When Chip Kelly was close to taking the San Francisco 49ers job nearly one year ago, he was warned by some of those he trusted that it wasn’t the most stable situation. Part of the fan base had soured on team owner Jed York. The hometown media was hammering general manager Trent Baalke. The roster quality had depleted. And the new stadium added significant financial pressure to recapture a Super Bowl window that closed as quickly as it had opened.
It was obvious from the start that Kelly was looking at a messy opportunity, one rife with internal strife that would contribute to his undoing after only 347 days on the job. After speaking to multiple sources – some close to Kelly, some inside the 49ers franchise and some in the NFL personnel community – what has emerged is a picture of a hire that was exactly what many perceived it to be: awkward and doomed from the start. And it started from the moment York zeroed in on a coach he believed could save a franchise that was crumbling internally.
Kelly was told as much by some close to him, too. If he took the 49ers job, his hire was going to be sold as the adrenalin shot to reinvigorate the franchise. He would be expected to pull off something transformative in 2016, despite a jagged union of personalities and agendas. It meant working for an impetuous and involved owner in York; sitting in football meetings with head of football operations Paraag Marathe, a numbers guy whose influence over ownership was unparalleled; and navigating his way alongside Baalke, who – fairly or not – had been tagged by some in the personnel community as untrustworthy.
Most would have surveyed those icebergs and steered elsewhere. But Kelly’s belief in himself and his coaching abilities are seemingly unrivaled. And that’s a large part of why he took the job. That, along with a concrete contract and the backing of York and front-office executive Tom Gamble, a Kelly ally when both were working for the Philadelphia Eagles.
“He thought he had Jed [York] behind him,” said one NFL personnel source close to Kelly. “And [assistant general manager] Tom Gamble was there, so he had a guy upstairs in his corner. [Chip] wasn’t going to be getting involved in [personnel] decisions, but that support was important. … He just thought it was a place where he could go and turn it in the right direction. That’s the part [about Chip] that people have right – he has the confidence and self-belief that he can coach up any situation.”
In hindsight, that confidence was a mistake. But two other factors also helped drive Kelly forward, sources say: First, he felt burned by the fallout with the Eagles, specifically executive Howie Roseman. Kelly wanted to get back on his feet quickly and right his career. Second, the 49ers materialized as the most concrete (and only) NFL head coaching opportunity available. While friends reached out to Kelly and invited him to spend some time with their organizations as he regrouped (including the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick), York was the only one who immediately expressed interest in snapping up Kelly.
All of those factors played a part in blinding Kelly. Said one longtime NFL evaluator who knows Kelly and also has personal insight into the 49ers and York: “Chip had no idea what he was walking into. He had no idea what that job was going to be.”
That it was going to be different from the Philadelphia experience was apparent quickly. After the Eagles divorce, Kelly felt like his involvement in the push-and-pull between ownership and personnel decisions was the battleground that destroyed him. So while some assumed he would try to again dabble in those affairs with the 49ers, Kelly actually swung the opposite way. And at times it seemed dramatic.
According to one 49ers source, Kelly seemed very careful to avoid problems with Baalke from the moment he stepped into the building. So much so that the 49ers source said Kelly basically took a backseat to Baalke on draft weekend, operating with a low-key demeanor that left some in the war room thinking he was making a point of not inserting himself into some of the decisions. Another source close to Kelly said it was more along the lines of him being observant and thoughtful before inserting an opinion. But his approach on draft weekend left the impression with some that Kelly was going out of his way to let Baalke control the room.
Yet, even taking that backseat wasn’t going to make the Kelly-Baalke marriage feel less forced. If anything, it compartmentalized the two from each other. Despite having his thoughts on the team’s makeup and players, sources say Kelly made it a point to steer clear of anything that might make it seem like he was trying to sway York or undermine Baalke. But 49ers sources said that never quite brought the two men together. Instead, they often seemed to be working independently of each other.
There were other gripes, too. There was an unspoken curiosity about Marathe’s role in the franchise and why he was sitting in meetings that encompassed football evaluation. And there was a running joke – also shared by some on the outside of the 49ers organization – that Baalke wanted to be both a coach and general manager.
How much any of that played into Kelly’s short stint is debatable. This isn’t: The losses and uncertainty with Baalke’s job status took their toll on everyone in the building. Then the situation got more uncomfortable in early December when Kelly’s father died unexpectedly. According to one source, Baalke called a staff meeting at some point during Kelly’s two days away from the franchise, apparently hoping to send a message about rallying down the stretch. Some in the building felt calling such a meeting was inappropriate with Kelly out of town.
Whether that was the breaking point between the two is unknown. But it quickly became obvious to those close to Kelly that Baalke wasn’t in the coach’s corner. It also became clear that Baalke was going to be fired regardless of how the team finished. Finally, despite a Week 16 win against the Los Angeles Rams, one team source told Yahoo Sports that “everyone in the building” was being evaluated and was subject to being fired, including Kelly and his coaching staff. And within a few days, word leaked that both Kelly and Baalke would be fired.
While York wasn’t specific about the toxic state of the environment, he opened a window when speaking with the media Monday about what he wants going forward.
“I think the most important thing is having the head coach and the general manager working together, battling for each other and being on the same page,” York said. “That’s paramount. I’ve certainly seen that in my time. That’s my focus and that’s my goal to make sure those two are together, they’re working on the same page and they know that they have the opportunity to build this thing the right way together.”
Working together. Battling for each other. Being on the same page.
That the 49ers brain trust failed to achieve this over the 347 days of Chip Kelly and Trent Baalke wasn’t a surprise. Even a year ago, when Kelly was being sold as the answer by York, such harmony seemed far-fetched. It’s clear now that this coach and general manager weren’t working together at the end, weren’t battling for each other and most definitely weren’t on the same page.
By some accounts, maybe they never were at all.