensive Rookie of the Year: Rams QB Sam Bradford; Defensive Rookie of the Year: Lions DT Ndamukong Suh; Coach of the Year: Todd Haley, Chiefs; Executive of the Year: Mark Dominik, Buccaneers; Comeback Player of the Year: Vikings MLB E.J. Henderson. Feel free to argue with me through email (albert.breer@nfl.com) or Twitter (@AlbertBreer).

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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