Smith torches himself, along with Nolan Ray Ratto Wednesday, December 12, 2007
(12-11) 20:02 PST -- Well, that's it for Mike Nolan. And while we're at it, that's almost surely it for Alex Smith, too - if not immediately, then after one more season, tops. And if Denise DeBartolo York is on the level about this new general manager thing, that might be it for Tortoise-Shell Johnny as football chief, too.
In other words, the Nolan-Smith blood feud, which has reached full boil, is going to blow up a franchise that already was chest-deep in rubble. The last three years will have been a waste, and they were designed because the three years before them were a waste, from the moment in the 2002 season when John York decided to get his feelings hurt over Steve Mariucci's ongoing job search. Now the 49ers will have to start from scratch again, making the next three years a waste.
Yes, it's the York Nine-Year Plan - guaranteed to get you a new nine-year plan.
It's hard to imagine a fragmentation grenade aimed quite so well as Smith's decision to go public with his long-held frustrations with Nolan. It will have worked so well that when all the collateral damage is compiled, every important figure in the organization very well might be gone, demoted or sent back to Youngstown, Ohio, for additional management training.
And all because Smith decided that now was the time to blow up Nolan, and the best way was to bare his frustrations, in a San Jose Mercury News story Tuesday. Smith's season was over, he sensed that Nolan was vulnerable, and gave the best shove he could.
Smith blamed Nolan for ruining his presence in the locker room, for wrecking his shoulder, for just plain kneecapping his career. And there's no putting those words back in your mouth once you've expelled them, especially in a cold, unconvincing "joint statement" released by the team, most likely at its strong suggestion.
Smith knew the effect his confession would have. He did it anyway. Now Nolan can't possibly come back in 2008, no matter what his contract or his stern visage says.
Smith didn't play this as deftly as he could have, because now he has done exactly what he had been accused of doing by other players, which is going to the media to defend himself. By grousing in public that Nolan undermined him, he lost the rest of the roster, and his ability to get it back is as compromised as Nolan's.
Which brings us to Johnny York. As a leader, he has shown that he is a great charitable donor. He long ago lost the taste for being the out-front guy, which means he didn't solve the Nolan-Smith fight a month ago, when peace was still possible. He didn't listen to anyone who could have said, "You have an internal problem that will become a P.R. tire fire," because nobody in the organization has the vision or wit to say so, or a receptive ear to accept the news.
When you don't have a general manager who can call the coach and the player into the office and say, "You don't leave until this is solved, and I'm staying here to make sure you solve it," you have to do it yourself.
That isn't Johnny's style. His style is to avoid conflict, to lay low, to let someone else do it so that he won't be blamed - a style of leadership through befuddled absenteeism which is how the 49ers have become the league-wide irrelevance they are today.
Put another way, where was he a month ago when the problem started to manifest itself? Where was he Tuesday when someone allegedly in command needed to say something - anything? Out of town. Bunkered, hiding, mute. Can't see the fire, can't smell the smoke. As always.
Given all this, the new general manager (as soon as She Who Must Be Obeyed gets around to hiring him) will have an unprecedented mandate to run the shop without interference from above or below - otherwise, why would anyone in his right mind take the job?
Any general manager in complete charge wouldn't need John-Boy or Jed the Prince Regent or any of the suited helpers to offer advice, because the GM would be smarter than all of them and wouldn't be tempted to be asked their input on anything more involved than the location of the stapler. Our recommendation: Ask Mike Holmgren to list everything he could ever want, and then add $2 million extra a year. And then be prepared to negotiate upward. That's how bad this has become - when everything isn't enough.
This is how badly Terry Donahue undid the Walsh era, so badly that Nolan seemed like a brilliant alternative. And this is how comprehensively Nolan has failed, that he was faced down by a 23-year-old nice-guy quarterback with 19 touchdowns, 31 interceptions and a career passer rating of 63.5.
And this is how hideously Smith has overplayed his hand - he isn't the future of the franchise any longer. He won't return in 2008 as a conquering hero, but he will return for a general manager and a coach who didn't draft him. Unless he has something up his sleeve beyond an arm in a sling, he might have to do some hard time in Clipboard Jail before he gets a chance to resuscitate his career.
So let's review: Coach, done at season's end. Quarterback, done, sooner rather than later. On-site owner and husband of the real owner, done. Yeah, I'd say Smith has dropped the big one, big time. Eventually, we might find that in taking out Nolan and sacrificing himself, he actually saved the franchise from its own soul-crushing incompetence.
But you're going to have to put up with three more years of garbage football to know for sure, which begs one final question:
Are you up for another nine-year plan at these prices? And to that one, only you have the answer.
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