A Good First Step for Harbaugh’s Last Stand

Sep 9, 2014 at 1:07 PM46

Naturally, I spoke too soon.

When I wrote on the eve of training camp that all the offseason "noise" was gone, I couldn't have known that the worst was ahead. After a preseason that was drab by even preseason standards, the noise got almost deafening. Desperately seeking to make amends for fumbling the Ray Rice scandal, Roger Goodell lowered the boom on Aldon Smith, who deserved a suspension but nothing like that. And then, only hours later, Ray McDonald became the face of the league's enlightened post-Rice world. And now we lead the league in arrests, over the course of the last three years.

The last three years. Basically, Jim Harbaugh's reign.

As I've said, I don't care how "classy" the Niners are. I don't like their crimes any more than you do, but I've come to accept what fandom means. As a wise man once put it, we're cheering for laundry. We might claim to love these guys. But we don't even know them. We've got no idea how "classy" they are, whether they've been arrested or not. So we can't love them, and really, we don't. What we love, instead, is the color they wear, and the spectacular things they do while they wear it.

Hence the Faustian bargain we make. When Niners do wrong, we shake our heads, we gnash our teeth, we spew all kinds of moral outrage. But come Sunday, we cheer. Not for who they are as men. Just for who they are as Niners.

So ultimately, the Niners' "class"—or lack thereof—doesn't matter to me. But rest assured, it matters to Jed. Sure, he's publicly gone the "due process" route, but he's proven he cares about his team's image. And privately, I think he's pissed. And I think I know where he places the blame.

The report that the Niners allegedly considered trading Harbaugh to the Browns was based on alleged tension between Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke. (Allegedly.) Shortly after, a different report alleged tension between Harbaugh and some of his most significant players. As the season approached, Harbaugh and Jed agreed to table their contract talks, meaning, of course, that they'd reached an impasse. And finally, on opening day, another report alleged that Harbaugh was "losing the locker room."

Can't you read the tea leaves here?

Harbaugh's high-strungness, and thus his propensity to wear out his welcome, is hardly a secret. But three straight NFC title games would take care of that, if mere high-strungness were really the issue. Combine that tension, though, with a team that leads the league in arrests? For an image-conscious owner, that's when you start to say, enough.

Naturally, it wouldn't be smart. Despite his faults, Harbaugh's a genius, much more valuable than an image of "class." And who knows, Jed might realize this, especially if it's a Super Bowl year. But when the Niners took the field in Dallas, there was a feeling like these were the last days of Rome.

Yet if indeed this is Harbaugh's last ride, he certainly got it started off right.

No question, the absence of Smith (and NaVorro Bowman) was disturbingly noticeable; Tony Romo was generally comfy, while DeMarco Murray repeatedly sliced through the middle. When both starting corners went down early—though after a gift touchdown by the non-classy Chris Culliver—things looked rather bleak on the defensive side. But with Romo helping by being himself, the Niners at last exploited their depth, as their secondary reserves—rookies Dontae Johnson and Jimmie Ward, and the non-classy Perrish Cox—filled in beautifully. It's utterly unknowable why Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial haven't broken into the D-line rotation, but the D looks able to weather the storm.

Meanwhile, the offense shook off its preseason doldrums, with a perfectly executed pass-first scheme. The first two drives were exemplary. Starting at the 20: pass short left, pass deep middle, pass deep right—touchdown. And then, after Eric Reid took a pick to the 2, play-action pass—touchdown again. With this approach, with our dangerous two-headed third wide receiver, and with Colin Kaepernick looking like anything but a one-read QB, this offense seems ready to take flight at last.

Naturally, there are signs of trouble. Though Phil Dawson's first year was much like David Akers', his second year might be like Akers' as well. The officials' "emphasis" on throwing even more flags—especially flags that are total horseshit—will give Harbaugh weekly embolisms, while making each game a struggle to watch. And perhaps most menacingly, the Seahawks don't look like they're going away.

But the Niners look like they're here to stay too, and that's the most impressive thing. Harbaugh has been here for only three years, yet they feel like a hundred. Off the field, it's been constant drama; and on the field, each year has ended more painfully than the last. By now, Harbaugh's become an unsolvable paradox—his ultimate success seems inevitable, but it also somehow seems impossible. He's produced unforgettable exhilaration, matched only by unsustainable exasperation.

Yet he's still here, at least for now. And he won't quit. He will fight.

And so, of course, will we.

There are times when being a fan is hard. Naturally, during the dynasty years, it was easy. The lean years that followed made it tougher, of course, but those teams carried an almost joyful badness, a cartoonish buffoonery that was almost endearing.

In a way, the Harbaugh years have made it the toughest. Each season seemed to promise the Super Bowl title, with total certainty. Each presented a golden chance, which the Niners squandered at the last minute, literally. And beyond that unendurable heartbreak, the Niners now seem to be causing enough trouble, off the field, to make any fan question his Faustian bargain.

But as I've said, there's no escape. We're Niner fans, so we cheer for the Niners. And if indeed this is Harbaugh's last ride, then we will ride with him.

All the way, to the bitter end. Or, perhaps, to the glorious one.
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.


  • community leader
    Indeed, this will be Harbaugh's last stand. And like Custer he will not win it. Welcome him to Michigan, folks. Maybe the Raiders because he likes the Bay Area.
    Sep 30, 2014 at 2:18 PM
  • Terry B.
    Yeah, Jeff, don't you know anything? If Pro Football Talk reports a story, and Chris Mortensen independently confirms the truth of the story with his sources, it can't possibly be true because homers like Nick S. don't want to believe anything negative about the 49ers. Neither PFT nor Chris Mortensen can possibly have any credibility. You know who you CAN really believe and who has excellent sources around the league? Some homer named Nick S. on a 49ers fan page. There's credibility for you! If you didn't know that, you haven't been paying attention bud.
    Sep 12, 2014 at 7:46 AM
  • Nick S.
    Chris Mortensen is the poor man's Adam Schefter. If you don't know that already, you haven't been paying attention bud.
    Sep 11, 2014 at 9:36 PM
  • Shane
    For the record, before I get bashed (which is fine, I don't care), I don't think that all the different reports are 100% true and that Harbaugh gets along as poorly with everyone as the media suggests. You don't go to 3 straight NFC championship games and look that good in week one if the whole organization and all the players hate you. Come on. However, to disregard over a dozen reports and think there is no tension that could possibly lead to unfavorable change is naive. I know we all love harbaugh but lets be honest, Its not exactly "all good" in the front office or else they would have extended that contract. That's undeniable. How does anyone know they haven't been talking to the coordinators, that are dying to be head coaches but are victims of their own success, about taking over? I don't, no one knows exactly what's the truth except Jim and Jed. So before we say the idea that Harbaugh could be gone is ridiculous, ask is it really? are ALL these reports false? or do you just not want it to be true.... I don't.
    Sep 11, 2014 at 9:25 AM
  • Shane
    Its unreal how many times you can say, I want Harbaugh here and just believe Jed doesn't (obviously shrinking the overall points down to 2 words) and backing it up with facts and reports and have the majority backlash be: Why would you want Harbaugh to get fired, youre an idiot, you have no proof, you make things up. Wow. The reality is we beat the F out of Dallas, everyone is pumped up about it, it feels more than good to forget about all the offseason nonsense, and Harbaugh is royalty around here. When you write an article that infers that the prodigal son of the 9ers might not be here next year, I don't care if you have Jed on tape saying he doesn't want Harbaugh, ppl will say its altered. Youre pissing on sundays parade my man. oh well. its still a good article backed with fair points. you're just swimming upstream right now and the other fish are getting angry. Understanding your stance, I know we both hope you are wrong but that doesn't mean that you are.... next week I would suggest writing about how much the 9ers kicked the bears' ass and looked great doing it!.. Just Kidden.
    Sep 11, 2014 at 8:44 AM
    Response: Thanks, Shane. I've got to agree--it seems like a lot of people have missed my point on this one. (Of course, that might be partly my fault.) Honestly, I didn't intend to throw a wet blanket. I loved that game; Kaepernick and the offense looked better than ever. But I couldn't help but feel like the big story of this season is going to be that it's Harbaugh's last. Time will tell. But whether it is or isn't, I hope it ends with that silver trophy.
  • Nick S.
    I hear you Jeff, but in regards to your response to MBNINER... if you are believing what Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk writes, you need to readjust your BS-meter. Credibility is not his strong suit with his "anonymous league sources." But if you choose to believe stuff like that, then I guess that's your choice.
    Sep 11, 2014 at 12:10 AM
    Response: Well, Mortensen confirmed the substance of that report, but I guess you'd say that credibility isn't HIS strong suit either.
  • mbniner
    Because PFT is notorious for taking half-baked rumors and expanding them into sensational stories. Not one person ever announced they had a deal except the embarrassed Browns owner who abruptly fired the two guys that convinced him that he could get Harbaugh. No one, especially PFT, had any proof that the teams "came to terms". And yes, I believe that Harbaugh and York told the truth.
    Sep 10, 2014 at 9:27 PM
  • mbniner
    Cleveland making an absurd offer for Harbaugh and Harbaugh telling York that he had no knowledge of the offer before York dismissed it is hardly "came to terms". Jeff, you've written good articles in the past which I have enjoyed, but maybe you should just admit that this one is a stinker and should be quickly forgotten.
    Sep 10, 2014 at 8:20 PM
    Response: PFT reported that a deal was in place. Why do you assume that Jed and Harbaugh were telling the truth?
  • Mike
    There are several reasons why Harbaugh is leaving: because Baalke wants more power in the organization, because Harbaugh is worth more money than the 49ers want to pay him, because he's not an a**kisser. Of the 3 probably number 2 is York's reason and Baalke rightfully looks at Harbaugh as a threat to his position. That "losing the locker room" stuff was put out by the GM's office.
    Sep 10, 2014 at 7:38 PM
    Response: I think that your last point, in particular, is very, very possible.
  • Nick S.
    Per our convo below (and I appreciate your response), you say you aren't blaming Harbs for the behavior problems the team has been having. But then you close by saying you believe Jed will let Harbs go because of all the "noise around the organization." So what you're inferring is that Jed York is holding Jim Harbaugh responsible for the behavior of the players? Not Trent Baalke? If I'm incorrect in that regard, what "noise" is Harbs responsible for then? The baseless rumors of Harbs losing the locker room? The issue with your article is that you are again selling a narrative that Harbs is on his way out, but your evidence to support this is based on nothing but assumption and conjecture. Besides the contract impasse, you need to clearly define what issues you believe have led Jed to put Harbs on the hot seat. In my opinion, you don't have much of any tea leaves to read here. You're just guessing based on a "feeling" you have. No evidence, just a guess.
    Sep 10, 2014 at 5:03 PM
    Response: But I do have evidence; you're just dismissing it. You know all the reports, so I'll just briefly recap. The Niners and the Browns didn't just talk; they came to terms, but Harbaugh said no. Then, the Niners and Harbaugh discussed a contract extension, and they COULDN'T come to terms. They decided to drop it until after the season, i.e., until the last possible moment (since you know as well as I do that Harbaugh won't coach the last year of his deal as a lame duck). They offered that "bad precedent" excuse, which is absurd on its face. And then there are all these reports (multiple reports, from multiple outlets) of general "Harbaugh fatigue," which is certainly plausible, since everyone knows how abrasive he is. Now, you can choose to dismiss all this out of hand, to believe instead the Niners' denials. But the fact that you choose to dismiss this evidence doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. The player-behavior issue is really just the cherry on top. I think that Jed will blame Harbaugh, not necessarily because he thinks that Harbaugh's really at fault, but because he'll need to blame someone and he'll want to keep Baalke instead of Harbaugh. And I infer that from all of the above. Let me stress again: I DON'T WANT HARBAUGH TO LEAVE. But it looks to me like he's on his way out. I might be wrong, and I hope I am. But your assertion that I'm "just guessing based on a feeling" is totally, outrageously false.
  • mbniner
    There is a precedent for an owner getting rid of a coach at the top of his career--Jerry Jones firing Jimmy Johnson. Since then, the Cowboys have gone on to be a joke. I can't believe that Jed is so egotistical to be that stupid.
    Sep 10, 2014 at 2:52 PM
  • Webzone Commenter
    The sheer number of negative comments proves this column was a bad idea and that your wrong. Stop being such a drama queen and listenting to bassless rumors and speculation! Ha Ha Ha. Loser!
    Sep 10, 2014 at 8:34 AM
  • Dallas Niner Fan
    Wow!! Who is this Joe??? If this guy's son is really the Niners' lawyer then we have a huge scoop here. Do you want to call ESPN or should I? Someone needs to call Harbaugh and let him know. Has this guy Joe ever heard of client confidentiality? Seriously though is this guy legit?
    Sep 10, 2014 at 8:33 AM
  • Stanley
    Amazing how you can predict the state of the 49ers after 1 regular season game. It's also interesting how your article is based on nothing but rumors mainly started by media members who are shunned by the 49ers. But, whatever, continue to fake being fair and balanced. All I know is if it wasn't for Jim Harbaugh, Boldin and Bethea wouldn't have signed - and that's fact straight from the camel's mouth.
    Sep 10, 2014 at 5:06 AM
  • Dan B.
    Singletary and his archaic grind-it-out approach are still fresh in my mind. As is Nolan's complete lack of anything resembling a head coach (minus his snazzy suits of course). Even Mooch's chronic mismanagement of the play clock doesn't seem that far away. If Harbaugh is fired I just don't see how anything short of an immediate SB victory by the following head coach will prove that course of action as a successful one. Even if the following coach is "better", there's very little chance of repeating our recent success. Which means that his tenure will be a tumultuous one and questioned yearly. Compound that with the possibility of Harbaugh finding success with another team and you have the makings of another head coach carousel.
    Sep 10, 2014 at 5:04 AM
  • Chris
    I'd question my fanhood if they let Harbaugh walk without providing some reason we've heard nothing about. Harbaugh was the first coach to make it onto Bill Barnwell's "Top 50 contract values". It's small sample, but he currently holds the best winning percentage in NFL history. As a Stanford fan, I understood why they could not pay and bring back Harbaugh. As a 49ers fan, I cannot fathom how they could make that decision unless there's something we don't know about. When Rex Ryan can keep a head coaching job despite all the nonsense surrounding the Jets in the last few years, there's no reason in hell to think that Harbaugh has done anything that should make the 49ers want to move on. All I can continue to do is hope this is just noise or part of some really misguided negotiation tactics because it'd be hard to remain loyal to an organization that made such a bad decision.
    Sep 10, 2014 at 4:17 AM
  • Nick S.
    Jeff, this is easily your worst article to date. "...when the Niners took the field in Dallas, there was a feeling like these were the last days of Rome." The problem with your approach to covering this team is that you're trying to sell a narrative that isn't remotely in touch with reality. If you as a writer & a fan of this team want to buy in to rumors & conjecture that NFL talking heads are selling, that's on you. A wiser man would try to think independently, but instead you're trying to connect isolated, unrelated events & rumors, put a bow on the whole story, and call it "reading the tea leaves." The Browns called the 49ers about a trade for Harbs, & Jed York said no. You aimlessly point to Harbaugh as the one to blame for the behavior of the players, flat-out guessing that Jed York is "pissed" without having any information whatsoever to back that claim up. Meanwhile, you have the gall to claim that the Harbaugh years (only 11 reg. season losses in 3 years) have made it tough to be a fan? How exactly has Harbs produced "unsustainable exasperation" as head coach of the 49ers? That's just the story you are trying to sell, which is based entirely in conjecture and assumptions.
    Sep 10, 2014 at 2:12 AM
    Response: Nick, I did not blame Harbaugh for the players' behavior. I absolutely didn't do that. On the other hand, I did infer that Jed is "pissed" that his team leads the friggin' league in arrests, because that seems like something that a reasonable owner would be pissed about. (Wouldn't YOU be?) And I did say that the Harbaugh years have been a mix of exhilaration and exasperation, and if you haven't been exasperated by the combined weight of these playoff losses, well, as you put it, that's on you. But nevertheless, as I've said many times, Harbaugh is the best coach in the NFL. I'm not suggesting, in any way, that Jed SHOULD let him go. I'm suggesting only that, in light of all this noise around the organization, I think that he will.
  • Ironhawk86
    Suppose your theory that Jed is unhappy with the team's image is true. Why does he put that on Harbaugh? I mean Baalke is the one drafting and signing these troublemakers. How come he isn't being taken to task for their off-field transgressions? Does any sane person think he has more to do with our success than Harbaugh? Seeing how the last of the 2012 class was sent packing, I don't see how anyone in the organization can think that. IMO Jed is doing what's in his DNA and being a meddlesome cheapskate.
    Sep 10, 2014 at 2:04 AM
    Response: No question, if anyone other than the players themselves should be accountable for their conduct, it should be Baalke. But Baalke is Jed's guy, definitively, whereas Harbaugh's act, apparently, is starting to wear a little thin. So if Jed does want a new culture, I think he'll pin the old one, unfairly (and stupidly), on Harbaugh, not Baalke.
  • Shane
    Jeff, I absolutely love your writing and always look forward to it. This is a very thoughtful, somewhat disturbing (bc I believe you're correct) piece. And I agree with your actual stance. Although I believe Baalke has done a great job, who wouldn't keep Harbaugh over him? my question to you is do you believe the increased media frenzy year after year, increased news coverage, social media, etc is making all this bigger than it would normally be? in no way am I saying these guys shld be acting like thugs, however I feel there is some validity to the argument that this has been going on forever, only now we care. In '98 L Little KILLED a woman via DUI, served no jail time, continued playing, then in '04 was arrested again for DWI!! he never did jail time, never missed a game, and played 5 more seasons with the same team. The league's biggest stars were regularly on hard drugs. There was ray lewis, even Vick, who killed and tortured animals and has played for 2 teams since. are the 9ers THAT much different or is the spotlight just brighter than ever?
    Sep 9, 2014 at 8:42 PM
    Response: Great to see you, Shane. And you're absolutely right: the spotlight IS brighter, thanks not only to the factors you mention but also, of course, to Roger Goodell, who staked his reputation on getting tough with thugs like the ones you mention. (Which makes it ironic that his downfall might stem from not getting tough ENOUGH with Rice; in a way, he's being hoist with his own petard.) And you're also right that every team has to deal with this stuff, and sometimes much worse (see Aaron Hernandez). But as I've said, it's seemingly only the Niners who CLAIM to be above reproach ("winning with class"), so Jed has put himself in a bind. Most people seem to want him to get tough like Goodell, to change what seems to be the Niners' permissive culture. Well, how do you change a culture? You change it by making changes in leadership, and I doubt that Jed will fire himself.
  • Sdaddy101269
    Looks like this article was a bad idea! Hahaha!
    Sep 9, 2014 at 7:39 PM
  • Kaep fan
    @Tip Top Nope. You fail to see the real NFL. Not the one perceived by drama queens. Nice job supporting your point by lumping those who disagree all in the bucket of past events. Yep, we all think exactly alike on all issues.
    Sep 9, 2014 at 7:23 PM
  • Tip Top
    Great write-up! The folks talking about how Jed York would never get rid of JH or if York even remembers what the team was like before JH are the same folks who also said the team would "never" trade away a 1st round draft choice after the first season yet failed to see all the writing on the wall. They're the same ones who say LMJ just wasn't given the right system or put in the right positions. It's simple -- they're the same people who have zero clue how to read the writing on the wall. They're the same ones who live in aberrant denial at the expense of reality and become enraged when reality comes crashing in. Rest assured two things will happen -- (a) a SB win will allow JH to command any price he desires (b) No SB win and they'll bring in someone to take the ship. That's life.
    Sep 9, 2014 at 6:02 PM
  • Hyde and Gore Seek
    Get the picture yet Jeff? Us true fans see through your BS. Stop making up stories with your media brethren. No way in H that York would let the best coach in the NFL go and start another decade of losing. He'd be run out of town if he did. Let the legal system deal with legal issues and stop trying to force your own morals on your (soon to be less) reader base.
    Sep 9, 2014 at 5:30 PM
  • Joe
    My son is an attorney for the 49ers and he says that this is Harbaugh's last year with the 49ers, they are going to buy out the final year of his contract for 2015.
    Sep 9, 2014 at 5:09 PM
    Response: Um, really?
  • True Fan 49
    Harbaugh's last stand? Not sure who Jeff Kaplan is but he can STFU and take this article back to the crackerjacks box where he got his "writing credentials" from. Who on this website gave this bozo the authority to put this crap here? You need to find real people with factual insight not this garbage.
    Sep 9, 2014 at 4:54 PM
  • Ron michaud
    You got it right Kap. We don't care if our team are gentlemen or thugs just as long as they perform well on Sundays. Harbaugh is a show in himself. Genius... Youre getting a little carried away with that concept. As long as they win... I will tolerate the police blotter... Start to lose... Get rid of the no good son of... Anyway the games provide great entertainment... What happens before or after has no relevance to my 3 hours of escapism on Sundays.
    Sep 9, 2014 at 4:28 PM
  • Rob H
    Not sure why the bay area media ALWAYS seems to be looking for what is "wrong" with the 49ers. I have lived in Seattle the last 9 years and the media here LOVES the Seahawks. I almost never hear anything negative about the players or the organization. It is like they have all jumped on board to just enjoy the ride. It wasn't that long ago that we 9ers fans would have killed for a win or even just a decent game plan. Now we are one of the top teams in the league and we seem to spend all our time planning for their inevitable implosion. What happened to the FAITHFUL?
    Sep 9, 2014 at 4:25 PM
  • Al Capone
    "unnamed sources speak with a forked tongue."
    Sep 9, 2014 at 4:19 PM
  • Darrell G
    I think a lot of the noise is media-generated to give them something to talk about. Much like the NYT taking a poll to write stories about their own poll. Throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. Try to generate controversy or a story with an organization that often shuts the media out while the sausage is being made. The whole "losing the locker room" narrative is the latest such example. They also willfully ignored what was said about setting precedents with wanting a new contract with 2 years left on the existing one. Along with them having already settled on the terms and just hammering them out next offseason. I don't trust much of what I see in the media. The sports media has even lower standards....as if that were even possible.
    Sep 9, 2014 at 3:30 PM
    Response: I don't think we can buy that "bad precedent" excuse, Darrell. Note that we extended Joe Staley through 2019, when he was already signed through 2017. In fact, the flimsiness of that excuse, at least to me, is another suggestion that something's wrong.
  • Niner fan 49
    In reply to your comment: "Why wouldn't Jed give Harbaugh the extension that his on-field performance so obviously demands? [and] where there's smoke there's fire": I'll bring up some things that happened or lack of up north. Last year, Pete Carroll was in the same position as Harbaugh now - entering his second to last year in his contract but was this news for Carroll? Did the media bring it up? Was it a national story? No. I wonder why. Does the media have anything against Harbaugh b/c he doesn't laugh and open up to them? Let me stick to the facts and what made the "national headlines" regardless of truth. -Media stated Harbaugh would be traded, did not happen. -Media said Harbaugh-Baalke were not on speaking terms, also proven wrong. -Media said it was certain Niners wouldn't pick up Aldon's 5th year contract extension, again proven wrong. -On game day media released a "report" that Harbaugh "lost the locker room", please check out Justin Smith's postgame comments. Harbaugh is signed for this year and the next. Do you not get that?
    Sep 9, 2014 at 3:25 PM

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