Go ahead, guys. Celebrate.

Ordinarily, you'd look a bit silly. I mean, really, what's the big deal? Despite your preseason expectations, you needed to beat the hapless Cardinals just to avoid last place in the worst division in NFL history. Beat 'em you did, to finish a lowly 6-and-10.

And in a crumbling stadium virtually empty, you showered your coach with Gatorade.

To an unknowing observer, the celebration might've looked odd, or even pathetic. ("That franchise used to win Super Bowls, right?") But having lived through this season of insufferable torture, we saw it differently, and we understood.

You weren't celebrating your victory. You were celebrating your freedom.

Free at last of a certain coach's tyrannical oppression, we played with a joyful abandon that Jim Tomsula had wisely encouraged. "He thought all year we played cautious and didn't enjoy the game," Alex Smith said. "We kind of let loose tonight." And it certainly showed. After an opening series of run, run, pass, punt--just for old times' sake, I guess--Smith went out in style, throwing deep and setting a personal record for yards in a win. (Those yards were still only 276, which pretty much says it all.) Meanwhile, on D, Greg Manusky was equally aggressive, dialing up exotic blitzes and coverage schemes. And though, again, what we are against the Cardinals isn't ever what we are, we couldn't help but wonder what indeed we might've been. "It's a great what-if," Smith said, on his way to anywhere-but-here. "I know we'll never know."

And so the season closed, with great regret but great relief.

Of course, strong showings in meaningless late-season games are nothing new around here, and in the past they'd proven dangerous, inflating false hopes that masked core defects that went unfixed. But THIS year, Jed's committed to hiring a new GM, who will hire a new coach, who will hire a new quarterback. So THIS year, no false hopes will get in the way.



Last week, Jed boldly announced that he'd look high and low for his new GM. He acknowledged that Trent Baalke had been working "sort of in a GM-like role," and thus would be considered, but he stressed that "we need to go out and look at a lot of other people that have been there, that have done that before." He admitted that he'd jumped the gun on the internal promotion of a certain coach, and he wouldn't make that mistake again.

The implication was that the mistake was the internal promotion. After all, though internal promotions make plenty of sense when you're successful, they seem downright stupid when you're wrapping up a decade of futility. But if we're to believe the blogosphere's nearly unanimous prediction, the mistake wasn't the internal promotion. The mistake was merely making it too fast.

So THIS time, as promised, Jed will "get this right." He'll speak to (and waste the time of) plenty of guys who have been there and done that. And THEN he'll make the internal promotion.

See? All better.

There are three salient reasons why Jed must pass on Baalke. The first, of course, is that Baalke's unqualified. Last year, Jed (more or less) explained the breadth of a GM's skillset: "not just a personnel piece, but the understanding of, you know, contract negotiations, the market for players, ... the business aspect of sports." Baalke's a scout. He might be a GOOD scout (more on this later), but that's just the "personnel piece." He's got no experience in the nuts and bolts of building an organization. And for the first task the GM will face--hiring a coach--he's got less experience than Jed himself.

The second reason, again, is that Baalke's already here. He's been here for six years, six non-winning years. Has he increased our talent? Sure. In '04 we had none, and we've now got the most in the NFC West. (Huzzah!) But Jed seems to think--false hope alert--we've got enough to contend for the Super Bowl, and that just isn't true. It's not just at quarterback, a weakness that Jed's acknowledged. Think of the OTHER crucial positions: deep-threat receiver, shutdown corner, pass-rushing linebacker. In our search for elite talent at those positions, we're no closer now than we were in '05. So even regarding the "personnel piece," Baalke's hardly a proven genius.

The third reason is the product of the first two. If Baalke's unqualified to evaluate coaches, and if he's overrated at evaluating players, how on earth will he land a top coach? Jed's stressed the importance of having a GM and coach who are "on the same page." But if Baalke can't credibly judge a coach's performance or even his own, why would ANY coach, much less a top one, get on a page with Baalke?

Enough. It's time for Jed to see his franchise for what it is, and stop rewarding the lightweights who've built it. It's time for Jed to open his eyes. It's time for Jed to summon some guts.

In the waning days of his reign in Denver, Mike Shanahan sought some advice. He brought in a proven team-builder and asked him to give him some thoughts on his roster. Shanahan, of course, was no slouch as a team-builder. But the outsider told him his team was awful. Shanahan didn't listen, and he plowed ahead with his roster intact. Shortly thereafter, of course, he was canned.

The outsider's name was Michael Lombardi.

Impressively, Jed himself sought advice from Lombardi, who'd frequently criticized Jed's operation. We can safely assume that Lombardi told him some hard truths, much like the ones he dumped on Shanahan. Unfortunately, it looks like Jed didn't listen either; Lombardi ceded the job to Baalke, suggesting that Jed wasn't "open to new ideas and new challenges." Suggesting, frankly, that Jed was a coward.

This is Jed's last chance. He can't afford to blow it.

Lombardi's got roots in Niners glory. He's well connected to notable big-name West Coast coaches, including Harbaugh, Jed's Plan A. Short of the seemingly unavailable Mike Holmgren, Lombardi's clearly the perfect choice.

If Jed wants our NEXT celebration to have real meaning, THAT'S the choice he'll make.