Urban Meyer firing reminds 49ers why coaching matters
By Peter Panacy
It wasn’t long ago when the 49ers were the team where head coaches went to be fired, and the Jaguars firing Urban Meyer is a valid teaching point.
The San Francisco 49ers have had their share of head-coaching gaffes over the years. Even fans looking back at recent memory can recall the days when CEO Jed York and the Niners “mutually” parted ways with one of the franchise’s most successful head coaches of all time, Jim Harbaugh.
What transpired since isn’t unlike what the Jacksonville Jaguars have and could easily wind up going through, particularly in the wake of making the bone-headed decision to lure collegiate coaching star Urban Meyer into the NFL ranks last offseason.
Then firing him this week after a long string of other incidents, including a most recent report of him actually kicking a player.
Things never got that bad in San Francisco. But as far as the doldrums of hiring head coaches who were wholly ill-equipped to handle their duties, the 49ers should have some familiarity.
Harbaugh’s immediate replacement, one-and-done head coach Jim Tomsula, was completely overmatched with the job. Sure, it didn’t help that his former general manager, now-Jaguars GM Trent Baalke (more on that later), didn’t restock the team adequately enough to provide Tomsula with talent.
But Tomsula was bad. His replacement the following year, Chip Kelly, was arguably worse. At least the 2016 two-win season would suggest so.
Urban Meyer a case in coaching the 49ers can relate to
Jacksonville’s owner, Shad Khan, probably sat by too long and let former head coach Doug Marrone stick around long after it was clear he wouldn’t be able to replicate the Jags’ surprising success in 2017, which included a trip to the AFC Championship game.
That led to Meyer, a surprising hire despite his own collegiate pedigree.
Harbaugh’s hire originally might have been surprising, someone with college success yet never having replicated that at the pro level. But the bigger surprise was arguably Tomsula, a position coach whose head-coaching experience only stemmed from NFL Europe.
Well, that didn’t work. And it led to a longer Niners coaching carousel.
In the Jaguars’ case, though, they’re looking at potentially a new regime coming in but with a No. 1 overall draft pick, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who may or may not be the priority of a new coaching staff. Hopefully he is, but there’s no guarantee on that.
And Baalke, who played a massive role in Harbaugh’s dismissal and San Francisco’s demise from 2014 through 2016, remains in place despite Meyer being out of the picture.
Turbulent times are repeating. The 49ers had them. The Jags will now, too.
Jed York, 49ers should appreciate what they have in Kyle Shanahan, John Lynch
Let’s bring all this back around to the current edition of the Niners with head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch.
Just like Khan’s correct decision to give Meyer the ax, York was faced with a similarly tough choice by letting go of Kelly after just one year. Typically, getting rid of head coaches after one season isn’t the right message to send to other candidates around the league, and it’s primarily why Shanahan and Lynch both asked for six-year deals upon their hiring in 2017.
A direct product of York’s prior moves and the franchise’s uncertainty.
Granted, the Jacksonville job could be an attractive one. A potential franchise-changing quarterback in Lawrence, plenty of salary cap space and what’ll assuredly be a top-three draft pick in 2022.
Those aren’t the goals for any team, though. There aren’t awards given out for high draft picks and tons of cap space.
Shanahan and Lynch have their faults, including many that have panned out over the course of 2021. Shanahan can be stubborn, putting players in the proverbial “doghouse” who probably shouldn’t be there. Lynch has blundered on draft selections and trades, too. If it weren’t for the Niners’ recent push to get back into playoff contention, there’d be a good chance both would start off 2022 on the hot seat.
Related Story: Why Kyle Shanahan shouldn’t be on the coaching hot seat
Yet there’s one key difference between any frustrations with the Shanahan-Lynch regime and what happened with Meyer.
The locker room.
Meyer lost his locker room, as evidenced by what NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported shortly after news of the firing went official:
In Niner Noise’s own conversations with many a San Francisco player, dating back to 2017 with then-defensive end Solomon Thomas, and most recently, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, the overtones do more than just suggest the locker room is sound. Sure, there have been challenges and tensions. No locker room is immune to that.
But, in contrast to just how badly Meyer lost his NFL players in the span of less than a year, it’s important to realize Shanahan and Lynch have mostly retained that level of respect.
Even if it hasn’t gone perfectly.
If anything, Meyer’s tenure in Jacksonville should serve as a reminder why head coaching doesn’t always have to be about scheme, Xs and Os. It’s about properly managing professional personalities and maintaining continuity towards whatever goals the team is striving for.
Meyer failed at that quickly. The 49ers have watched similar things happen within their organization in years prior but can be thankful they’re not experiencing that now.