Harbaugh’s Niners Go Three and Out

Jan 21, 2014 at 7:14 PM32

As a Niner fan, I love a good game. But as a writer (of sorts), I love a good story.

Tonight, I'm mourning the losses of both.

I think back to Jim Harbaugh's arrival. What excited me wasn't his coaching credentials, as exciting as those credentials were; what excited me, much more, was his story. If you've read me a while—and if you have, thanks, by the way—you saw me spin it, immediately. Bill Walsh's final protégé comes to the rescue of his woebegone franchise, restoring its glorious roots and then leading it back—to glorious victory.

It was a plausible tale, if maybe a little bit over the top. And I loved it. I loved it because it spoke to who the Niners are. The Niners, see, are very special. We aren't like the Seahawks or the Broncos, or nearly any other franchise. Those franchises might have their moments, but that's just it; their moments are just moments. To them, every year without a title is just another year. They've got no cross-generational identity, no long-term sustainable brand. Since Walsh came along, the Niners have been the NFL's flagship; over that period, their five titles are still the most. But that flagship spent a decade adrift, and Harbaugh's promise to get it sailing back on course....

Well, friends, that was a story.

And the stories only got better from there.

Appropriately enough, they began with Year One. Exactly three decades after Walsh, an ex-Stanford coach with an innovative offense, shocked the league by winning it all with a band of misfits who'd gone 6-and-10 the year before, Harbaugh was poised to do the same thing. Having played up the Walsh's-footsteps angle, for me the story became gargantuan, poetic enough to be almost absurd. And the ending was there, right there for the taking.

And you know the rest. One fumble, then another, and the most painful loss—to that point—in franchise history. Oh, sure, previous losses might've cost us titles. But this one also cost us a story.

Amazingly, though, an even better story awaited. Halfway through Year Two, Colin Kaepernick, Harbaugh's Chosen One, made one of the most astonishing debuts in the history of the game, and then from there he just kept going, immediately becoming the league's most dynamic all-purpose weapon. The notion that this precocious kid, with only a handful of NFL starts, could take this team all the way to the end...well, now, that was a story. And he did take us to the Super Bowl, where after a wild 58 minutes, there he sat, five yards away, not only from a redeeming title but also from instant immortality. The ending was there, right there for the taking.

And you know the rest. He focused only on Michael Crabtree—more to come, unfortunately—and three incompletions later, a painful loss nearly 50 times worse, and the loss of a story a hundred times better.

But I couldn't stop, and in my irrepressible way, I found a story to tell for Year Three. See, we overachieved in Years One and Two, so we shouldn't have taken those losses so hard. Our window was really just opening now, and with the lessons of those near-misses learned, now we were genuinely ready to win. Not as dramatic a story maybe, but certainly enough I'd say, to put those first two years in acceptable context—to find a way to redeem them both.

And sure enough, going into the playoffs, the Niners were a team on fire, having won 11 of 13 and 6 in a row. They won one road-game, then another, and rode into Seattle on a towering wave. Despite their recent horrors there, their confidence—or at least mine—had never been higher. And that confidence proved to be justified. The Niners took control immediately, silencing Seattle's despicable crowd. Kaepernick produced two of his most spectacular plays—a 58-yard run and one of the most athletically awesome passes ever—and the Niners looked like they'd stay in control all the way to the end.

Seattle was afraid, all right.

But then things changed, starting of course with another blown call. Having been given an undeserved drive, Seattle turned fourth-and-7 into the go-ahead touchdown. And once the Seahawks went ahead, predictably the roof caved in. Thanks to our D—and despite the most utterly demoralizing injury since Joe Montana's in ‘91—a fumble and an interception cost us only three points, and Kaepernick was all set up to drive the field for the winning score. He'd saved our winning streak time and again in conditions like these. But now with the Super Bowl on the line, this was a genuine shot at redemption. The ending was there, right there for the taking.

And you know the rest. After smoothly driving 60 yards to Seattle's 18, Kaepernick made the same mistake. He decided, before the snap, that he'd be throwing to Crabtree again, and in so doing he validated every "one-read" complaint that his critics had ever made. Ignoring at least two better options, he lofted a pass into the end zone, and to make matters worse he underthrew it, allowing an absolute son of a bitch to make the play that sealed the game.

Ever since his first appearance, I have defended Colin Kaepernick. And to some extent, I'll defend him now; if it hadn't been for his first three quarters, we wouldn't have had a shot in the fourth. But in that fourth, despite last year's lessons, he simply gave the game away. There isn't any escaping that.

And there they are. Three stories, each offering a perfect ending. Three games, each offering a championship. Three chances, to win the game with the final drive. And three losses, each a shot, straight through the heart.

Sad, to be sure; sad those stories should end that way. But what's sadder still, is in a sense, Harbaugh's story has ended too.

Don't get me wrong. Harbaugh is still the league's best coach, and still the perfect coach for this franchise. The proof is there in his dazzling record; no coach had ever gone to three conference-title games in his first three seasons, and no coach will ever do so again. My faith in his leadership—that he'll always do whatever it takes to maximize our chances to win—continues unabated, and a good thing, too. Without that faith, the pain would be unbearable.

But that story he arrived with—the student on the master's trail—that tale won't hold up anymore. Walsh lost plenty of big games too, three playoff games in a row at one point. And in retrospect, that only seems fitting; every great story requires adversity. But like any great hero, Walsh never stopped redeeming himself. After he completed the miracle of ‘81, ‘84 redeemed ‘83, and ‘88 redeemed ‘87. That's what makes him more than a genius. That's what makes him the stuff of legend.

As great a coach as Harbaugh is, he hasn't kept up his end of the deal. He failed to complete his miracle, and then he failed to redeem that failure. And now, in a way, it's too late. Once again, don't get me wrong. We're just beginning what's likely to be a solid decade of constant contention. The Quest for Six will continue, and eventually, Harbaugh will win it.

But these first three years were very special. The Niners seemed to ooze with magic, just as they did those decades ago. Sometime during these first three years, the Niners should've won a Super Bowl, maybe should've won all three. The story simply demanded it. Instead they came away with nothing. The weight of opportunity lost is nearly overwhelming, and nothing that Harbaugh goes on to do will ever take that weight away.

A story ended on Sunday night. And the ending, despite its perfect potential, instead was unendurably sad.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Ninerdawg
    Thanks for the articles this season Jeff. I truly enjoy them. You always seem to write what I'm thinking. I am still at a loss for words. We get so close, but we continue to come up short. Well....take it easy Jeff...
    Jan 30, 2014 at 3:59 PM
    Response: You too, Dawg.
  • Mike S.
    I believe we still have a window here to win a title or two before it becomes difficult. The key here is that Kaepernick is still learning. He came from a smaller college and ran an offense that was not conventional. I like to compare these 49ers to the ones that Steve Young inherited, Steve ran a lot and won games with his legs. Once he started throwing more, only then were the 49ers poised to win another title. Once Kaepernick learns to make his progressions and put touch on certain throws, he and our 49ers will be ready. The future is bright.
    Jan 25, 2014 at 8:29 AM
  • Jan
    I'm reminded of Dan Marino and his trip to the Superbowl. Bet he never dreamed it would only happen once. Bad things happen when a team squanders chances. Jeff, thanks for your take on this season. As always, I find your opinion thoughtful, entertaining, and heartfelt. Keep the faith.
    Jan 23, 2014 at 11:48 AM
    Response: Thanks, Jan.
  • Marty
    I believe the 49ers' window is closing, not opening. Here is why. When Belichick became NEs coach in 2000, he inherited a good vet defense. In 2001 Brady became a great NFL QB to go with this defense. The next 4 years NE won 3 SBs. What changed in NE, the players got old & Brady earned his big paychecks. Since then NE has been good, but no more SB rings. Same thing happened to Harbaugh in 2011. He inherited a great defense & found Kaepernick as his QB. Three years later, they have had great seasons, but falling short of the main goal, a SB ring. After three seasons, the vets on defense have become older & the grind of the NFL has taken a toll on their bodies. Now is the time to pay Kaepernick. These are the reasons I feel the window is closing on the 49ers.
    Jan 23, 2014 at 9:15 AM
  • Chris P.
    Kaplan, I appreciate logic. Which you have never had. You've never used logic. It's just mindless opining by someone who seemingly writes from a 13-year-old fan's perspective. Who in the blue hell are you to anoint anybody anyone? Much less anoint Harbaugh the next Bill Walsh. Why do you think your opinion means so much? So, you wrote an article announcing that Harbaugh couldn't live up to your expectations? And you've got people on here giving you the golf clap? You wrote a "subtle" diss article on Harbaugh and took shots at him but you threw in, "oh, he's a great coach though." Don't act like I missed your point. But ya, you write great stuff Kaplan! Niner fans continue to disappoint me man. The fan base is going downhill, it's embarrassing. Clueless.
    Jan 23, 2014 at 12:08 AM
  • Chantos
    "The weight of opportunity lost is overwhelming..." Could not agree more, I really doubt the 9ers will make it to the NFC final again next year... Statistically speaking it's just extremely hard, add the competitiveness of the league and our division to the mix, and it becomes almost impossible. There is something that CK is still missing... Perhaps more experience, or more playing and less acting... Anyway, go niners!!
    Jan 22, 2014 at 9:29 PM
  • Dennis
    Jeff, enjoy reading your articles. I think that they need to bring somebody in to work on Kap's footwork. He also throws with just his arm quite a lot. Throws off back foot and doesn't stride when throwing ball. Also his hips are perpendicular to line of scrimmage when passing. I think he has lots of talent but probably could get away with bad habits in high school and college because of that talent.
    Jan 22, 2014 at 8:52 PM
  • Alister
    Colin has played less than 2 full seasons, yet he already has more road playoff wins than Montana and Young combined. Think about that for a moment. It's truly amazing. Winning 3 road games including one at Seattle was always going to be tough. The odds were against us. With home-field advantage, Colin and Harbaugh would probably have routed all of the teams we played in the playoffs. This team is built for long-term success. I think Harbaugh will have us in contention year after year. How many "good coaches" have been to multiple championship games? We're gonna be fine; just keep faith and our success will one day be beyond measure.
    Jan 22, 2014 at 7:27 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Jeff, Just wanted to wish you a great offseason. Enjoyed your writing like always. Did not take the opportunity to post my comments as often as I have in the past but I'll be back next season (to add my two cents). It just gets disappointing, every year I say the same thing. We need a #1 receiver (we have a top 5 QB), we need to open up the offense (get a little more creative in the passing game). No one seems to understand that Crabtree is not the answer. We had the opportunity to get J Gordon and Baalke blew it. Just think if we had Gordon, Boldin & Crabtree. That spells SB champ to me! But every year I just get more frustrated because I think the only people that read these comments and Kaplan commentary are a handful of Niner Nuts like us. Just once Jeff, I'd like Baalke to post a comment and say Kaplan you are absolutely right! And Lucky Phil you crazy son of a bitch! I'm going to take your advice. And this year TB if youre listening... Go get Sammy Watkins!
    Jan 22, 2014 at 5:30 PM
    Response: See you next year, my friend.
  • Chris P.
    Harbaugh hasn't kept up his end of the deal? First coach with 3 NFC Championship appearances in his first three years, add a Super Bowl appearance in there, and he hasn't kept up his end of the deal? Same old Kaplan, I haven't read an article all season, but I couldn't help myself, thanks for the reminder of why I don't read this garbage.
    Jan 22, 2014 at 12:59 PM
    Response: And same old Chris P., failing again to process my point. I acknowledged that he's the best coach in the league, as evinced by the very achievement you cite. But I had anointed him as the next Walsh, and Harbaugh hasn't lived up to that. To be fair, though, it's a subtle point, and you were never one to appreciate subtlety.
  • Enrique Guatemala
    What a wonderful article!!! I'm a 49er fan forever & I expect finally we'll get our well deserved six. Jeff, maybe this will be a different type of magic.
    Jan 22, 2014 at 9:36 AM
    Response: Here's hoping, Enrique.
  • Terry B.
    Of course, you were telling us all year that Kaepernick's only problem was not having Crabtree and that as soon as Crabtree was back, everything would be fine. And that pretty much turned out to be correct. Given that, you can't be too surprised that he threw to Crabtree, can you?
    Jan 22, 2014 at 9:36 AM
    Response: I'm not surprised that he went up to the line with the expectation of throwing to Crabtree. But I'm stunned--STUNNED--that he threw to him. Crabtree was covered, Terry. He was covered! Especially after last year's Super Bowl, Kaepernick should've known to look elsewhere and make a higher-percentage play. Don't get me wrong; I'm not giving up on him. (And I vehemently disagree with those who suggest that we should've stuck with Alex Smith.) But redemption requires that we learn from our mistakes. Kaepernick doesn't seem to have learned, and that's very disappointing to me.
  • Ron michaud
    The last 3 years were wonderful to view the games and every day read all the scribes covering the team. Kaplan... you were absolutely fantastic... Oftentimes stirring up tears and a feeling of adrenaline shooting thru my midlife body charged up like nothing else can do. Thank you. Unfortunately... The stories of life don't always have the happy endings we wish for. I adored this team... The way they came together... The defense became dominant. And when crab came back the offense became fun to watch. Can't wait to give my heart back to the Niners and read your extraordinary commentary.
    Jan 22, 2014 at 6:37 AM
    Response: Thanks, Ron.
  • Marty
    Three seasons with the same results. This is called a pattern. The last three seasons the 49ers have had one of the worst passing games. The passing game seems to be treated as an afterthought. Boldin is the only productive receiver the 49ers have produced in the last three seasons. Remember Davis & Crabtree have been there for years. This is Kaepernick's third full season with the team. In the NFL 3 seasons is a career for a lot of players. What I don't understand is the 49ers have the only former 15 year NFL QB, who had started for several teams, as a HC. It doesn't make sense why the 49ers passing attack sucks so badly for three seasons. In 2011 the starting receivers had one catch for 3 yards against the NYGs & in 2013 in the first half the starting receivers had 3 catches for 17 yards against Seattle. They tried to open it up in the second half, but that led to 3 critical game-losing turnovers. At what point do we stop pointing fingers at players & start looking at the coaching staff.
    Jan 22, 2014 at 6:06 AM
  • Steve from Yellowstone
    No wonder people call us the 40 Whiners! It's Kap's first full season! He's getting better all the time, but yes, he makes mistakes. Those will get better too. How many seasons did we give Alex Smith to stop looking like Druckenmiller? Don't remember him? Bandwagon fans, I hear Denver is looking for fans.
    Jan 22, 2014 at 4:35 AM
  • Jim
    even in your own story you span 6 years of Walsh, and compare it to 3 of Harbaughs ?? so now if Harbaugh and Kap come back in the next 3 years and take it ALL ,, you will have to feel 2 inches tall ,,,, and had the officials called half of the penaltys that we had to watch 5 and 6 times on replays ,,, the Niners would have blown out the score in the 3rd quarter ,,, so take your wannabe super story that you had written 3 years ago and stuff it !!!!!! Niner Nation needs no one like you here ,,,,,,,,,,,,
    Jan 22, 2014 at 3:11 AM
  • 49er John
    These 3 years have been a whirlwind of victories and failures. Last year's being the most brutal because we had a superbowl in our grasp. Hindsight gives us the ability to look back on all three years and reflect on what should of happened, but it's hard to point out that bad officiating cost us a Superbowl, then possibly this year's NFC Championship. I understand you have to play better to put yourself in a position to overcome those obstacles, but at this point of the season teams are so evenly matched that one play can decide a game. If Whitner wasn't flagged for roughing, Seattles drive stalls and they don't score that trip down the field. If Lee's roughing penalty was correctly called, Dawson would have been in fg range and we are tied. That last drive would have been much different. all we would of needed was a fg to win. If PI is called on Crabtree in the SB that would of allowed us to score. There was another commenter that suggested Alex Smith could of won that Superbowl, I call bs on that. Alex was a nice qb but Kaep had a much higher ceiling. I look for SF to come out strong next year and get back to the NFC Championship game.
    Jan 21, 2014 at 11:05 PM
  • Paul A.
    Jeff, Wonderfully told story. Thank you, it helps with the disappointment.
    Jan 21, 2014 at 10:52 PM
    Response: Thanks for all your support, Paul.
  • Really
    Oh my goodness you all are a bunch of sorry ass fans. Really I think Seattle's 12th man is real and you are all a bunch of wack jobs. True you haven't won three super bowls in the last three years but I think the only team to have as good of a run in the last three years is the Patriots. Harbaugh and Kap should get out of there and you can go back to what your sorry asses have been ever since Steve Young retired sometime last century. Wake up and realize you all are damn lucky to have both of them. Pick on Kap if you want but without his freakish athletic skills the Niners probably wouldn't have even scored against Seattle or beat the Panthers or even the packers for that matter. Remember the vaunted Niner running game, where was it Sunday. Who was the Niners leading rusher? Well I think besides Kap they had about 20 or so yards combined. Like I said all you Harbaugh Kap haters who claim to be Niner fans are an embarrassment!!!
    Jan 21, 2014 at 10:23 PM
  • Dipesh
    You lack a serious dose of perspective and sound like a "spoilt" kid in a mall. Niners have had three great seasons and Harbaugh has accomplished much too much. Unless you found a cure for cancer on your way to receiving a Nobel prize for finding a cure for blindness you should maintain the seriously sparse virtue of modesty. Harbaugh and the team have done very nicely and there are 27 other teams (except for Giants, Ravens, Seahawks, and Broncos) who would like to be in Niner shoes. Jeff if you need the urge to write I suggest you take up a serious topic like home gardening or grout cleaning.
    Jan 21, 2014 at 10:23 PM
  • brent
    I believe the best is yet to come. Youre being a little overdramatic. I've been a niner fan my whole life. And after so many years of nothing, turning it around and being a contender the past 3 years is more than enough for me. So many teams rebuild and never make it to the playoffs. And to win the NFC in the 2nd year. Are you kidding! I'm ecstatic!!! As for Colin, he came in and showed us what he is capable of. Made some big plays. Then the reality of the position set in, and it became a job. Let him grow. Fill his own shoes. Let this team grow, mesh together. This team is on its way back, and when it gets here everybody will know it. It takes time, niner fans are spoiled from past legends. Give it time!!!! 9ers rule!!
    Jan 21, 2014 at 9:55 PM
  • Jeanetten
    Although I'm extremely disappointed in the end of each story that was presented to us, I will hold faith in what's to come and that includes faith in Kaep's growth and learning. I would never take Alex Smith back over him, nor do I believe we would have ever made it that far with Smith. I do appreciate the entire organization and how they are classy and hard working and a team, a family and that's not something you see too often. I think Kaepernick was more than humble and taking responsibility for their loss. He will shoulder that for his life until he has a better memory to replace it with. My heart aches as a fan, but it aches for all of them as a mother, wife, sister or friend would. I hope that not everyone takes the position you have, and although I usually like your writings, this one made me sad.
    Jan 21, 2014 at 9:42 PM
  • Mike stu
    U nailed it! I was at all 3 NFC title games! Jim just flat out got outcoached in all 3.. I was also at the Monday night game where Colin made his first start! Jim was so all about sticking it in bears butts that when Colin played that well and won, Jim forgot what the ultimate goal was that year.. Alex was the leader and man in that clubhouse this team made a big mistake by letting Jim make that move.. Colin just can't be elusive with downfield awareness! We will never win with him at QB!
    Jan 21, 2014 at 9:32 PM
  • LongLivingNiner
    Some of these comments are hilarious. You say Kap is garbage but yet the Niners were one game away from the Super Bowl. Who threw the passes or ran for touchdowns during the playoffs? You say Harbaugh lost the team last year but yet not one complaint was given to a reporter even from players that left. So basically I will chalk it up to you people being bandwagon jumpers and/or people who don't know football. Kap is the QB whether you like it or not and if you want or like Alex so much change your team and root for KC, otherwise STHU. Kap has work to do and he will do it but unless any of you couch potatoes have coached before jump off the bandwagon and find another team.
    Jan 21, 2014 at 9:29 PM
  • redandgold
    You're all idiots! enuff sed...49er faithful right here!!!
    Jan 21, 2014 at 9:26 PM
  • Randall
    We don't have the most. Pittsburgh has 6.
    Jan 21, 2014 at 9:20 PM
    Response: I said that we've got the most over the period since Walsh arrived.
  • Mark Wilson
    Jeff, Harbaugh and David Shaw have not learned Walsh's lesson in big games to attack to win and not play conservatively. 17-10 is not a big enough lead to have or count on the defense to hold that lead. Another touchdown would have sealed the deal. Plus Walsh always said the fade route is a low percentage play and never would have called that play in either the Superbowl or this game. Look at the record. Harbaugh has two NFC Championship losses and one Superbowl loss in the last three years. He was 1-1 in Bowl games at Stanford and Shaw is 1-2 in Bowl Games.
    Jan 21, 2014 at 9:02 PM
  • Niners4life
    Really - you can list all the failures of so many teams and either focus in on the positives or not. 5 yards, 2 inches etc - it is football and you can only have 1 winner each year and 31 losers - go back before Harbaugh and you had the mediocre years - we have 5 Super Bowl rings and 6 appearances - We have been in the NFC championship 3 years in a row - as a die hard Niner it is hard to accept the losses - embrace the seasons and look forward to next year - We have a new stadium and ownership willing to drive to the top - Ask Raider fans, Charger fans, Browns Fans, Bears Fans ..... and I am sure they would gladly exchange their past 3 years for ours.
    Jan 21, 2014 at 8:59 PM
  • Ninerfan
    You sound like a whiny brat! Sorry your new coach hasn't won you three crowns in three years...personally, even recognizing that the window of opportunity can shut and seal quickly, I stand very grateful for the wins Harbaugh and his boys have brought to our franchise...it's been an AWESOME three years.
    Jan 21, 2014 at 8:41 PM
  • jdh
    Best story is yet to come. New stadium, Super Bowl road to redemption, and Superbowl 49 won by... the 49ERS.
    Jan 21, 2014 at 8:32 PM

More San Francisco 49ers News

49ers Guards and Center Fail to Make the Grade, According to PFF

By Jon Opelt
Jun 14

In the run-up to the NFL draft, 49ers fans were clamoring for the team to select a right tackle, which many considered to be the position of greatest need. Yet, grading and projections by Pro Football Focus (PFF) suggest the Niners' interior line needs improvement equally or...

Why Albert Breer is optimistic 49ers and Brandon Aiyuk get a deal done

By David Bonilla
Jun 19

Colin Cowherd declared on his FS1 show, "The Herd," that he doesn't believe Brandon Aiyuk will remain with the San Francisco 49ers beyond the trade deadline. The two sides have struggled to find common ground during contract extension talks and reportedly remain at an impasse....

49ers' head of player health and performance heads to NBA

By Site Staff
Jun 20

According to Tom Pelissero of NFL Network, the Atlanta Hawks have hired Ben Peterson, the San Francisco 49ers' former head of player health and performance, as their VP of player health and performance. "Peterson was well-regarded in SF. He oversaw athletic training,...

Schefter: 49ers and Brandon Aiyuk seemed close to deal before WR market exploded

By David Bonilla
Jun 21

Washington Commanders fans have been speculating about their favorite team trading for San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk since before the draft. This chatter was further fueled by Aiyuk's recent conversation with Commanders quarterback Jayden Daniels, where the...


More by Jeff Kaplan

More Articles

Share 49ersWebzone