Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

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?