Kawakami: My overdue 49ers Updated Scapegoat List — new dynamics, same names at the top (2024)

The dynamics of this are all turned around and it’s not at all because I’ve changed jobs, companies and titles.

I’ve been churning out 49ers Updated Scapegoat Lists for several years now because it’s amusing (to me, at least) and also a pretty handy way to keep track of an organization that has been this dysfunctional for this long and has gone through this many executives, coaches, players and political upheavals since 2014.


But I’ve always compiled this from a very specific point of view: Who will the Yorks blame if and when things start to go wrong and how will they do it?

If you want to get a line on what’s about to happen and who’s about to get blamed in 49ersland, it has always been helpful to approach it from a York-to-outside world vantage point.

However, for my first 49er USL of The Athletic Bay Area era, things are changed mostly because owner Jed York gave Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch six-year deals worth about $66 million combined last winter and that is very, very significant.

That means Lynch and Shanahan are removed from potential scapegoating for at least another year or so — the Yorks just can’t afford to rip up this administration quite yet, and I happen to agree with most everything Lynch and Shanahan have done so far, anyway.

And, pointedly, Shanahan/Lynch actually want to do away with the impulsive blame-somebody-blame-them-now atmosphere at 49ers HQ.

So far, even through this disintegrating 0-9 start, the 49ers’ serenity has held. Lynch and Shanahan are in control of this ship and they’ve just added Jimmy Garoppolo to underline the long-range plan that is in full effect.

It’s the first time the 49ers have been this organized toward a distant goal — without the promise of any kind of immediate reward — since Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan came onboard together in 2005 and eventually built up that roster from desolation to something workable.

And then of course Nolan was deservedly fired midway through the 2008 season, McCloughan left due to personal reasons before the 2010 draft, and that’s exactly the kind of chaos that gave life to this item!

Oh well, times change, regimes change, money changes hands, and I’ve got to change the focus of this item now. That is, until and unless I detect a reversion to the old York scapegoating ways, and we’ll check back in about a year on this one.


So this Updated Scapegoat List will expand its horizons. It won’t and can’t be just about who the Yorks are about to blame or are blaming. This list is focused on the general blame game — who’s getting heat from the fans, who the Yorks might be considering blaming and who actually seems to be causing this, or is failing to fix it.

And though I’ve committed myself in the past to only mention current 49ers figures on the USL, this time those six-year deals plus the mitigating previous lousiness have nudged me to include past figures, because so much has gone into making the 49ers so bad.

My Updated 49ers Scapegoat List (November 2017 edition)

1. Former GM Trent Baalke.

I admit that sometimes I do feel like I’m picking on poor TB, who, after all, was the GM during this franchise’s most recent high point, drafted NaVorro Bowman, Colin Kaepernick and Mike Iupati, and even in his worst periods still managed to find potential gems like Trent Brown and Jaquiski Tartt.

And Baalke got fired at the end of last season, so there really should be a shelf life for the amount of blame he can receive after he was ushered out of Levi’s Stadium.

However … if you had to single out one person to fault for this roster that is essentially without playmakers and one person whose decisions led to the decline from three straight NFC Championship Game appearances to 8-8 to 5-11 to 2-14 and to 0-9 … it’s Baalke.

I’ve written about his sour mood and prickly temperament and how all of that fouled the entire personality of this franchise. I’ve written about his stubbornness, obsession with drafting players suffering from recent ACL injuries and his inability to find offensive talent. I’ve written about his clashes with Jim Harbaugh setting up the detonation of that era and the rampant paranoia that followed.


But Baalke’s real effect on the here and now occurred in his last five drafts — these are the drafts that should’ve set up the 49ers for years, with all the picks accumulated and all the moves Baalke made; and what do the 49ers have to show for it? Embarrassingly little. Almost nothing.

It’s how 0-9 and 2-23 since the start of 2016 happens.

Let’s go through the Baalke Decline drafts …

2012: Seven total picks, three in the first four rounds (A.J. Jenkins, LaMichael James and Joe Looney).

Currently on the team: Nobody from this draft class is left on the 49ers roster.

2013: 11 total picks, six in the first four rounds (Eric Reid, Tank Carradine, Vance McDonald, Corey Lemonier, Quinton Patton and Marcus Lattimore).

Currently on the team: Only Reid and Carradine, and maybe not after this season.

2014: 12 total picks seven in the first four rounds (Jimmie Ward, Carlos Hyde, Marcus Martin, Chris Borland, Brandon Thomas, Bruce Ellington and Dontae Johnson).

Currently on the team: Only Ward, Hyde, Johnson and Aaron Lynch.

2015: 10 total picks, six in the first four rounds (Arik Armstead, Jaquiski Tartt, Eli Harold, Blake Bell, Mike Davis and DeAndre Smelter).

Currently on the team: Only Armstead, Tartt, Harold, Bradley Pinion and seventh-round steal Trent Brown.

2016: 10 total picks, four in the first four rounds (DeForest Buckner, Joshua Garnett, Will Redmond and Rashard Robinson).

Currently on the team: Only Buckner and Ronald Blair are on the active roster from this draft class; Garnett has been on IR all season.

That’s 26 total picks in the first four rounds of five consecutive drafts, and only 13 of them are left on the roster.

And of those those 13, only a handful — Buckner, Tartt, Harold, Brown, Hyde, Ward and Pinion — seem like sure bets for 2018, and one of them is a punter.


The Raiders aren’t exactly loaded for bear throughout their roster, but for quick comparison’s sake, just in the 2014 and 2015 drafts, GM Reggie McKenzie landed Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, Gabe Jackson, Justin Ellis, TJ Carrie (all in 2014), Amari Cooper and Mario Edwards Jr. (in 2015).

That’s better.

You can add in Baalke’s questionable free-agent additions (Zane Beadles? Reggie Bush? Erik Pears? Shareece Wright?) and his inability to get along with talented coaches, for sure. But the draft devastation over Baalke’s last five years is the most significant thing that has happened to this franchise and it’s obviously worthy of the No. 1 slot even in Baalke Absentia.

This is the last time I’ll put Baalke on this list, I promise, but he’s still deserving.

As someone pointed out to me on Twitter recently, isn’t it interesting that 49ers management leaked like a sieve during the Baalke-Harbaugh turmoil, then after Harbaugh was fired, and then through the Chip Kelly year and the Colin Kaepernick tension. But now that Baalke’s gone: Almost no leaks so far.

Yes, interesting. I don’t think Baalke was doing most of the direct leaking, but he was definitely the genesis of some of it. That’s obvious.

Which reminds me: Gee, anybody heard from Trent, lately?

2. Jed York.

He picked Baalke over Harbaugh. He wanted Jim Tomsula as the coach in 2015. He tried to pretend that Kelly and Baalke would be a perfect coach-GM marriage in 2016 when every ounce of evidence screamed otherwise.

He built Levi’s Stadium, collected the hundreds of millions in profit since the 2014 opening, hosted a Super Bowl, and nobody really seems to like the place that much, especially when you’re sitting on (or abandoning) the sunny side.

But York mitigated this situation, and his place on this list, the only way an owner can — he shelled out the millions to get rid of Tomsula, Kelly and finally Baalke and then paid even more to land the Shanahan-Lynch combo. So far there is no valid argument that Jed could’ve done any better.


Go ahead: Tell me who would be better, even after 0-9, than Shanahan and Lynch. It’s not a long list. Come up with that list, then tell me who York could actually get.

Now, if Shanahan and Lynch can’t move this team into some semblance of respectability by, say, the middle of 2018, then things could get dicey in the York infrastructure.

Denise DeBartolo York, the true owner, has let her eldest son run things for years, and he delivered the Levi’s ATM. But if laying out a total of over $80 million in buyouts and payouts can’t get the 49ers back into the playoffs by 2019 or so, and if all the losing exposes the York family to extreme criticism … what’s the point of having Jed out there as the front man?

The Levi’s cash allays a lot of the consternation. And Jed spending it on two confident, smart, affable guys gives them all some breathing room. Now Shanahan and Lynch just have to succeed, and if they don’t, we’ll see what starts to leak out (or doesn’t).

3. Kyle Shanahan.

What’s the difference, really, between 0-9 at this point and maybe 2-7 or 3-6? Not that much. A few plays here or there in the Indianapolis, Seattle, Rams and Arizona games. It’d make 49ers fans feel better, I guess, but to what end?

If the 49ers had made those plays to give Shanahan his first wins, they’d still have the same barren roster and still would need to make the same moves into the future that they do right now.

So I don’t hold Shanahan deeply accountable for 0-9 because I think just about all win-loss details are essentially meaningless for the 49ers right now. Are they organized? Generally, yes. Does it look like Shanahan’s offensive system can work if he had better players? Yes, definitely.

Did Bill Walsh, Jimmy Johnson or Bill Parcells win immediately in their first head-coaching gigs, after inheriting terrible teams? No. In their respective Year 1s, Walsh went 2-14, Johnson 1-15 and Parcells 3-12-1. They all turned out OK, I think.


But the 49ers do have to win a game or two eventually. Until they do, the pressure will build, the shoulders will slump, and those deep, dark video sessions will just get longer and more torturous.

There is also one Shanahan decision that is worth discussing: The signing of Brian Hoyer as the placeholder quarterback and playing him for the first six games, which were immensely bad.

If I needed a QB and could select anybody to choose one and coach him for me, I’d still have Shanahan in my top five — probably along with Andy Reid, Bill Belichick, Jim Harbaugh and I’m Not Sure Who Else.

And I think the Garoppolo acquisition was both smart and something I’d trust Shanahan on; if he wants Garoppolo, that means a lot in this league and into the future.

But the Hoyer thing is a mild warning sign. That was a chunk of money only to get them to C.J. Beathard by Week 6. Maybe just a blip in the pre-Garoppolo era, but still something.

Some 49ers fans aren’t sure Shanahan should hold onto the offensive coordinator role while also running the team, and I can understand some of that. It’s a lot for a first-time coach and sometimes it’s too much even for the most experienced guys and maybe eventually Shanahan will add more senior help on the offensive side.

Still, Shanahan was hired because he’s a great play-caller and it’s hard to see how the 49ers would gain by him removing himself from that role and bringing in a lesser-qualified OC, just to make sure he has enough time to walk around and look at special teams drills.

Oh, and let’s see how Shanahan works Garoppolo into action, how the offense looks with Garoppolo, if it can protect him, and how Shanahan and Lynch set up the long-term situation with Garoppolo’s pending free agency.

Lots of stuff going on!

Also, the 49ers could’ve taken Deshaun Watson with their No. 3 overall pick, and instead they passed and took Solomon Thomas. That one is less problematic now that the 49ers have Garoppolo, but it’s still worth remembering.


4. Brian Hoyer.

If you really need to blame somebody directly for the poor play that has led to 0-9, and I know there are many who do need this, then blame Hoyer for those early-season errant passes.

He’s gone now. We won’t be listing him anymore. Garoppolo will be the guy soon. But for right now, and for those memories of the perfect pass to Shanahan on the sideline and the laser shots to nowhere, Hoyer is a perfect essentially meaningless scapegoat for winlessness.

5. John Lynch.

A-plus for being nimble enough and friendly enough with Bill Belichick to land Garoppolo. Let’s start with that. Can’t be a scapegoat for getting somebody five other teams probably would’ve lined up to acquire.

In addition, I think the 49ers’ 2017 draft is already looking relatively solid, and Lynch is the guy calling the draft shots (except at the offensive skill positions, and even then I’m sure Shanahan largely defers to Lynch and personnel director Adam Peters).

But it’s worth looking at.

Basically, I think Lynch is the guy who picked Solomon Thomas and then traded for the pick that turned into Reuben Foster in the first round this year. If those guys don’t remake the 49ers defense — if Thomas doesn’t turn into an above-average starter and if Foster can’t stay healthy — that won’t look great for Lynch.

I’ve defended Thomas’ early play. He’s not ever going to be an impact edge rusher, and it’s not his fault the 49ers took him so high. He’s a combo lineman and he’ll make most of his plays with effort and persistence more than brute strength and raw speed.

And I applauded the trade for Foster when Lynch made it, and Foster has fulfilled every bit of that … when he has been healthy. He just hasn’t been healthy that often.

The 49ers need to capitalize on every single early-round pick of the Lynch-Peters draft era, and Thomas and Foster were the start of it — and of the responsibility on Lynch’s shoulders.


Also, if the Garoppolo extension never happens, that’ll largely be on Lynch. And then he has to go find a path to another QB.

6. Jimmy Garoppolo.

Hasn’t played a down yet for the 49ers. Has barely played in his entire three-plus year NFL career. He’s still the most important player on the 49ers’ roster, and not by a little bit.

He’s a potential franchise savior, but that also comes with a warning sign: Fans can turn on you quick if you don’t quite live up to their hopes and dreams rather quickly.

Garoppolo’s situation also could be the most important contract negotiation for this team since Jed messed up the extension talks with Harbaugh. Assuming Garoppolo gets something close to $20 million a year guaranteed for several years, he also will be their highest-paid player. Ever.

7. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.

My last USL, written just after Shanahan’s hiring (for some other publication), had Saleh way up high, because he’s running the side of the ball that Shanahan can’t, and if Saleh’s defense didn’t hold up, he would’ve been the first guy on the firing line this offseason.

But it’s a testament to the job Saleh has done with the 49ers defense this season that his name and reputation have largely been unscathed through the 0-9 journey.

In fact, the NFL people I talk to actually single out Saleh’s defensive strategies this season as a strong positive for his career moving forward. OK, these NFL people also admit that Saleh gets the large benefit of following Jim O’Neil, who was completely overwhelmed by the job last year.

8. Aldon Smith.

Another guy I keep picking on — and Aldon hasn’t played for the 49ers since 2014 and hasn’t played in the NFL since 2015.

But I think Smith’s stunted 49ers career was the perfect emblem of the 49ers’ rise, confusion, instability and then utter senselessness.


The 49ers miss Harbaugh, Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Alex Smith, Donte Whitner, Anquan Boldin, Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Vic Fangio, Jonathan Goodwin, Colin Kaepernick and so many others much more than they miss Aldon Smith.

I just think their codependent relationship with Smith and their inability to keep him out of trouble — despite Baalke’s love and direction and York’s public support — was an early indicator that this entire thing was rotten inside and headed for trouble.

9. Chip Kelly/Colin Kaepernick/Blaine Gabbert.

For some reason, Kelly thought he could win with the 49ers in 2016. For some reason, Baalke thought he had given Kelly everything necessary. For some reason, the Yorks convinced themselves that Kelly and Baalke were right, and would get along wonderfully together.

But no, Kelly and Baalke started battling almost immediately about the QB position — Kelly was intrigued by Kaepernick, and Baalke wanted Gabbert. That was the start of a horrendous relationship and a ridiculous 2016 season.

It might take two or three years to untangle the mess.

10. Jim Harbaugh and Tom Gamble.

If Gamble hadn’t left the 49ers in 2013 to join the Eagles to be closer to his ailing father, then Harbaugh wouldn’t have lost his last, best ally in 49ers HQ at a particularly vulnerable time.

And if Gamble hadn’t come back to the 49ers in 2015 after his father died (and after Gamble was fired for being too close to then-Eagles coach Chip Kelly), he never would’ve helped convince Kelly to come to the 49ers.

Now: Harbaugh and Gamble are together at the University of Michigan — the 49ers coach-GM tandem that never happened, and really should’ve, except for a few twists of fate.

(Top photo: Eric Risberg/AP)

Kawakami: My overdue 49ers Updated Scapegoat List — new dynamics, same names at the top (2024)
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