The last thing the Niners needed was to lose their primary decision maker just five weeks before an NFL draft in which they own a pair of mid-round picks (13th and 17th) in the first round. But the way we're hearing it from numerous league insiders, Scot McCloughan simply gave the team little choice but to end a relationship that has been on shaky ground behind the scenes for some time now.
"They needed to the save the organization from themselves," one rival top-level NFL executive familiar with the operation told PFW regarding the imminent removal of McCloughan, who was promoted to the Niners' GM post in 2008 after serving the previous three years as the team's VP of player personnel.
At this writing, McCloughan's future remains in limbo. ESPN.com has reported that he has been put on an "extended leave of absence," which suggests that McCloughan's position with the team could still somehow be salvaged.
Our sources contend, however, that McCloughan will not be back and that the current hang-up is likely the result of McCloughan's agent, Peter Shaffer, trying to extract the most lucrative settlement possible for his client on a five-year deal (worth approximately $1.25 million annually) that has nearly three years remaining. A key issue, we hear, is that, due to the delicate nature of the "personal issues" that are reportedly most responsible for McCloughan's stunning and surprising fall from grace, Shaffer might be angling for confidentiality clauses in the settlement.
While the lack of any official word from the Niners' organization on what actually is transpiring at present is making it look unaccountable — and, in the eyes of some critics, rather deceiving, with up-and-coming organizational power broker Paraag Marathe rumored by some to be at the forefront of a "blindside" of McCloughan — sources tell us the team's murky stance is as much due to its genuine desire to do good by McCloughan, who is genuinely well-liked in the industry and respected as an evaluator, as anything.
Although there are all kinds of rumors floating around about the "personal demons" that McCloughan is supposedly dealing with, the specifics remain sketchy. The first public mention of his pending divorce — which would suggest serious family problems — appeared in a March 20 story by the San Francisco Chronicle.
However, while most published reports have indicated that McCloughan's job performance had nothing to do with his imminent ouster, we are hearing a different story from our inside sources.
For one thing, whether it was due to family problems or something else, McCloughan would fall out of the loop for prolonged stretches. That shortcoming contributed to more than a few job-related blunders, the way we hear it.
One incident that blew up in the team's face was the league's ruling that the 49ers had been guilty of tampering with LB Lance Briggs during the 2007 campaign, resulting in the forfeiture of a 2008 fifth-round draft pick and the swapping of third-round picks with the Bears.
"They looked like the Keystone Kops," a league source said of an incident that left a bad taste within the Niners' organization. "No one gets caught tampering nowadays. They did. What does that tell you about their leadership? They thought they were above the law, and they got busted."
Internal e-mails also reportedly revealed a growing disconnect between McCloughan and former head coach Mike Nolan, who was given his walking papers seven games into the 2008 season in a similarly abrupt and mysterious fashion as McCloughan. We hear Nolan has expressed privately to sources, ever since he was released by the Niners, that his biggest regret was trusting too much authority over the roster to McCloughan.
"If you look at what they did in San Francisco, they had some good drafts," the source concluded. "The roster has improved considerably since Scotty took it over. But five years is a long time to go without a winning record and still have your job in this league. They could never get the QB situation squared away, and part of that falls on the revolving door (at offensive coordinator). The tampering charge left a black eye on the organization. And there were other issues restricting the team from moving in the right direction."
Given his mostly solid track record on the NFL personnel front and his longtime close relationship with numerous associates of heavy hitters such as Al Davis and Ron Wolf, under whom he broke into the business, the consensus seems to be that McCloughan will eventually land on his feet elsewhere, perhaps much sooner than later.
"But it is very clear that he is no longer in (the Niners') long-term plans," the source reiterated.
As for the team's short-term plans, we hear the Niners hardly consider themselves in a crisis mode, as McCloughan's two chief lieutenants — director of player personnel Trent Baalke and director of pro personnel Tom Gamble — are both highly regarded in league circles.
Baalke, who is entering the third season in his current role, is expected to take control of the team's preparation for the 2010 draft. Considered McCloughan's right-hand man since he joined the team following the 2005 draft, Baalke, we're told, will be evaluated in much the same way that head coach Mike Singletary was evaluated upon his midstream appointment in 2008.
Gamble, a 22-year scouting veteran entering his sixth year with the Niners, is expected to take on an expanded role in free agency. As a product of the well-regarded Eagles and Colts scouting departments, we hear the Raiders have been trying to lure Gamble across the bay for some time now.
There have been some reports that McCloughan's exit will result in Singletary taking on much more of a role in talent evaluation. However, we hear that while Singletary is expected to exert more influence, he is focused on coaching and prefers to defer to the personnel department moving forward.
We also hear that McCloughan's departure will indeed result in more power for Marathe, who was recently promoted to executive vice president of football and business operations. Although some are accusing him of ulterior motives in the McCloughan power shift, we are told Marathe has garnered genuine respect around the league for not backing down to agent Eugene Parker in the Michael Crabtree negotiations and consistently producing club-friendly contracts. In fact, Marathe has been called "one of the best in the business at what he does" in spite of his relatively young age.
There is a perception by some close to the scene that team president Jed York, who assumed the new role of CEO in a reorganization of the Niners' front office and business department in January, and Marathe, York's closest confidant inside the team's Santa Clara headquarters, would like nothing more than to become an updated version of former Niners owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. and his top assistant Carmen Policy, circa 2010.
Whether or not a scenario like that actually unfolds remains to be seen, but moving forward, there's no way McCloughan will return to the San Francisco scene.
For the most authoritative NFL draft news and free-agency analysis, visit ProFootballWeekly.com.