The real reason why the Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers are failing

By Ira Miller, The Sports Xchange  |  Dec. 8, 2016 at 9:55 AM
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It is one of the oldest expressions known to man, dating back nearly two millennium, a simple three-word phrase in the Hippocratic Oath.

"Do no harm."

It is meant, of course, for physicians. It ought to apply to owners and general managers in sports, too, and they could start with the National Football League.

When the season ends in four weeks, several teams will be scrambling, as always, to hire a new coach. Some will no doubt want a new general manager. Quarterbacks will be high on many shopping lists, too.

Two of those needy teams, the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears, are former powerhouses whose spots among the indigent are the result of self-inflicted wounds.

And two of the teams near the top of the league, the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders, also are former powerhouses who spent a decade (Oakland) or two (Dallas) wandering lost, also because of self-inflicted wounds, and are back among the living now largely because of a change at the top (Oakland) or pure luck (Dallas).

Do no harm.

It's amazing, but there is a body of evidence that more problems are heaped on NFL franchises by their own hand than any other.

One a time, now.

San Francisco has a 1-11 record, all the defeats coming in succession since an opening night victory over the Rams. The 49ers have finished 2-14 three times since the 16-game schedule began in 1978; Sunday's game against the 3-9 Jets appears to be their best chance for a victory over the final four weeks, although they also play the Rams again, in Los Angeles.

Just four seasons ago, the 49ers were NFC champions who lost the Super Bowl only when they failed to score on a goal-to-go situation in the closing moments. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, developed by coach Jim Harbaugh, was being touted as the next big thing in the NFL.

Two years later, the 49ers allowed a clash of personalities and wills to push Harbaugh out the door, and since he left, the team's record is 6-22, and Kaepernick has become such a non-entity he was benched in the last game against Chicago, in which the 49ers passing "attack" netted six yards, the team's lowest in more than 50 years.

Harbaugh also lost 22 games as San Francisco's coach, but won 49. In the last 40 years, only two coaches have won more games than that with the 49ers: Bill Walsh and George Seifert. The decision to let Harbaugh leave was one of the dumbest a team has made in the NFL in ages. But there have been others.

Chicago fired coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo after the 2012 season. All Smith did was win three division titles, reach two NFC championship games, winning one, but losing the Super Bowl to a Colts team quarterbacked by Peyton Manning.

In the four years since then, the Bears are on their second coach-GM tandem and their won-lost record is 22-38. Their quarterback, Jay Cutler, is finishing another disappointing season on injured reserve, and almost surely will not be back next year, although the Bears have absolutely no clue who will replace him.

The story of the 49ers and the Bears, perhaps not surprisingly, is typical of the NFL's knee-jerk reaction to the ebb and flow of teams. In the free agency era, only the New England Patriots have managed to stay on top for a long time, and one reason few teams challenge them is that few of them have the patience to build a team with staying power or to give a coach a chance at establishing stability.

Of course, it did not used to be that way before free agency. There were lots of little dynasties, the Raiders and Cowboys among them.

The Raiders fell at least in part because the late Al Davis wouldn't change his methods to meet a changing era, and, since the mid-'90s, the only success the Raiders had was with Jon Gruden as their coach.

Gruden built the team around an offense he had learned as a young assistant to Walsh, but Davis, a bomb-thrower both on and off the field, hated the system and dumped Gruden. The next season, the Raiders rode his fumes with a journeyman coach named Bill Callahan to the Super Bowl - where they lost to the Gruden-coached Tampa Bay Bucs.

That was the 2002 season. Now, with Davis' son Mark giving latitude to a general manager, Reggie McKenzie, the Raiders have their first winning record in 14 years and a shot at earning homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

The Dallas story is similar, an egomaniacal owner, Jerry Jones, dumping a coach, Jimmy Johnson, who won back-to-back Super Bowls, and shortly thereafter going into a steep decline.

Dallas, which now has the NFL's best record, has won only two post-season games in two decades. There is no sign that Jones has taken his hands off the tiller, but he managed to draft an exceptional rookie running back, Ezekiel Elliott, and got really lucky with a terrific rookie quarterback, Dak Prescott, a fourth-round draft choice.

Sometimes, no matter how you screw things up, you eventually get lucky.

Now it's the 49ers and Bears who need that luck. Maybe if they ever get good again, they'll show us they learned the "do no harm" lesson. But probably not.

--Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

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