Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
Four years ago as the 2010 season was coming to a close, the prospects for the San Francisco 49ers looked pretty bleak. They'd missed the postseason and posted a non-winning record for the eighth season in a row and there was little promise that things were going to improve with the ousting of then Head Coach, Mike Singletary. If you were to sum up the state of the franchise at that point in time in one word, it would be "rudderless".
People were pretty well aware that the team had talent, drafting in the top 10 year after year should assure that generally speaking, but nothing on the field indicated that they were capable of putting together a winning scheme and start to learn how to win football games, especially the close ones. The 2010 team lost five games by one score differentials and throughout most of the season, the coaching staff looked completely over their heads in terms of preparing their team to win and there was a significant lack of direction.
Cleaning house was the right move, but even the most ardent 49er faithful weren't holding their breath that the front office and Jed York were going to make the right move to finally install a coach that could instill a winning mentality. Talent aside, without direction this team was going nowhere fast. Things never looked darker for the 49ers after yet another lost season that started with so much promise.
Lo and behold, York landed the top candidate that offseason and hope began to percolate once again in the Bay Area. You can argue the merits of Jim Harbaugh's coaching schemes and his loyalty to his assistant coaches, but what can't be argued is that he is a leader of men. Harbaugh surprisingly and instantly coalesced this group of talented athletes into a football team with a true identity. The work shirts, the quotable press conferences, the Jim Schwartz backslap, and all the other beacons he offered his players to follow his lead served as the perfect medicine for a team and a fan base that was just aching for success. And success they did have.
It was clear after the team won against Philadelphia on the road in Week 4 of the 2011 season that something special was happening. The 49ers were sizable underdogs and got down early in the game, but fought furiously to claim the victory and put the rest of the league on notice. Finally and fatefully, the perception of this group as underachievers was being flipped and a new, blue-collar mentality was being instilled in a pretty damn good football team.
We all know how that year ended and as painful as that loss to New York was, the team was light years ahead of expectations compared to where they'd started.
Reasonably, getting the team back to .500 football would have been a success for the first year of Harbaugh's tenure. He blew that out of the water and marched his group to within a field goal of the Super Bowl. Excitement quickly placated the pain of that loss as expectations grew.
The next year, he did even better. There's no way we could have known this at the time, but the early success is what ultimately has laid the path for his demise in San Francisco. Had the team only reached 8-8 or 9-7 that first year, then improved by a game or two the next, any expectations for a Super Bowl berth wouldn't have been considered until the third or fourth year at the earliest. Instead, the bitter defeat in the Super Bowl, the emergence of the Seattle Seahawks, and then the even more bitter defeat in the NFC Championship game a year later set up year number four as a do-or-die season so packed with pressure it stifled every part of the team and its identity that formed over the previous three seasons. The 49ers prided themselves on "being the bully" and playing loose for one another; the 2014 team tightened up in big situations and looked reactionary throughout.
Which brings us to now. Harbaugh figures to be the coach for less than another week and then off to the next challenge be it in college or the pros, and the 49ers with their tight lipped and smug front office once again appear to be "rudderless". We as fans can only hope they can roll the dice and find the right man for the job. The big difference this time around is that everyone knows how talented the team is and there is no obvious big-name alternative to go out and get, especially one that would willingly walk into the domain of Jed York's and Trent Baalke's egomaniacal power structure.
No team in recent memory would seem to be as big a victim of their own success as these 49ers. Finally putting it all together and doing so as quickly as they did cranked up the expectations and the anxiety at every level of the franchise, the fans included. Moving into the new stadium put an even greater spotlight on the team and instead of shining in the limelight they cracked under the pressure.
Fans are only left to wonder what happens next and lament the fact that the narrative wasn't supposed to end this way. The parallels to Eddie DeBartolo Jr. bringing in then-Stanford coach Bill Walsh who turned the franchise around in only a few years were so easy to make. Nobody would have thought anything less than 2 championships in the next ten years couldn't or wouldn't happen. The coaching, the players, and even the moves made by the front office all made it seem like the good times were just getting started, even with a devastating Super Bowl loss.
Instead, the story gets cut short and without a happy ending or even an encouraging epilogue. The worst of it is the leadership of the team is the sole impetus for breaking up the band, killing the golden goose, and ripping out the final chapters of this enthralling story. How are we to trust them to make it all better? Even worse, what other choice do we have?
Date: January 3, 2015 at 10:22 AM
Comment: I have to agree with Phil in regard to his comment about one of Harbaugh's mistakes being to replace Smith with a player who was largely untested. I think the smarter move would have been to bring Smith back after his concussion and see how far he could have taken the team and then to let the two of them battle it out in training camp the following year. Personally I think Smith would have gotten them to the Super Bowl and probably had a good chance to win, but we'll never know. I find myself wondering if the seeds of discontent within the organization weren't sown when he benched Smith in the middle of the best year he was ever having as a QB. Smith was really popular among the players it seems, except for Crabtree of course, and his benching might have been sent the wrong message
By: Dallas Niner fan
Date: December 28, 2014 at 2:47 PM
Comment: great article, I loved your historical analysis. All the pressures on Ballke now. The future does not seem bright.
Date: December 28, 2014 at 1:29 PM
Comment: Phil C. You do realize, I hope, that Harbaugh stands on the sideline and the players play. For some reason you ignore the obvious reasons why the offense is down this year and assign al the blame to Harbaugh. I wonder if you realize that Baalke picks the players, not Harbaugh. Blaming him for the back ups is rediculous.
By: Phil C
Date: December 28, 2014 at 11:46 AM
Comment: Harbaugh leaving the defense alone is the best move he's made over the last four years. Instead of getting his grubby little hands on the D, he let Vic Fangio, a genius, handle it and he has to the tune of a top 5-caliber defense every single season, even this season with all the injuries and rookies having to play significant roles. People think Harbaugh is some kind of genius, but it's not like the 49ers cupboard was bare when he came in. They had playoff expectations going into 2010, but Singletary turned out to be little more than an entertaining buffoon as a head coach. Harbaugh had a great defensive staff and a good amount of talent, which made up for the overall ineffectiveness of the offense. The first two years, it was Smith being good enough not to lose games and Kaepernick surprising everyone, but the last two years he didn't have either and it's showed. Harbaugh's been mainly responsible for two things: the offense and quarterbacks, and he's bombed at both. First it was replacing Smith with Kaepernick, and then it's not being able to find a competent backup for Kaepernick since. Colt McCoy? Blaine Gabbert? Really?
By: South Florida Niner
Date: December 27, 2014 at 11:22 PM
Comment: Kudos! To Jed York and Trent Baalke, you did the right thing can his ass,Harbaugh can't make decisions at critical times,he's been trying to play the nice guy all year and management don't give 2fucks about you they tried to send you to Cleveland,that attitude has gotten you where youre at today,Al Davis,didn't put up with that from John Gruden,Jerry Jones didn't put up with it from Jimmy Johnson and Robert Kraft didn"t waste time with Bill Parcells fans get use to it! they are not selling these teams
By: Lucky Phil
Date: December 27, 2014 at 7:23 PM
Comment: Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck! I couldn't even get past the title.
Date: December 27, 2014 at 6:55 PM
Comment: I do believe that egos played a huge part of what is happening right now in the 49er organization. I'll be the first to say Roman was a very bad play caller. And i have yet to be impressed with Kap, the running QB all defenses know about. His passing is totally off and he will never be elite. As for Harbaugh, I think this is a huge mistake to let him go. We had absolutely nothing before he came along. With him, we have a chance, without him, we're back where we were 4 years ago. I dont agree with everything he has done, but 3 years to the NFC championship says a hell of a lot and i think York and Balke are complete idiots for letting this happen.
Date: December 27, 2014 at 6:05 PM
Comment: Oh come on Jesse. Fangio is the key of this team. Fangio´s defenses always have been top 5. Harbaugh & Roman´s offenses never have been top 5. Our offense always has been awful in the red zone, always with clock issues, always with a outdated passing game but we overlooked all that because we were winning and if we were winning was because our defense was saving us all the time. Kaep is still very raw and the guy is in his 4th season and in his 3rd season playing in the same system. Why?..because the "QB-guru" isn´t as guru as we thought. I´m sure that a guy like Holmgren watches Kaep playing and says "This kid needs a better coaching staff because those guys have done a terrible job with him." And I say it again: Harbaugh lost the most important game of every season. He lost the Super Bowl to a lesser team because our players looked unprepared. Carroll won the Super Bowl in a dominant way against a great team because they were prepared. Whitout the Fangio´s defense we wouldn´t even have the half of the success of these years. If you´re happy losing the most important game of every season is ok but I wanna win it all and Harbaugh couldn´t do it. Walsh and Seifert....well.
Date: December 27, 2014 at 5:58 PM
Comment: Sad to see a good coach go as we all know every team has a off year. Steelers never in their franchise fired a coach. Why can't Harbaugh be given another chance. It will be gears before tve niners recovered. Am very sorry that GM is doing this. I hope they have big regrets. They sound very selfish.
Date: December 27, 2014 at 5:12 PM
Comment: As far as Seifert is concerned, he was merely a figurehead. George the butcher could have taken that team to the SB. He gets way too much credit for being in the right place at the right time.
Date: December 27, 2014 at 4:44 PM
Comment: Come on, the attacks on Jed and Balke are meritless. You have no idea what they are thinking and haven't a clue what kind of interactions occurred between the members of the front office. What if the reason this was a win or bust season was that Harbaugh refused to get rid of the ineffective OC? Would you say that was arrogance by the front office or by Harbaugh? This is simply a "you made your bed, now you gotta lie in it" situation. The most serious injuries the team had were on defense, but Fangio overcame them with good coaching. Harbaugh and the offensive coaches have to take responsibility for the terrible performance this year, and they will after the game tomorrow.
Date: December 27, 2014 at 4:37 PM
Comment: And don´t forget that Harbaugh lost the most important game of every season and yeah, he lost the Super Bowl, the only lost SB in franchise history (I´ll never forgive him for that) and this season he lost the players because he didn´t fire Roman when we all knew that the right thing to do was firing him. Don´t act like if Harbaugh was the best coach ever. Bill Walsh and George Seifert were way better coaches than him. Thanks for everything to Jim Harbaugh but at the end of the day we didn´t win the trophy with him and for this team winning the trophy is all that matters. Now it´s time for a change to see if someone else can win it. In fact, the best coach in the building these 4 years was Vic Fangio.