It is always humbling to scrutinize one of the most decorated organizations in all of sports and highlight their missteps. Given their iconic status, the San Francisco 49ers are not known as an organization that makes colossal mistakes.
However, like any other franchise or individual in history, they are fallible.
Thanks to Eddie DeBartolo Jr., Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and various other legendary characters, the 80s and 90s were very good to the 49ers. Although, like all great ventures, it had to come to an end at some point.
As the team transitioned from Steve Young to Jeff Garcia, the franchise began to lose steam in the early 2000s. The coaching changes—as well as personnel changes—began to affect the environment, taking away from what was once established.
After George Seifert left, there were a number of mistakes made under Steve Mariucci, Dennis Erickson and Mike Nolan. In a decade of disarray, most of the blunders were draft-related.
In the following piece, we’ll take a look at San Francisco’s biggest mistakes in franchise history, with an emphasis on the disorder in the 2000s.
As not to completely ignore the pre-Walsh era, it is important to recognize the mistakes made during Eddie DeBartolo's trial and error process as a young, new sports owner.
Early on, the 49ers burned through multiple head coaches and went out on a limb more than once trying to ignite change.
In what was perhaps their most notorious blunder, disreputable 49ers GM Joe Thomas completed a trade for O.J. Simpson in March of 1978 (via Sports Illustrated).
This was one of a number of disasters orchestrated by Thomas; a decision largely perceived as a PR stunt, according to DeBartolo.
The young owner backed his GM at the time, approving Thomas’ decision to part with five draft picks (one No. 1 pick, two No. 2s, a No. 3 and a No. 4.) for the 31-year-old running back, per Bills Backers.
Unfortunately, the 49ers soon discovered that he was a broken-down version of his former self. Simpson incurred injury in his first year, which led to the discovery that his knees were bad.
Simpson had a prior injury, and had been dealing with arthritic knees.
Even though the 49ers auctioned more than half their draft for Simpson, the veteran RB missed significant time over two seasons, including the entire 1979 training camp. He finished his Niners career with 281 carries for 1,053 yards—averaging less than 4.0 yards per carry.
He also had eight fumbles in that time, as the team went on to finish 2-14 in back-to-back seasons (1978-79) with Simpson.
In Round 1 of the 2004 NFL draft, the 49ers spent the No. 31-overall selection on Oklahoma State wide receiver Rashaun Woods.
As a first rounder, Woods lasted merely two seasons with the team (2004-05), finishing with seven receptions for 160 yards and one touchdown.
As a 6’2”, 202-pound prospect, Woods was set to replace a disgruntled Terrell Owens, who was traded to the Eagles. He was widely regarded as a top-five player at his position, and at first glance appeared to be a capable successor.
Woods ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, and was the fourth-rated WR available, per NFL Draft Scout. Although, on Day 1, six receivers were taken before him, including Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams and Lee Evans.
Once Woods did have his name called, the two-time All-American tanked hard and fast. When on the field, he was unproductive and his work ethic was inevitably challenged.
In 2005, he was placed on IR following an injury that saw him tear ligaments in his thumb. He also endured leg and groin injuries often, which made him awfully unreliable (via Scout.com).
When Mike Nolan came into power, it did not take long for him dispatch Woods and bring in replacement, Antonio Bryant. After two dismal seasons, San Francisco traded Woods’ rights to San Diego for CB Sammy Davis.
This was an enormous miss by the 49ers.
In the 2008 NFL draft, San Francisco selected North Carolina DL Kentwan Balmer with the 29th-overall pick.
That year, Balmer was a virtual first-round lock, as the third-rated DT available, per NFL Draft Scout. Coming into the league, he was widely regarded as a premier defensive lineman.
And rightfully so—Balmer’s track record with the Tar Heels was certainly on par (h/t CBS Sports):
In 42 games at North Carolina, Balmer started 23 times. He collected 93 tackles (55 solo) with seven sacks for minus-52 yards, 17 stops for losses of 79 total yards and 10 quarterback pressures. He also deflected three passes and blocked a pair of kicks.
Although he was drafted as a tackle, Balmer was moved to defensive end in San Francisco’s 3-4 scheme. In 27 games with the Niners, the first rounder earned no starts and amassed only 19 tackles.
In 2009, Balmer was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury (torn labrum) that required surgery, per Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News. He would miss the rest of the season (5 games)—his last in scarlet and gold.
Seattle eventually waived Balmer a year later; he was then picked up by Carolina before being waived once again.
According to the Washington Post, Balmer was last reported AWOL by the Redskins, as his pro career looks to be coming to an end. He has 62 career tackles and zero sacks in his professional career (via Pro Football Reference).
This may be slightly controversial, but irrefutably, there were a litany of mistakes made during this particular era of 49ers football. After decades of excellence, San Francisco was flirting with rock bottom.
First and foremost, these issues began in the front office.
Between the defensive-minded pair of coaches in Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, San Francisco was all discipline and no direction. Neither was qualified to run an organization from the head coaching position—they didn’t have the feel or the patience.
In 2005, the 49ers—starting over with Nolan—would possess the No. 1-overall pick and select their quarterback of the future.
At the time, it was close, but the 49ers wound up selecting Smith with the first-overall pick in the draft. The reasoning behind it was Nolan felt Smith would not challenge him, whereas Rodgers had a confident individuality that irked the head coach.
Smith was picked because of his personality, per Gary Peterson of the San Jose Mercury News.
Unfair to the rookie, Smith was brought into a tainted environment that was extremely difficult to flourish in. A lack of vision and execution by the staff plagued the quarterback’s developmental years and scarred his psyche.
He also never had the opportunity to become comfortable in a singular system. Smith was thrust into a merry-go-round of offensive coordinators, featuring Norv Turner, Jim Hostler, Mike McCarthy, Mike Martz and Jimmy Raye.
Not to mention he battled injuries and competition, while having zero support from the man who drafted him, head coach Mike Nolan.
Unfortunately, in the big picture, the choice to draft Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers is widely viewed as a mistake.
In 2010, Rodgers was winning a Super Bowl while 49ers fans were chanting for David Carr. At that time, their journeys had been defined and San Francisco was reminded of the choice they made five years prior.
But honestly, who is to say the kid from Cal would have been who he is today under different circumstances. Rodgers would have been minus a Hall-of-Fame passer and handcuffed to a cynical troglodyte with no vision.
And in hindsight, everything happens for a reason. Had the 49ers selected Rodgers, the team might not be on the track they’re on now.
If San Francisco won, they would not have been consistently picking high in April, and guys like Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati and Aldon Smith all might be on other teams.
Even more so, the 49ers might not have wound up with Jim Harbaugh.
Depending on the individual, this can be perceived as a mistake or it can be perceived as fate. At the end of the day, Smith’s presence with the 49ers contributed to an anomaly that has set the organization up for a dynasty run.
Round 2, Pick 39: Chilo Rachal (2008)
Heading into the NFL draft, this former Trojan was the No. 3-rated guard available, per NFL Draft Scout.
San Francisco wound up selecting Chilo Rachal early on Day 2, and really wanted him to be the guy. He would start six games as a rookie and would take on full-time duties as a second-year man.
In three seasons with the 49ers, Rachal started 38 games, quickly revealing himself to be a weak link in the offensive line.
His uninspiring performances were very evident, as Rachal would succumb to frequent breakdowns. He was often dominated and proved to be easily confused by creative blitzing fronts.
Before long, it was clear to see Rachal was one of the worst interior linemen in professional football.
In 2011, Rachal lasted three games into the Harbaugh era before being benched for Adam Snyder. After the season was up and Rachal’s contract had expired, the 49ers did not invite the five-year pro back.
At the time, Carl Nicks and Geoff Schwartz were two offensive linemen still on the board when Chilo Rachal was selected.
Round 2, Pick 49: Taylor Mays (2010)
Coming out of USC, it appeared Mays had loads of potential.
At 6’3”, 230 pounds, this three-time All-American ran a sub-4.5 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, per NFL Draft Scout.
It was the measurables and the high-profile school that led to Mays being on the brink of first-round status. He was widely known for his abilities as a punishing hitter, and appeared to be big enough, as well as fast enough, to run with both wide receivers and tight ends.
The 49ers were hoping he was the second coming of Ronnie Lott.
Unfortunately, when it came time to play, Mays had absolutely no instincts for the safety position. He was often stiff in coverage and wasn’t very cerebral when it came to reading the offense.
Now a four-year pro, Mays still has zero career interceptions (h/t Pro Football Reference).
He played only one season for San Francisco, participating in 16 games (six starts).
Other defensive backs available at the time included Javier Arenas, Amari Spievey, Morgan Burnett, Major Wright and Kam Chancellor.
Dishonorable Mention: Israel Ifeanyi (LB), Ronald Johnson (WR)
In the 1992 NFL draft, the 49ers were looking for the successor to Hall-of-Fame defensive back, Ronnie Lott.
In Round 1, San Francisco spent the No. 18-overall pick on Dana Hall of the University of Washington. The 6’2”, 206-pound safety would end up starting 15 games as a rookie, recording two interceptions and a single sack.
He only played three seasons (26 starts) for San Francisco, lasting from 1992-94. As the years went on, Hall played less and less, until an injury eventually opened the door for Merton Hanks, via Niners Nation.
Looking back, if the 49ers were in the market for a free safety, they might’ve wanted to look at Arizona State’s Darren Woodson, who was selected by the Cowboys that year at No. 37 overall.
In the early 2000s, in what turned out to be a decade-long slump, the 49ers made a number of terrible first-round picks.
Round 1, Pick 24: Ahmed Plummer (2000)
According to NFL Draft Scout, this Ohio State product was the No. 1 cornerback available in 2000.
On draft day, Plummer would end up being the second CB taken—after Deltha O’Neal—and the second pick by the 49ers, who chose Julian Peterson at No. 16. The first-round corner would see action as a rookie, starting 59 games from 2000-03.
And in 2001, he did have a big year—one that saw him amass seven interceptions and 18 pass deflections.
However, as the years went on, he was on a clear decline and appeared to be just a run-of-the-mill DB. Eventually, the coaching staff began to lose faith in his abilities, and in 2004 Plummer would clash with coach Mike Nolan (via Rotoworld).
After playing six seasons of defensive back for the 49ers (2000-05), fighting ankle, neck and shoulder injuries throughout, Plummer would end up retiring (h/t Len Pasquarelli of ESPN.com).
In all fairness to Ahmed Plummer and the 49ers, it was an uninspiring draft class for CBs.
Round 1, Pick 27: Mike Rumph (2002)
In 2002, five players from the University of Miami were taken in Round 1, including three defensive backs.
San Francisco would attempt to cash in on the reigning National Champions’ roster by picking Mike Rumph at the end of Day 1. The mistake they made was being complacent with which player they would select.
Only three picks earlier, Rumph's Hurricanes teammate, Ed Reed, was selected by the Baltimore Ravens.
The 49ers should have been aggressive getting Reed that year, who had 17 interceptions (four touchdowns) in two seasons with the ‘Canes. And in double the time, Rumph’s numbers still did not even come close to Reed’s—yet he was taken only a couple picks later.
At the pro level, Rumph lacked the coverage skills to play cornerback, and was eventually moved to safety before washing out. It soon became clear that he was another first-round bust.
Reed, still active, has 61 career interceptions, which is good enough for 10th all-time, per Pro Football Reference. Rumph, on the other hand, retired in his fifth year, finishing with merely three career picks.
And even if they were determined not to trade up in the first round, it should be noted that the Steelers selected FS Chris Hope in Round 3 at No. 94 overall. There was talent in the middle rounds, but the personnel department failed to identify it.
Settling for Mike Rumph over Ed Reed is one of the 49ers’ biggest mistakes that is not often talked about.
Round 1, Pick 26: Kwame Harris (2003)
There were 20 future Pro Bowlers selected in the first two rounds of this draft, and with multiple needs, the 49ers missed on all of them.
Near the end of the first round, the San Francisco 49ers would select Stanford’s Kwame Harris to be their franchise tackle. He was not the most decorated lineman, but with his measurables (6'7"), Harris was the No. 2-rated tackle, per NFL Draft Scout.
The weakest aspect of his game was in pass-protection, which is something that had been an issue for the team all the way up until 2012. Since Harris rode this roster until 2007, it set the Niners back for a good part of the decade.
And there were solid offensive linemen available after Round 1, including Jon Stinchomb, Wade Smith, David Diehl and Tony Pashos—all of whom might have been better options.
And with Plummer and Rumph not working out, the 49ers also desperately needed a cornerback. California’s Nnamdi Asomugha was still on the board, and wound up being taken at No. 31 by Oakland.
Had the 49ers taken Keith Bullock (2000), Ed Reed (2002) and Nnamdi Asomugha (2003), this team might not have faltered so terribly in the 2000 decade.
But in the 2000 NFL draft, the 49ers were on the prowl for a pair of mid- to late-round QBs to provide competition at the position.
With Steve Mariucci in a position of power, the organization decided to go with Giovanni Carmazzi of Hofstra in Round 3. They also selected Tim Rattay in the final round, who is the one who wound up sticking around.
Meanwhile, Carmazzi never threw a regular-season pass for the 49ers.
Like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady was raised a 49ers fan, and grew up idolizing the iconic quarterbacks that had once captivated the Bay Area. And while he would have played for any team, Brady wanted to be in San Francisco.
In 2011, Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee reported that Brady was “still steamed” about his induction to the league.
Now a lock for the Hall of Fame, Brady said (h/t Sacramento Bee):
I remember sitting in my living room as the 49ers were drafting that day ... and seeing them pick a quarterback (Carmazzi) in the third round. I was so mad. Any time you grow up and look at a team, you grow to love that team, and I loved those players. I had gone to a whole bunch of those games growing up. I had Joe Montana and Jerry Rice on my wall. It will be nice to play them. I have been looking forward to it for a long time.
Instead of being drafted by his beloved Niners, Brady had to sit put until Round 6 (No. 199) to be taken by New England. Needless to say, the Patriots did not have the same rich tradition, and with Drew Bledsoe, they also didn’t have the need for a QB at that time.
Most teams catch flak for passing on Brady, but the 49ers were avidly looking for a quarterback that year. San Francisco was also the only team to select two quarterbacks in the draft that year.