Court Warner? QB chase magnifies ineptitude of the Niners front office
Chasing Kurt Warner sent mixed message to players and fans
Since 2005, the team has made one personnel mistake after another
The Niners are feathers in the wind, changing philosophies on a whim
As he made his way through the 49ers' training complex Monday, free-agent quarterback Kurt Warner told a member of the organization that his heart was a two-hour plane ride away in Phoenix. The admission didn't come as a surprise. Even before Warner boarded a private jet for the ride from Arizona to Northern California, the football world knew he wanted to re-sign with the Cardinals, who won the NFC West and nearly upset the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
San Francisco's brain trust apparently didn't get the memo.
The fact Warner left town, even after receiving what his camp says was a $30 million, two-year offer that included $20 million in guarantees, was confirmation that 49ers president Jed York, general manager Scot McCloughan and coach Mike Singletary willingly allowed themselves to be used as leverage in Warner's attempt to secure more money from the Cardinals. Arizona had offered a $20 million, two-year deal that included $10 million in guarantees, all coming in the first year. He agreed on Wednesday to a two-year, $23 million package.
The 49ers decision to court Warner was flawed on so many fronts that it's difficult to decide where to begin. For one thing it sent a mixed message to the players, fans and media about the blueprint for the future. Singletary, who had the interim tag removed from his job title in December, has spent the last few months creating the impression that he wants a physical, ground-based offense. Then the team brings in a quarterback like Warner, who is at his best using spread formations and throwing the ball around.
Maybe San Francisco was trying to hurt a division rival by giving Warner leverage to drive up his asking price with the Cardinals, which could negatively impact Arizona's salary cap in future seasons (provided there is a salary cap beyond this year). Unfortunately, I have a hard time giving McCloughan or anyone else in the organization the benefit of the doubt.
Since McCloughan arrived in 2005, the team has made one personnel mistake after another. The Niners have drafted only two impact players out of 35 picks in the past four drafts -- running back Frank Gore and linebacker Patrick Willis, with offensive tackle Joe Staley on the bubble -- and they willingly have given player agents the combination to their vault.
They overpaid for QB Alex Smith after selecting him No. 1 overall in 2005 and are still paying a price for that mistake. Ditto free agency. They overspent for offensive tackle Jonas Jennings, cornerback Nate Clements and defensive end/outside linebacker Justin Smith, and they tried to overspend on Warner, based on the numbers his camp put out.
Once is a mistake. Twice is a trend. Three times is an explanation for six-consecutive losing seasons.
York, McCloughan and Singletary did not return calls seeking comment, but perhaps there's nothing to be said. If the Niners had done their homework, they'd have known that offer was asinine because Warner, who will be 38 next season, struggles when he goes to a new team. After leaving the Rams for the Giants in 2004, he threw for only six touchdowns in nine starts that year. In his first season with the Cardinals in 2005, he threw only 11 touchdown passes and had an 85.8 passer rating, both single-season career-lows when starting at least 10 games.
The 49ers can say it didn't hurt them to kick Warner's tires and, at the very least, they helped drive up the cost for the Cardinals to re-sign him. However, the perception that lingers, to me, is the 49ers are feathers in the wind, shifting their personnel philosophies when an intriguing whim strikes them.
Another thing: Did the Niners really believe Warner would swap Pro Bowl receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin for Brandon Jones and Josh Morgan, whose 12 career combined touchdown catches are 11 fewer than Fitzgerald and Boldin had last year? Jones is the team's top free-agent signing this offseason, and if you're underwhelmed you're in good company. Multiple members of the organization weren't moved by the signing. It was the latest mixed message. After years of saying they needed to find a No. 1 receiver -- particularly after investing the first pick in the draft on a QB -- they failed to deliver again. Jones is a nice guy, a decent receiver and a hard worker, but he's not a No. 1 guy.
Jed York officially assumed the job of team president in December, and perhaps he wanted to make a big splash with Warner. But even if he had succeeded, Warner would have been a bad fit. Again, study his history. What's interesting is that teams are doing everything they can in this bad economy to reel in season-ticket buyers, even holding ticket prices flat. Yet by flirting with Warner the 49ers (inadvertently?) sent the message that they're not comfortable with any of the quarterbacks on their roster. Makes you want to rush right out and get your tickets, right?
If York, McCloughan and Singletary couldn't see that, then why should anyone else see anything but a seventh-consecutive losing season for the 49ers?
Jim Trotter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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