Dear Webmaster: We Can Do Better

Dec 24, 2014 at 7:00 PM39

Dear David:

As one of your humble employees, I'd first like to wish you a merry Christmas and thank you for another great year here at 49erswebzone. Maybe I don't tell you enough, but this is truly a wonderful job. I can work from home, my hours are flexible, and the dress-code...well, you wouldn't believe what I'm wearing right now!

(Okay, maybe the salary isn't so great. But that'll be between you and my agent.)

Anyway, I just got your latest memo, the one entitled "Letting Go of Jim Harbaugh so Quickly Is a Big Mistake." And since this was my boss speaking, you can bet that I gave it my faithful attention. (I don't mean to suggest that I'm more faithful than some of your other underlings, but just so you know, I think I saw Jack Hammer stealing post-its from the supply closet.)

In your memo, you make perhaps the definitive case for why, indeed, Harbaugh should stay as the Niners' head coach. Now please understand, I would never doubt your management skills; after all, I'll just confess, I'm the Secret Santa who got you that "World's Best Webmaster" mug.

But if you'll allow me, point by point, I'd like to respectfully disagree.

Let's start with some of your background assertions. Your central thesis is that "letting [Harbaugh] go after one disappointing season would be a mistake." But you're making a couple of assumptions there. One is that the Niners would be "letting him go" (in other words, firing him), instead of merely letting him leave. And the other is that their reason for "letting him go" would be their disappointment over this season, instead of something totally else.

With all due respect, Boss, neither of those assumptions is valid.

Don't forget: Harbaugh was nearly traded after last season, long before this one hit the skids. And when the Niners and Harbaugh discussed an extension, Harbaugh wasn't any more agreeable than the Niners were. So though it might seem like Harbaugh will be "fired" for this season's train-wreck, really the train-wreck is just a coincidence. As soon as those offseason talks broke down, the die was cast; whether the Niners went 2-and-14 or 14-and-2, Harbaugh was gone. Mutually.

It's simple, really. Harbaugh and Trent Baalke are done with each other. They were never close, and reportedly, earlier this month, their trust in each other was broken for good. Someone's gotta go, and since Baalke's the boss, Harbaugh will go. But this isn't merely Baalke's decision; just this once, Harbaugh agrees.

So with all due respect to the fans you mention, who are urging Jed York to "keep Harbaugh," I don't think they really know what they're asking. If Baalke is here, Harbaugh doesn't want to be kept. To keep Harbaugh, York would have to fire Baalke and make Harbaugh the coach and GM. Though I'm sure that plenty of fans would sign up for that, you don't go that far in your memo, and wisely so, if you ask me.

What you say, instead, is that Baalke should let Harbaugh serve out his contract, but that Harbaugh should be "forced to make some offensive staff changes." By this, of course, you mean that Harbaugh should be forced to fire Greg Roman, who should've been fired months ago. But no self-respecting head coach—and certainly no head coach like Harbaugh, who can basically have any job that he wants—would ever give up control of his staff. So when you admit that Baalke should keep Harbaugh only if Harbaugh will fire Roman—which Harbaugh clearly will never do—you're essentially admitting that Harbaugh actually shouldn't be kept.

But just for fun, let's assume that Harbaugh would stay with Baalke, that Harbaugh would fire Roman to do it, and that Baalke (or York) is stubbornly determined to fire him anyway. You offer a list of reasons why firing him would be a mistake. Allow me to briefly respond to each.

Reason One: 2003 through 2010

Those indeed were miserable years, and I'll always be grateful to Harbaugh for ending them. In 2011, especially given the offseason lockout, he did the greatest coaching job since Bill Walsh's 30 years before (and I still haven't forgiven a certain punt-returner for singlehandedly ruining it). But why do you assume that the choice here is between keeping Harbaugh and reverting to the misery that preceded him? Isn't there a third alternative? Sure, there's a chance that Baalke would replace Harbaugh with someone worse, but there's also a chance—a good one, I think—that he would replace him with someone better. Which leads us to....

Reason Two: Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, Mike Singletary

Those indeed were miserable coaches, but take a look at who did the hiring. Terry Donahue, John York, and Jed York, respectively. Unqualified, each and every one. I don't think their failures prove "how extremely difficult it is to find a good NFL head coach." All they prove, at least to me, is how difficult it was for them.

Baalke was smart enough to hire Harbaugh, so there's no way he'd be dumb enough to hire another coach as bad as Erickson, Nolan, or Singletary. Your response, though, is that there isn't likely to be out there another coach as good as Harbaugh. I think you might be overrating Harbaugh a tad—more on that later—but I also think that you're underrating the current pool of potential replacements. I'll never understand the Niners' fascination with Jim Tomsula, but what about the modern masters of the actual West Coast Offense? The Ravens' Gary Kubiak, the Packers' Tom Clements, the Colts' Pep Hamilton? I tend to prefer new blood to old, but Mike Shanahan, Mike Holmgren, and Jon Gruden have reportedly expressed interest, each one with roots in Niners glory. And those are just off the top of my head. I think that any of these guys would do at least as good a job as Harbaugh, and a much better job offensively. Harbaugh promised to bring the West Coast Offense home; these guys, though, would actually deliver.

Reason Three: A season full of media-created distractions

Look, Boss, I know the media are a bunch of sleaze-merchants. And sometimes, sure, they make stuff up. But sometimes they just report what they hear, from their various "sources" around the league. And when they do that, I don't think we should be shooting the messenger.

No question, Deion Sanders and Trent Dilfer might've just been speculating when they "reported" strain in the locker room. But since Harbaugh seems to wear out his welcome at every stop, weren't their musings plausible? And once the team started throwing games away, didn't the players sort of confirm those musings, accusing the coaches of lacking a "killer instinct" and running "dumb schemes"? It's easy to dismiss lightweights like Sanders and Dilfer, but clearly this locker room wasn't a lovefest.

As for the rumored trade to the Browns, Mike Florio wrote that he'd learned from a "source" that the Niners agreed to accept two third-round picks, but that Harbaugh ended up killing the deal. And Chris Mortensen's "sources" confirmed the "substance" of Florio's story. You assert, though, that Florio "exaggerated" the story, "in order to create a sense of shock and alarm." But how do you know, David? Because the Niners denied it? As I see it, only the Niners had a reason to lie, to preserve some trace of organizational peace. But in any event, the media didn't just make all this up. All the tea-leaves were already there.

But here's a question. Even if you're right—even if this year indeed was ruined by "media-created distractions"—why would the media create fewer distractions next year, with Harbaugh now a lame-duck coach? If you ask me, the scene would be an absolute zoo.

Reason Four: LB Chris Borland, LB Patrick Willis, LB NaVorro Bowman, NT Glenn Dorsey, NT Ian Williams, DB Jimmie Ward, C Daniel Kilgore, TE Vance McDonald, RB Kendall Hunter, TE Derek Carrier, CB Chris Cook, WR Kassim Osgood, TE Garrett Celek, WR Chuck Jacobs, CB Kenneth Acker, and G Fouimalo Fonoti

Those indeed are a slew of guys on injured reserve. And even if we were playoff-bound, those injuries would make things tough. But as you acknowledge, this team's failure has been on offense, and only one of those guys, Kilgore at center, was an offensive starter. So when it comes to this team's failure, those injuries were virtually irrelevant. If we want to explain it, we'll have to look elsewhere. Which brings us to....

Reason Five: Harbaugh's resume

No question, you can't argue with his winning percentage; it's the fourth-best in NFL history. But this franchise is about winning titles, not winning games. And I just don't see a championship coach. First there's his weird offensive philosophy. Despite the fact that passing wins, he started out with a run-first offense. Sure, I get it, his quarterback was Alex Smith. But even this year, when his weapons induced him to finally switch to a pass-first offense, he based it on low-percentage passes, always deep, or at least intermediate. Especially when your line is struggling, that's no way to keep drives alive.

I'll quickly admit that Colin Kaepernick's been awful this year, but he's done okay when the plays have called for comfortable passes—shorter, quicker, and especially on the move. If he were given a QB-friendly scheme—like, say, the WCO—Kaepernick could learn the reads and make the throws, and of course he'd add his trademark big plays. But stunningly, despite being a former QB himself, Harbaugh refuses to give him one.

Offensive philosophy, though, is just the tip of the trash-heap. A well-coached team shouldn't struggle with the basic tasks of calling the plays and getting set at the line; yet our play-clock issues still persist, week after week, year after year. A well-coached team should practice its red-zone execution so thoroughly that the players can run the plays in their sleep; yet our red-zone issues still persist, week after week, year after year. And a well-coached team should make the necessary halftime adjustments; yet our second-half issues still persist, week after week, year after year.

So yeah, Harbaugh's teams win a lot of games. But is it because of his coaching, or in spite of his coaching?

While proudly serving on your staff, I've written a couple of articles I wish I could take back. One, in particular, is the article I wrote after we lost that Super Bowl. Still enraptured by Harbaugh's spell, I said he was still the best coach in the league. What I refused to see was that the Super Bowl was his time to prove it. And in the biggest game of any of their lives, Harbaugh's team simply wasn't prepared. They lined up wrong on the very first play, they were out of sorts on both O and D, and despite their impressively furious comeback, that sequence at the end was a nightmarish mess.

Harbaugh couldn't handle his championship moment. By its very definition, then, Harbaugh isn't a championship coach.

Reason Six: The fans have a voice

Lastly, David, you argue that Jed York should "worry about the backlash that will ensue when Harbaugh is let go." As you observe, York does profess to value the fans' opinions, and wisely so, since, after all, the fans are his customers. But as I've tried to demonstrate here, perhaps we fans should stifle that backlash. Again, York isn't letting Harbaugh go any more than Harbaugh wants to leave. And even if that weren't the case, I'd like to think that what we want most is another shiny silver trophy. Harbaugh's had his shot at one (or two, or maybe even three). Let's give someone else a turn.

Trust me, I get it. The fans are scared. We've got it pretty good right now, and when you've got it good, change can be scary. But let's not allow our fear of the worse to prevent us from always striving for better. We've got it pretty good right now, but everyone knows that we can do better.

In 2015, let's do better.

I'll still be employed here to see it, right?
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.


  • Lucky Phil
    Jeff, I agree with your comments about Jed's PR game. But what upsets me is people assume JH was NOT going to replace Roman. Even though, JH publicly supported him does not mean he would have come back next year. Quite the contrary, everyone JH has supported publicly; A. Smith, AJ Jenkins, McDonald, Brooks, Crabtree are all gone or will be shortly. That just wasn't Baalke's decision it was JH's as well. Jed said we came to a "mutual understanding", that's a lie. Jed said their football philosophy differ, not sure exactly what that means. Is winning games against his philosophy? The "philosophy" excuse wasn't believed and Jed pressed on further. Jed finally implied JH does not "win with class". I don't know what that means. I always felt JH was humble and respectful in every situation, especially this last year. So to assume Jed replaced JH because he would not fire Roman, is naive and wrong. He fired JH because he got is stadium built and Jed is not paying or hiring a 5 mil. a yr. coach. Are we in a better place firing our HC and OC by default? That's the question. Are their "plenty of good coaches" out there? I'm more concerned with losing Fangio and J. Smith by default.
    Jan 11, 2015 at 7:45 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Capitalizing on his growing popularity, Jed York is selling a very exquisite and dainty pair of panties. Trying to jump on the Mad Bum boxer shorts phenom-om. Jed is selling his personal favorite undergarments with "Flaccid Penis In Shoes" on the front and "York This" on the back.
    Dec 30, 2014 at 6:04 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Jeff, This all your fault. I'm holding you responsible. No one drives head coaches out of town faster than you. LOL. F#@Ing York. Couldn't he fire the guy without all this bullshit? That's what really pisses me off. I'm not sure I can be fan of this team knowing I'm supporting this liar treating us like dip shits. Next season might be my last. I need to find a new team.
    Dec 30, 2014 at 5:18 PM
    Response: I'll agree with you THIS much, Phil: York's PR strategy is totally idiotic. If he would just say (or strongly imply) that he and Harbaugh reached an impasse when Harbaugh refused to fire Roman, the fans would understand. They might not agree, but they'd understand. (I haven't heard a single fan support Harbaugh's stubborn loyalty to Roman.) Or, if the reason was Harbaugh's permissive attitude toward the players' off-the-field misconduct, York could just say that (or strongly imply it), and the fans would probably understand that too. But instead, York just bobs and weaves while Harbaugh plays the victim, making it look like York was being as petty and stupid as you're suggesting. I still support the split, but York isn't helping me make my case. He's playing right into his critics' hands.
  • Lucky Phil
    Jed York is changing the culture and vision of the S.F. Forty Niners. For over 50 years the Niner Faithful have been the bedrock of this franchise. Next year, "Losing with class is what matters".
    Dec 30, 2014 at 4:36 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Jim Harbaugh's wildly successful mantra "Whose Got It Better Than Us?" is being replaced next year. "Everything Is Going To Shit" will be the new catch phrase.
    Dec 30, 2014 at 4:25 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    After a long arduous off season the S.F Forty-Niners are happy to announce the new head coach of your beloved team, Greg Roman. After much deliberation Trent Baalke and I concluded our best candidate to replace Jim Harbaugh was Greg Roman a man that has been nursing at the savoir's proverbial teat for 10 years. Also, No one else wanted the job. It's a little hard to hire "Plenty of good coaches" when you just shit all over the winiest coach in the NFL in the last four years.
    Dec 30, 2014 at 4:05 PM
  • noodlearm
    Kaplan will do better once he enters a 12 step program.
    Dec 28, 2014 at 7:07 PM
  • Dallas Niner Fan
    Jeff, This stupid decision by Niner management to fire Harbaugh was made at the beginning of the season. It had nothing to do with win lose record or the fact that Harbaugh did not fire Roman. This was a power struggle between Harbaugh and Balkee plain and simple and purely political. I will say this, all the pressure is on Balkee now he is the man in SF and that future does not look that bright right now.
    Dec 28, 2014 at 2:23 PM
    Response: I'll just say it again, Dallas. We can do better. Before you start dreading the future, let's just see who the next coach is. (Then again, if it's Tomsula, I might end up agreeing with you....)
  • Ironhawk86
    Jeff the individual points you make are correct but you are deliberately overlooking the elephant in the room-coaches talk. And when one who has as strong of a record as Harbaugh is undermined and ousted in the way Jed and Baalke did, no halfway-decent coach will ever want to work for them. There's countless examples of a franchise deluding themselves into thinking it was their front office and not their coaching that brought them success and the promptly destroying themselves to satisfy their egos, most notably the Cowboys of the 90's. The simple truth is that Jed is just like his daddy and the only reason why he hired Harbaugh in the first place was to get a flashy name that would sell the new stadium to the taxpayers.
    Dec 26, 2014 at 4:10 PM
  • Dallas Niner Fan
    In the words of Jerry Jones, "100 coaches can coach this team".......Right Jeff?
    Dec 26, 2014 at 3:40 PM
    Response: Jimmy Johnson had won two Super Bowls, Dallas. Jim Harbaugh, by contrast, won't fire Greg Roman. The Cowboys literally couldn't do better. The Niners, by contrast, can.
  • Paul A.
    Jeff, It pains me, but finally Jeff you got it right! And now we are back to square one. You ,like so many others, hoped beyond hope that Harbaugh was the guy that would push/lead this team to SB glory. When the cracks started to form, removing AS when he and the team were performing at a high level, the SB loss, the regression of Kaepernick, etc. There were/are some here that cautioned you to take another look at this guy but we were pushed to the margines. What fries my ass is the lost years that we have just witnessed and here we are talking about the same crap that we talked about 5 years ago!!!!
    Dec 26, 2014 at 6:05 AM
  • Milleneum
    Thanks for the best written article yet on the Harbaugh situation. Everyone just assumes that there aren't any better coaches out there. That is just plain stupid, there are very good coaches out there, sometimes hiding in plain site (Bruce Arians). I hated Harbaugh's offensive philosophy from day one, and knew that sooner or later it would come crashing down. He is an archaic coach running a completely obsolete offense, he should go back to college.
    Dec 25, 2014 at 5:38 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Terry, I agree JH does not want to come back next year. But it's not necessarily because he wants the Michigan job more (even though I think he takes it). It's because neither Baalke nor York supported him this year when the rumors of his departure started. JH doesn't need this job, he can go anywhere, and he is not working for an organization that doesn't want him. Whether the Niners are"Leting him go", David Bonilla assumption or "merely letting him leave", Jeff Kaplan's assumption, it's just semantics to me. Jed York wants JH gone, he's under contract, and the only reason Jed hasn't fired him yet is because he wants to get paid for letting him go. This is a business decision for the Niners to release him from his contract, JH doesn't have many options. If I was JH, I force Jed to fire me, take the 5 mil and then go to Michigan for another 8 mil this season. F#@& York!
    Dec 25, 2014 at 5:00 PM
  • Terry B.
    Phil, I think you have misread the article. Go back and read the first part. Jeff clearly explains that Harbaugh is not being fired in the true sense of the word. This is a mutual parting of ways from two sides who no longer have any interest in working together. Only those with red and gold colored glasses could be missing the quite obvious fact that Harbaugh no longer has any interest in being the head coach of the 49ers.
    Dec 25, 2014 at 2:03 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Jeff, I'm a guy that has loved reading your articles for years. You always seem to very eloquently express exactly what I'm thinking, but on this topic you have gone off the rails. Your arguments are well written but there are couple of counter arguments I want to make. Your statement, "Baalke was smart enough to hire Harbaugh" (excuse me for paraphrasing your comment and cutting you off there) Does it also make sense to say "Baalke is smart enough to FIRE Harbaugh" because that is exactly what you are now saying Baalke is and should do. You can't have it both ways. Does it make sense to say "Harbaugh's teams win a lot of games. But is it because of his coaching, or in spite of his coaching?" Did you say The Niner's lost a lot of games despite of Singletary, Nolan and Erickson coaching acumen". No, you called these guys out, their record was indicative of their poor coaching. Marv Levy never won a Super Bowl with the Buffalo Bills but he was recognized has an outstanding coach by the NFL Hall of Fame. If you want to replace JH with a coach the caliber of Bill Walsh (Good Luck) and win a Super Bowl next year, that seems like a huge leap of faith. I like are chances with JH.
    Dec 25, 2014 at 12:31 PM
  • Monsterniner
    100% agree with Jeff and that´s all I´m gonna say.
    Dec 25, 2014 at 12:16 PM
  • superbowl49
    When Harbaugh pulled Alex Smith for the "hot hand" Kaep, I thought, "bad choice" pulling Alex at his prime. While for a while it seemed like a disruptive choice, everyone annointed Harbaugh a genius when we managed to make it to the NFC championship, save for two bothched punt returns(btw, who chose the all so important job of fielding players for that all so important job?). Even the Chiefs(for heaven's sake) draft much better special teamers! But that year, Kaep's & play calling limitations in the red zone was exposed during the Rams game. The Rams/Hawks have our number. They can game plan against "our scheme." So far, I've named three weaknesses: fielding the right players, choosing the right quarterback to run the most innovative schemes. The only thing that's been consistent has been, "de-fense." Who would've thought that we'd come full circle to that choice to dump Alex, and parlay the 2nd round choice to make the best use of the draft and develop new stars when our aging stars get hurt. Who even knew about "ego clashes." There's plenty of blame to go round this time besides khaki guy: Coache(s), GM, to owner focused elsewhere(money making stadium & not winning SB.
    Dec 25, 2014 at 8:49 AM
  • James
    Jeff you the Man, I hope maybe maybe just Maybe SOME of these so called Niners Fans will have their eyes open to the fact Harbaugh is NOT the Coach they make Him out to be.Harbaugh RUINED our Perfect SB record, and Had a chance to Win it, But there is this Loser Mentality among a Few fans that, "At Least Harbaugh Got Us to the SB" but see that is NOT the 49er way the 49er way has been from Wlash to George Siefert is to Go for the Throat at all cost and Win it ALL..Killer Instinct? Harbaugh was and is Allergic to that Word...but as they say " You can`t fix Stupid". Let the blind be blind..Nice and on point once again JEFF KAPLAN
    Dec 25, 2014 at 8:36 AM
  • stevencoons
    all of this hides a larger problem the ability of the front office to interface with the team overall how coaches and front office work together how they draft if a coach does not feel he is getting the players he wants he will feel part of the problem is the result of the front office not allowing him to be in a place were he can do his best by putting the best product on the field and you will have the GM and HC butting heads as to what is the best direction for the team sounds like what is going on baalke want a team that is like the 80s giants good defense and good run game but today you need a quick strike offense IE Denver or new England the saints when they were good this is the whole reason for a offense guru as head coach baalke just never let him have that and he responded by never letting roman go he knows there are tons of teams that will be all over him as a head coach sorry to see him go best of luck jim.
    Dec 25, 2014 at 8:22 AM
  • Lou skunt
    Your articles reek of platitude and homerism. Holmgren? Kubiak? Really?
    Dec 25, 2014 at 8:18 AM
  • trath44
    Great post, only insiders within the 49er organization truly know the reasons why Harbaugh is leaving. Further, was Harbaugh squeezing more wins out of this team with brilliant coaching and strategy, or was he merely bringing them up to par. He inheirted an incredibly talented roster.
    Dec 25, 2014 at 8:11 AM
  • Daniners
    Dude, Anthony Davis played in two or three games all year. Huge loss. You add that to Boone holding out, Kilgore out and you have a revolving, in effective right side of line.
    Dec 25, 2014 at 7:51 AM
  • Jerry
    I disagree with most of what you have written and most is just speculation. I think we know 2 facts. Harbaugh is great couch as evidenced by his success at all 3 of his coaching jobs. The other fact we know is that Jed is a bad owner as evidenced by his tweet and his allowing of all the leaks that have really hurt this team. I just find it remarkable that you blame coaching for everything and ignore the huge number of injuries and the fact the QB play has been terrible. You acknowledge it but don't place any blame on it. Lastly how do you see Kap as a WCO QB? I don't see his skills matching up at all with the WCO.
    Dec 25, 2014 at 7:28 AM
  • Greg
    Forget 2014 season. Harbaugh was nearly traded last offseason to Cleveland after posting the best winning record in league history. Ahead of Walsh, Lomardi, and everybody else while coaching in a salary cap era. Two plays from three straight Super Bowl appearances. The 49ers are keeping Aldon Smith and his problems. Instead, they will rid themselves of bigger problems. Firing Harbaugh is worse than releasing Jerry Rice in his prime. Harbaugh must be "hated" by York and/or Baalke. You have to wonder if security has to be in the room during meetings for York and/or Baalke to trade the winningest coach in NFL history to Cleveland. All of my comments will be realized by December 2016. Just like my constant opinion that signing Colin Kaepernick to big money would turn the 49ers into losers. Merry Christmas.
    Dec 25, 2014 at 7:15 AM
  • Max Meyer
    Ego seem to be thing that kills greatness. To me the entire York family seems to be under the delusion that greatness can be bought.....hmmm jerry jones. No it take leaders, creativity and innovation. In this regard Jed is no Eddie and Jed seems to be moving towards Dan Snyder territory. Just sayin.
    Dec 25, 2014 at 6:52 AM
  • Joe the coach
    What ever happened to Eric Mangini?
    Dec 25, 2014 at 6:36 AM
  • Ron
    Well thought out piece Kap. Yes I am scared to think back of the organization preceding Harbaugh. I'm still up in the air about the main piece here... Baalke....where does he rank as a GM? Is he someone to be trusted. Please Mr Kaplan do some research and let us know is our GM A MUT OR A TROPHY DOG because he is the key to this whole story!
    Dec 25, 2014 at 6:27 AM
  • KezarVet
    Harbaugh has nobody to blame but himself. He studied for 9 months with Walsh learning the WCO but then his stubborn nature took over and he decided to abandon the WCO and bring in his own Mark Roman-led "offense". That was pretty offensive and led to his demise.
    Dec 25, 2014 at 6:03 AM
  • David
    Best piece I've read from you, sir.
    Dec 25, 2014 at 5:46 AM
  • Italian niner
    From the Middle of nowhere, here in Italy, I am probably the less involved in NFL football stuff reader, But I have some esperience in team sports. There is no way that you could obtain the absolute best from your organization if just one part of it is pulling into the wrong direction. Field issues... Head coach responsability. Up above... Management. And who puts the money has the final word overall. So, no matter to weight failures %, if there is something wrong a change is needed. We can only chat, maybe complain or say what we think, and keep rooting for our niners, as I do from 30 yrs. Buon Natale!
    Dec 25, 2014 at 2:52 AM

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