Source: GM McCloughan ‘blindsided’ by 49ers

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McCloughan (left) and York (right) with 2009 first-round pick Michael Crabtree and coach Mike Singletary.
(Paul Sakuma/AP Photo )

In the organizational equivalent of fumbling a few yards from the end zone in the final minutes – and then immediately retreating to the locker room – the San Francisco 49ers reportedly told talented general manager Scot McCloughan to get lost on Wednesday, five weeks before a promising draft he helped facilitate.

Then, in a classic Niners move, their top executives retreated into Dick Cheney’s secret bunker, put their fingers in their ears and tried to pretend it was business as usual.

Suddenly, we were reminded, the Oakland Raiders aren’t the Bay Area’s only dysfunctional, tone-deaf NFL franchise.

That sound reverberating off the Transamerica Pyramid that could be heard all the way down in Santa Clara at the 49ers’ training facility – dare I say it was Al Davis laughing?

There is much to cover here, beginning with the bizarrely timed presumed departure of a well-liked general manager who’d gotten high marks for his performance from his boss and others around the league.

There is some murkiness about whether McCloughan has been officially fired, but his office has apparently been cleaned out, and it would be shocking if he were ever to return to the team facility. His agent, Peter Schaffer, expects to speak with team officials Friday, likely in an effort to work out some sort of settlement.

McCloughan, who two years ago signed a reported five-year contract worth approximately $1.25 million annually, said via text message Thursday he was “all good” and “on vacation for a few days.” I’m pretty sure that was his attempt at dry humor.

What’s not so funny is that McCloughan, who from my vantage point was the best thing to happen to the 49ers’ front office since the late Bill Walsh handed the GM reins to Terry Donahue nine years ago, won’t be there to preside over one of the more important drafts in recent Niners history. Last April McCloughan got the man he wanted, receiver Michael Crabtree(notes), with the 10th overall pick and also managed to swing a trade for the Carolina Panthers’ first-round pick in 2010, meaning San Francisco owns the 13th and 17th overall selections in this year’s draft.

I’m also not amused that 49ers president Jed York has gone radio silent at a time when his fan base deserves an explanation. Literally running away from public scrutiny is a trait in which the York family is well-versed – Jed gave Santa Rosa Press Democrat writer Matt Maoicco the slip at a Bay Area hotel after negotiating to sign Crabtree last October and his mother, team owner Denise DeBartolo York, once fled a RFK Stadium luxury box to avoid Monday Night Football cameras – and this time the organization’s lack of accountability is truly damaging.

Not only is Jed York’s silence an insult to the people who follow the team, but it’s also an unduly harsh blow to McCloughan. There are all sorts of rumors swirling around about the potential source of the team’s displeasure, with AOL Fanhouse reporting that the Niners were cutting ties with McCloughan due to “personal reasons,” and ESPN characterizing the move as “an extended leave of absence.”

If McCloughan has somehow embarrassed the organization or engaged in the type of personal conduct that would warrant his dismissal, the 49ers need to say so. Unless and until that happens, this will appear to the world as a ridiculous move made by a 28-year-old team president who, like his father, John, seems to believe he knows everything about everything.

For all of the encouraging things I’ve heard about Jed, who speaks regularly with his uncle, former Niners owner Eddie DeBartolo, this does not seem to be an indication that the apple falls far from the tree.

As one former Niners staffer told me Thursday, “The more Jed tries to act like his uncle, the more he ends up looking like his father.”

One thing of which we can be fairly certain was that McCloughan wasn’t dismissed because of performance-related issues. Three months ago, York spoke glowingly to reporters about his GM, saying of McCloughan, “I think he’s doing a great job. When you look at some of the young talent that’s starting to emerge. … Scot has a great eye for talent, and I think he’s great at working with coach [Mike] Singletary. And together, they’re not just trying to find good players, they’re trying to find good players that fit the 49ers, and that’s something that takes working together to be able to build that.”

Jed wasn’t lying. It was McCloughan, brought in as then-coach Mike Nolan’s top talent evaluator in 2005, who pushed for the first-round selection of Patrick Willis(notes) in the ’07 draft; the middle linebacker is now one of the NFL’s best players. McCloughan’s shrewd moves have included nabbing halfback Frank Gore(notes) in the third round of the ’05 draft and restocking the team’s talent base with smart free-agent signings like that of nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin(notes) in ’07. He also lobbied the franchise to hire the untested Singletary as interim coach after Nolan was fired midway through the ’08 season; Singletary responded by going 5-4 to get the permanent gig, and San Francisco went 8-8 in ’09.

The Niners have yet to have a winning season since McCloughan arrived, but with Kurt Warner’s(notes) retirement the Arizona Cardinals appear vulnerable, making San Francisco a strong contender to capture the NFC West crown in 2010.

“If we don’t win the division next season,” McCloughan told me over Chinese food and iced teas at an Indianapolis restaurant last month, “we should all be ashamed.”

Instead, for the second time in a year-and-a-half, the organization is reeling from the shameful handling of a dismissal. In ’08 York planned to fire Nolan following a game against the Seattle Seahawks that preceded the Niners’ bye week, but news leaked of the impending dismissal six days earlier. That created an awkward situation in which Nolan was hastily informed of his termination on a Monday evening – hours after conducting a media session in which he addressed several questions about his job status – as team officials scrambled to offer the interim job to Singletary, one of his assistants. Predictably, York waited until the following day to address the media.

This time, a source close to McCloughan said, the general manager “was blindsided” on Wednesday when York called him into a meeting with other high-ranking team officials and told him his services were no longer wanted. There’s a suspicion among those in the McCloughan camp – and other sources familiar with the team’s front-office politics – that Paraag Marathe, the Niners’ vice president of football operations, pushed for the move as an attempt to gain more power.

Marathe, a Cal grad who earned his MBA from Stanford, is known for his “Moneyball” style philosophy of player evaluation, favoring empirical analysis over the more intuitive and subjective elements of scouting. He’s also close with Jed York and is regarded as the team president’s No. 1 confidante in the organization.

Given the high regard for McCloughan around the NFL – “He’s highly respected as a [talent evaluator], and known as a good, solid guy,” one longtime front-office executive for an AFC team said Friday – and the skepticism surrounding Marathe’s perceived lack of football knowledge, this is not regarded as a positive development for the organization.

There has also been some speculation that Singletary will play an increased role in personnel, which two former Niners players described as “scary.” McCloughan, the players said, played a major part in helping the extremely raw Singletary navigate some of the challenges of his first NFL head-coaching gig, and talent-evaluation is not regarded as one of the Hall of Fame linebacker’s strong suits.

Mike Singletary
(Michael Conroy/AP Photo)

For all of Singletary’s well-earned reputation as a high-character individual, some players bristled at the way quarterback Shaun Hill’s(notes) departure was handled earlier this week – and what some regarded as the coach’s lack of “class” in the process.

Hill, who began last season as the starter, was traded to the Lions after the team signed former No. 1 overall pick David Carr(notes) to back up Alex Smith, a move initially criticized by Willis on his Twitter page. After Hill was traded on Monday, apparently no one from the organization called to inform him of the move or to thank him for his services. On Tuesday he finally got a call from McCloughan, and the two had a productive and amiable conversation.

The next day, McCloughan got called into York’s office, and all hell broke loose. Now York and the rest of the team’s high-ranking officials have gone underground, presumably accompanied by the draft board the GM worked hard to assemble.

If York has a good explanation for his strangely timed action, he needs to step up to the microphone and hold himself accountable.

Here’s a thought: Maybe York ought to cruise up to Alameda and borrow Davis’ overhead projector.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. In the wake of his rousing rendition of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page”, Indianapolis Colts owner Jimmy Irsay has agreed to record a lyric-altered version of the same tune for Gameface readers.

2. Why yes, I absolutely do want to hear about your NCAA tournament bracket.

3. Former Atlanta Falcons coach Jerry Glanville’s altruism is the reason behind Brett Favre’s(notes) superstardom.

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

While watching a clip of JaMarcus Russell(notes) giving an interview Tuesday to Comcast SportsNet’s Kate Longworth while driving through the parking lot of the Raiders’ training facility, was I the only one who was secretly hoping the distracted quarterback would slam his Escalade into a pole – not with so much force that he injured himself, but enough to deploy the driver’s side airbag? Sure, he’d have had to fork over some cash to a high-end body shop, but he’d also have become a YouTube sensation. And if he’s really trying to slim down, perhaps Russell should consider letting the reporter do the interview from the moving vehicle from now on, while he keeps pace on foot. Just a thought.

LET’S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Cardinals player personnel director Steve Keim and his wife, Kim, who welcomed their third child into the world on Wednesday. The early scouting report on Brady Keim is that he’s got good size (eight pounds, seven ounces), a much healthier head of hair than his old man and, on March 17, 2031, is likely to throw one hell of a birthday party. With the luck of the Irish, I’ll be around to enjoy it in person.

THIS WEEK’S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

Still basking in the glow of their first conference basketball championship in 50 years, the Golden Bears are in Jacksonville, Fla., for Friday night’s showdown with Louisville in the first round of the NCAA tournament. If Cal wins, it would set up a likely second-round matchup against Duke, the top seed in the South region, conjuring happy memories of a 1993 game I was fortunate enough to attend in Rosemont, Ill. and setting up some potential trash talk between me and my former SI colleague, sensational CBS analyst and Duke grad Seth Davis (or, as some of my college friends recently referred to him … well, actually, I can’t print the name here). Seth and I agree that Cal’s No. 8 seeding was an abomination – I thought the Bears should have gotten a fifth seed, while he believed they shouldn’t have been included in the NCAA field after losing the Pac-10 tournament championship game to Washington. I’m confident that he’s underestimating coach Mike Montgomery and Cal’s awesome quartet of seniors: Jerome Randle, Patrick Christopher, Theo Robertson and former Blue Devil Jamal Boykin. It should be an interesting weekend, as I’ll also be closely monitoring coach Teri McKeever’s women’s swim team, which is attempting to defend its NCAA championship at Purdue’s Boilermaker Aquatic Center. Paced by sophomore Liv Jensen’s first-place finish in the 50-meter freestyle, the Bears were lurking in third place after Thursday’s events, with the meet continuing Friday and Saturday.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

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ROLLIN’ WITH THE ROYALS

The Reading Football Club has officially turned around its once miserable 2009-10 season, riding the momentum from its stunning trip to the FA Cup quarterfinals (for the first time in 83 years) and mounting a stirring charge up the Football League Championship table. Once languishing below the relegation line, the Royals are now 14th in the 24-team league and have played at least one fewer game than all but one of their rivals. Remarkably, with 47 points and 11 games remaining, they are closer to sixth place (and a potential spot in the four-team playoff that will decide the third promotion berth to the Premier League) than they are to 22nd (which would mean a trip down to League One). How did Reading accomplish this? By getting ridiculously hot under new manager Brian McDermott and parlaying some Madejski Stadium magic. Impressively, the Royals shook off their 4-2 defeat to Premier League side Aston Villa in the FA Cup quarterfinal March 7 and won three games over the next nine days, defeating Derby County, Bristol City and Queens Park Rangers. They’ve now won four consecutive league home games, most recently a 1-0 victory over QPR Tuesday on Gylfi Sigurdsson’s penalty kick in the 85th minute, and eight of their last nine Championship contests overall. To put this in perspective, Reading has won more home games in the last 18 days than it did in all of 2009, when it won just three of 24 league fixtures at Madejski. Now it’s time to leave the nest: The Royals hit the road Saturday for a match at Middlesbrough and play at Leicester City four nights later.

Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Mar 19, 2010