Since the San Francisco 49ers started the 2010 season in disappointing fashion, fans and self-purported experts alike have been calling for the head of former head coach Mike Singletary on a silver platter and proposing "sure-thing" replacements—virtually guaranteed to restore the 49ers to the glories of old.
Now that the 49ers have officially cut ties with the embattled head coach—after a Week 16 loss to the St. Louis Rams finally ended an improbable playoff run for the team—expect these speculations to intensify as the offseason approaches.
Jed York has vowed to work with his uncle—legendary former owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr.—and hire a general manager who will in turn play the primary role in hiring Coach Sing's replacement. However, the multi-phase path forward proposed by York only gives the rest of the world more time to speculate about whom the 49ers may be targeting.
A variety of names have been proposed, including former 49ers head coaches like George Seifert and Steve Mariucci. Others have proposed former Super Bowl Champion coaches with other teams, who are currently pulling a salary as television analysts, like Bill Cowher and Tony Dungy.
The odds of mutual interest being present in any of these cases is probably slim, but five other names have surfaced much more pervasively. While each of these men has a unique connection to the 49ers which feeds the supposedly logical reasons for approaching him to become the 17th head coach of the team, under closer scrutiny, none of them are optimal choices.
College Coaching Record: N/A
NFL Coaching Record: 174-122
Super Bowl Appearances: three
Super Bowl Titles: one (XXXI)
Mike Holmgren has been touted as a very chic pick for the next head coach of the 49ers. Holmgren is a Super Bowl-winning coach with GM experience, who is a collective 52 games above .500 as an NFL head coach.
Furthermore, his ties to the 49ers run deep. Holmgren is an integral part of the legendary Bill Walsh coaching tree—having served as the 49ers quarterbacks coach from 1986-1988, helping groom Joe Montana and Steve Young into Hall of Famers, before transitioning to offensive coordinator from 1989-1991 where he helped George Seifert lead the 49ers to the most dominant Super Bowl performance in NFL History.
Holmgren is a native of San Francisco with a deep respect for and personal pride in the lore of the 49ers franchise. He once commented that being head coach of the 49ers was the dream job of his adolescent and professional life.
So what is the problem?
Holmgren is currently employed as the team president of the Cleveland Browns, after a long stint as the combination GM and head coach of the Seattle Seahawks (1999-2008). His position with the Seahawks may have been the same as the one his mentor Bill Walsh held in San Francisco from 1979-1988, but he did not enjoy similar success.
In fact, in games Holmgren coached with a starting quarterback not named Brett Favre, his team managed a meager 90-80 record. While serving as a combination GM and head coach in Seattle, he took the team to Super Bowl XL—and by all accounts should have won—but overall was just 4-6 in the playoffs and bequeathed a mess of a team to the younger Jim Mora when he left for Cleveland in 2009.
Given his current position, the 49ers would likely have to offer Holmgren a hybrid GM/coach position to lure him from the Browns. That is something they seem rightfully reluctant to do. Holmgren's tenure with the Seahawks stands as strong evidence of why.
Holmgren is a more than serviceable head coach who could work in the right situation. Unfortunately, that situation does not exist in today's San Francisco.
College Coaching Record: N/A
NFL Coaching Record: 100-85
Super Bowl Appearances: one
Super Bowl Titles: one (XXXVII)
ESPN Monday Night Football color commentator Jon Gruden is another popular choice to replace Coach Sing. Fans and analysts alike seem convinced of the logic behind this choice, and—on the surface—they make a good case.
Gruden has a perfect record in Super Bowl appearances, much like the 49ers. He took a talented, but snake-bitten Tampa Bay Buccaneers team to the pinnacle of the NFL in his first year with the team (2002). It was the team's first title, something that had eluded them for years under Tony Dungy.
Gruden also has ties to the Bay Area and the 49ers. He served for four seasons (1998-2001) as head coach of the cross bay rival Oakland Raiders, taking the once floundering team to the AFC Championship in 2000. Prior to that, he served as an offensive assistant and quarterbacks coach with the 49ers in 1990 under George Seifert.
Gruden is seen as an offensive guru of sorts, whose stark contrasting style to the defensive-minded Tony Dungy was the driving force behind the Buccaneers' first and only Super Bowl Title.
Then again . . .
Even if the 49ers were interested, there may not be mutual interest from Gruden. His name has been floated in connection with a variety of recent head coaching openings, including the 49ers and the University of Miami. However, he has remained firm in his commitment to ESPN in response to all speculation.
Assuming he can be pried from the press box, is he really a good fit for an underperforming 49ers' team? Gruden was unable to achieve ultimate success with an aging but talented Raiders team which featured Rich Gannon, Tim Brown and Jerry Rice.
Gruden was successful in his first year with the Bucs, but how can we truly judge this performance? Most of the team's framework was still what Tony Dungy had built over the previous six years, and his win in Super Bowl XXXVII came against a Raiders team which he had built and coached the previous four seasons, then-coached by his hand-picked successor Bill Callahan.
After Gruden transformed the Bucs according to his own plan, they never came close to enjoying similar success. They posted winning records in three of the following six seasons under Gruden and made the playoffs twice. However, they never won another playoff game.
Furthermore, Gruden has a dangerous obsession with quarterbacks. He would often invite four or more options to camp and hold open competitions that prevented the rest of the offense from attaining any type of rhythm. You think Coach Sing was indecisive at QB? Wait until you see Gruden.
College Coaching Record: 57-27
NFL Coaching Record: N/A
Super Bowl Appearances: N/A
Super Bowl Titles: N/A
Perhaps the most popular name being floated as a potential 49ers head coach is Stanford University head coach Jim Harbaugh. In four seasons on the farm, Harbaugh has taken the Cardinal from 4-8 in 2007 to their first ever 11-1 record and a berth in the BCS FedEx Orange Bowl as the No. 4 ranked team in college football in 2010, with their only loss coming to the PAC 10-rival Oregon Ducks, the second-ranked team in the nation.
The Cardinal have improved every year under Harbaugh, becoming bowl-eligible last year at 8-5 and falling to the Oklahoma Sooners in the Sun Bowl before setting a school record in 2010 at 11-1. The turnaround from Pac-10 punching bag to BCS powerhouse has been impressive to watch, but does it make Harbaugh NFL head coach material?
Harbaugh has done a wonderful job at Stanford, but one has to question how much is due to his coaching capabilities and how much is due to extenuating circumstances. It is one thing to recruit top high school prospects to one of the nation's most prestigious universities. It is quite another to convince top NFL free agents to play for a team eight years removed from the playoffs and sell them on a long-promised turn-around that has consistently failed to materialize since the days of Steve Mariucci.
If you could play for the Patriots or the 49ers, which would you choose?
Furthermore, Harbaugh's limited track record of collegiate success is no guarantee that his talents will transfer to the pro level. Far more successful coaches have tried to make the leap to the NFL with virtually no success to show for it. Everyone was convinced Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban were top NFL coaching prospects, but both are now back where they belong in the SEC—after brief and frustrating stints in the NFL.
Much of Harbaugh's appeal lies in the parallels between his story and that of Bill Walsh. In fact, while Harbaugh holds no direct connections to the 49ers, he and Walsh are among only four men to achieve 10-win seasons at Stanford (a list that also includes Pop Warner himself). But that is no more a guarantee that Harbaugh would succeed in San Francisco than is Nate Montana's last name.
Nostalgia is much sexier and more pervasive than logic.
College Coaching Record: N/A
NFL Coaching Record: 102-109-1
Super Bowl Appearances: 0
Super Bowl Titles: 0
Norv Turner has yet to be officially fired as head coach of the San Diego Chargers, but his name is still among the most popular suggestions as Mike Singletary's successor. Turner has an extensive NFL head coaching record with the Washington Redskins, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers. His 102 career victories suggest he knows how to win.
Furthermore, he has strong connections with the 49ers, having served as their offensive coordinator in 2006. He was the only offensive coordinator to get any measure of consistent play out of former No. 1 overall pick QB Alex Smith, as Smith took every snap with the 49ers in 2006—going 7-9 while throwing for 2,890 yards with 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
Turner's rapport with Smith is probably a moot point, as few if any reputable sources expect Smith to remain with the 49ers past the 2010 finale against the Arizona Cardinals. His ability to find success with Smith where all others have failed is an indication of his offensive prowess, however, as is the consistent Top Five ranking of the San Diego offense under Turner's leadership.
But hold on a minute . . .
The 49ers are marked by major underperformance, a trait common to teams coached by Turner. Turner consistently failed to reach the playoffs with a Raiders squad highlighted by Randy Moss and Nnamdi Asomugha and watched a Chargers team with the likes of Phillip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson and LaDanian Tomlinson post a mere 3-3 record in postseason play.
Turner gets consistent results from his offenses but seems to lack the management skills to function effectively as a head coach. The odds are Turner will continue to struggle until he makes peace with the fact that he is better suited as an offensive coordinator than a head coach.
If he is willing, the 49ers would be wise to welcome Turner back as an offensive coordinator but not as a head coach. The only potential issue with bringing him back as a coordinator is that it will only be a matter of time before someone again decides to offer him a head coaching position, prolonging the instability the 49ers have had of late among their offensive system.
College Coaching Record: N/A
NFL Coaching Record: 5-27
Super Bowl Appearances: 0
Super Bowl Titles: 0
Of all the names being posted as a potential replacement for Mike Singletary, Marty Mornhinweg by far makes the least sense. But that has not stopped a surprising number of people from ardently stating that he could be the answer for the red and gold.
Mornhinweg has direct ties to the 49ers, serving as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 1997-2000. More recently, he has been touted as a “mastermind” for his work with the Philadelphia Eagles, helping Michael Vick return to the NFL and post MVP-caliber numbers. He has become a very chic pick among current coordinators poised to make the jump to head coach.
Many people have apparently forgotten his stint with the Detroit Lions. Granted he had little to work with, but his time in the Motor City was dismal. In his thus far only stint as a head coach, Mornhinweg managed just five wins in 32 games, making many critical game-management gaffes that proved he was far from head coach material.
The only thing stupider than offering Marty Mornhinweg a chance to coach your team would be trucking in Matt Millen to be your GM. Like Norv Turner, Mornhinweg is far better-suited as an offensive coordinator than a head coach; but unlike Turner, he is only a servicable offense coordinator at best. If I were Jed York, I would avoid Mornhinweg as if he were a leper.
So where should the 49ers look? A variety of options exist, though none are obvious or "sexy" picks.
Fox commentator and former Super Bowl champion coach of the Baltimore Ravens Brian Billick likely deserves a look. Billick is a defensive-minded coach with a proven ability to handle the load that comes with being a head coach. He also worked with Bill Walsh on the book Finding the Winning Edge in 1997. Pairing Billick with the likes of Turner at offensive coordinator could make for an interesting tandem and might be the combination the 49ers need to get them back into the playoffs.
Perhaps the 49ers should look back to a former assistant in little Jim Mora (not actually a junior)—who served as defensive coordinator from 1999-2003. Under his tutelage, the 49ers posted four shutouts (three in 2001) and averaged 23.4 points allowed per game. By contrast, under Greg Manusky, the 49ers have only allowed 21.7 points per game but have managed just one shutout. Putting such a defensive mind as Mora in charge of the talented but underperforming 49ers defense could be the change the team needs to right the ship.
He also took the Atlanta Falcons to the NFC Championship game in his first year as a head coach in 2004, before going 5-11 with Seattle in 2009—having never been given a real shot.
If there is any red flag associated with Jim Mora, it is that he has strong ties to former 49ers' offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. Knapp makes Jimmy Raye look downright innovative as offensive game plans go. However, Mora has shown an intensity and game planning ability that could make him a highly successful head coach, if he would only part with Greg Knapp.
Ray Rhodes is another interesting option. He has ties to the glory days of the 49ers—serving as defensive backs coach from 1981-1991—but has never found a legitimate shot with a talented team as a head coach in the NFL.
Whatever route they choose, Jed York and his yet to be named GM have their work cut out for them finding the next head coach. Ignoring the hype will be key in avoiding a potentially major gaffe that could extend the 49ers' historic playoff drought.
Keep the Faith!