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10 worst decisions in 49ers history

Marc Adams
Mar 20, 2023 at 8:55 AM--

The San Francisco 49ers have made a lot of great decisions in its history. You don't win five Super Bowls and have the success they've enjoyed without many great decisions. But there have also been plenty of bad decisions in the team's history.

Since it's the offseason, and decisions are being made to build the current 49ers' roster, I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the worst decisions in team history. I've broken them up into two categories: 1) Decisions that likely cost the team a championship, and 2) Decisions that may not have cost the team a championship, but were still bad enough to include.

So we're looking for bad decisions that cost the 49ers at least one Super Bowl, or were bad enough decisions that cost the team significantly in other ways. And while I'm usually the optimistic type, and tend to focus on the positive things, there have been too many great decisions in 49ers' history to list in a piece like this. So I decided to focus on the bad ones. This should be fun, right?

No, I didn't include using three first-round picks on Trey Lance. It's still too early to determine if that was a bad decision or not. Sometimes I do wonder what would have happened if they would have just stayed put and let the draft fall to them. But that's another story.

And I didn't include drafting Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers. As it's been well-argued, no one knows if Rodgers would have fared any better on those horrible 2005-2010 teams. Then again, if Rodgers had been the QB Jim Harbaugh inherited in 2011, who knows what would've happened? I could easily talk myself into including that one, but I'll resist.

I also did not include failing to draft Tom Brady. Mainly because no one knew Brady would become who he became. In fact, every NFL team passed on him, multiple times, including the New England Patriots.

With that in mind, let's jump into the worst decisions in 49ers' history.

Five decisions that likely cost the team a championship:

1. Trading Charles Haley to Dallas
Charles Haley had 63.5 QB sacks (regular season) in his six seasons with the 49ers. He also had 7.5 postseason sacks. But sacks only tell part of the story.

During his time in San Francisco, Haley wrecked opposing offenses and terrorized opposing quarterbacks. He won two Super Bowls with the 49ers and, for part of that time, was the best player on a defense that had Ronnie Lott roaming the secondary.

But Haley had become a problem in the 49ers' locker room. He was upset the team had allowed Lott to leave and sign elsewhere. Haley, who later revealed his battle with bipolar disorder, was spinning out of control. His volatile relationship with teammates and coaches had become too much for head coach George Seifert to deal with.

So in 1992, the 49ers did something unprecedented. In what turned out to be the worst decision in franchise history, the 49ers traded away Charles Haley. Not only did they trade their best defensive player, but they also traded him to an up-and-coming Dallas Cowboys team. One of the NFL's most feared defensive players would now be playing against them, rather than for them.

It was a move that likely cost the 49ers a few more Lombardi trophies. Haley won three with Dallas, two of which came at the expense of his former team.

2. Not resigning Ricky Watters and Deion Sanders after the 1994 Super Bowl season
Ricky Watters and Deion Sanders were critical parts of the 1994 Super Bowl team. Both left in free agency following that season. The 49ers apparently did not make much of an effort to bring either one back. Sanders has even said as much.

It's obvious what Sanders brought to the team. He's the greatest cover corner in league history, and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1994.

But at the time, I actually thought Watters was a more significant loss. It's hard to imagine that, considering Sanders is one of the greatest players ever, but what Watters meant to the 49ers' offense was immense, and he left a void that was not addressed for a couple of seasons.

Watters was to Mike Shanahan's offense what Christian McCaffrey is to Kyle Shanahan's offense, and what Roger Craig was to Bill Walsh's offense. Watters was not only a threat in the run game, but he was also a dynamic receiver out of the backfield. Shanahan could line him up all over the field, making him a consistent mismatch.

But I'm not the only one who believes Watters was a bigger loss than Sanders. I've heard Steve Young say it on multiple occasions. And you can argue that if Watters alone returned in 1995, the 49ers would have had a chance to win another Super Bowl. If Watters and Sanders had returned, they likely would have won another one.

To put it into a more current perspective, imagine the 49ers making little to no effort to bring back Nick Bosa and Christian McCaffrey this offseason.

3. Drafting Solomon Thomas instead of Patrick Mahomes
This isn't a Solomon Thomas bashing. He clearly shouldn't have been drafted number three overall. The 49ers claimed they would have drafted him number two overall if they hadn't traded the pick to Chicago. He probably shouldn't have been drafted in the first round at all.

It's easy to critique decisions in hindsight, but while the 49ers were drafting a defensive player who has made little impact on his teams, the Kansas City Chiefs drafted a quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, that has already won two Super Bowls and could end up being one of the greatest ever.

Shanahan admitted to not watching much, if any, tape on Mahomes because he knew they weren't taking a QB in the first round in 2017. Plus he had his eyes on Kirk Cousins. Imagine passing on Mahomes for Cousins.

That decision has already cost the 49ers one championship directly when they lost to Mahomes in Super Bowl LIV. It's very possible it cost them two others in 2021 and 2022. Certainly, the 49ers would have beaten the Rams and Eagles with Mahomes.

4. Not signing Tom Brady after the 2019 season
You can't fault the 49ers for not drafting Brady. But after the 2019 season, when Brady became a free agent, and made it known he wanted to play for his childhood team, it was a bad decision to stick with Jimmy Garoppolo instead of signing Brady.

I have to confess, I wanted them to stick with Garoppolo. He had almost won the Super Bowl, and Brady had not looked good in 2019. But I was wrong. So were the 49ers. Brady won the Super Bowl in 2020 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

He likely would have done the same with the 49ers in 2021—and maybe 2022.

5. Letting Kyle Williams return punts
Maybe we should blame Ted Ginn, Jr. for this one. He was the punt returner in 2011, but missed the NFC Championship Game due to injury. That meant the 49ers were stuck with wide receiver Kyle Williams returning punts.

As you'll recall, Williams turned the ball over twice, in Giants territory, allowing the visiting team to score both times, and preventing the 49ers from making it to the Super Bowl.

Would the 49ers have beaten the Patriots in that Super Bowl? Who knows? But I remember liking that matchup at the time.

Five decisions that may not have cost the team a championship, but were still bad enough to include:

1. Firing Jim Harbaugh
"Who's got it better than us?"

It was the battle cry from Jim Harbaugh's time in San Francisco. From the time he arrived in 2011, Harbaugh completely changed the culture, leading a team that hadn't had a winning season since 2002, to three consecutive NFC Championship Games, and one Super Bowl appearance.

Harbaugh and his very talented coaching staff were able to take a team that had been underachieving and build it into a consistent winner that punished the opposition. The players embodied the tough, blue-collar mindset (they even had t-shirts) that their coach displayed, and the 49ers were very successful in the four years Harbaugh coached them.

Even during his final season, an injury-riddled 2014, they still finished 8-8.

But Harbaugh, who is known for being eccentric and, at times, difficult, rubbed management and ownership the wrong way, to the point that Jed York fired Harbaugh, saying the coach and the organization had, "mutually parted ways." Harbaugh revealed years later that it wasn't mutual, that he was fired, but we already knew that.

I'm not sure this decision cost the 49ers a championship. After all, they came close but missed three times with Harbaugh. But the decision to fire a popular and successful coach alienated the fanbase and set the team back. After the 2014 season, not only did the team lose most of their great coaches, they saw a mass exodus of players, due to free agency (like RB Frank Gore) and retirement (like LB Patrick Willis, DL Justin Smith, LB Chris Borland, and OT Anthony Davis).

The fact that York fired Harbaugh and kept terrible GM Trent Baalke still makes me angry to this day.

2. Hiring Jim Tomsula as head coach
If it wasn't bad enough that the 49ers fired a great coach like Harbaugh, they followed up that wretched decision by promoting defensive line coach, Jim Tomsula, to head coach.

Tomsula was a great defensive line coach, who was once seen in a sideline video screaming, "bludgeon," while firing up his players, making him beloved by the fanbase. But he was beloved as a defensive line coach only. No one wanted him to be the head coach.

The fanbase was up in arms, and after Tomsula's introductory press conference, our worst fears were unfolding before our very eyes. It was immediately clear that Tomsula was not ready to be a head coach. From his stammering responses to his lauding of Joan in Payroll, everyone except York and Baalke seemed to know the team was in for a rough season.

Tomsula made some head-scratching decisions right off the bat, in terms of building his coaching staff. He was smart enough to keep Tom Rathman as his running backs coach, but filled out some other spots with names like Geep Chryst (offensive coordinator), Eric Mangini (defensive coordinator), Steve Logan (QB coach), Adam Henry (WR coach), Tony Sparano (TE coach- actually not a bad hiring), Chris Foerster (offensive line- why does that name sound familiar?), Scott Brown (defensive line), Clancy Pendergast/Jason Tarver (LB coaches), and Tim Lewis (secondary coach).

Players have since said things that showed they didn't have much faith in this coaching staff. I remember one player later saying that when it came to strategy and gameplan, "We never had a chance."

A couple of weeks ago on The 49ers Camelot Show, I interviewed Matt Barrows, of the Athletic. I asked him what press conferences, in his 20 years covering the 49ers, were his most memorable. He mentioned the Tomsula introductory press conference, saying that when it was over, he looked at Matt Maiocco, and said, "Well, I guess I'll see you here this time next year."

He was right.

3. Trading for O.J. Simpson
In 1978, the 49ers traded for former top pick O.J. Simpson. Before he was committing double homicides, Simpson was a star running back for the Buffalo Bills.

Simpson was on the downside of his Hall of Fame career and the Bills fleeced the 49ers in a massive, one-sided deal. The 49ers traded their second and third-round picks in 1978, first and fourth-round picks in 1979, and a 1980 second-rounder to acquire Simpson. That 1979 first-rounder would become the number-one overall pick. Ouch!

Simpson rushed for only 1,053 in two seasons in San Francisco.

4. Drafting Jim Drukenmiller instead of Jake Plummer
In 1997, Bill Walsh, who was a consultant with the 49ers at the time, recommended the team draft quarterback, Jake Plummer. Walsh liked Plummer a lot and said Plummer reminded him of Joe Montana.

Instead, the 49ers drafted Jim Drukenmiller in the first round. It didn't go well.

Drukenmiller started one NFL game in his lone NFL season. Plummer, who was drafted in the second round, started 136 games in his 10-year career. While Plummer never became Montana, he was a good quarterback who, had he been in the right situation, might have developed into the QB Walsh envisioned.

The lesson? If Bill Walsh tells you to draft a QB, because he reminds the coach of Joe Montana...draft the QB!

5. Firing Steve Mariucci
Steve Mariucci inherited a talented team that was only three years removed from winning a Super Bowl. Despite losing quarterback Steve Young (concussion) and wide receiver Jerry Rice (knee injury) in the first game of the season, Mariucci was able to get his team to the NFC Championship Game.

Mariucci's team was really good in 1998, as well, but the bottom fell out in 1999. The team was aging, and in "salary cap hell" due to big-name free-agent signings and restructures to keep the team in a position to win another Super Bowl.

That 1999 season, which saw Young's career end with another concussion, began a two-year rebuild. Even through that, Mariucci was still more successful with a young, rebuilding team than other rebuilding coaches like Tomsula, Dennis Erickson, Chip Kelly, or Mike Nolan.

Despite turning the team around, and getting them back into the playoffs in 2001 and 2002, Mariucci was fired following the 2002 season. He was replaced by Erickson, a great offensive mind, but a horrible head coach.

The 49ers would not have another winning season until 2011 (nine seasons later).

Honorable mention: Playing Aldon Smith after his alcohol-induced car crash in 2013. Playing Smith in that game didn't necessarily hurt the team long-term, but it was a really bad look. Although Smith's troubles were no secret leading up to that, the accident foretold Smith's looming downfall, personally and professionally.

Another honorable mention: Allowing Lawrence Phillips, the troubled running back, to be responsible for pass protection in a 1999 Monday Night Football game against the Arizona Cardinals. Phillips missed a blitz pickup from cornerback Aeneas Williams, who knocked Young out of the game (and season) with a concussion. The 49ers finished the season 4-12. Young never played again.

Those are my 10 worst decisions in 49ers history. What are yours?

Catch the podcast version of this piece by watching, or listening wherever you get your podcasts!
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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