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An Open Letter to Jim Harbaugh

Sep 6, 2011 at 2:14 PM

Dear Coach Harbaugh:

Even now, it isn't easy to understand.

How could we even dare imagine? You were the hottest coaching prospect alive, having built a winning program from scratch despite seemingly insurmountable odds. The Niners, meanwhile, were a model of total dysfunction, essentially a Bengals West. In hiring their LAST head-coach, they'd made a simply awful decision that virtually napalmed any remaining vestige of their long-lost glory. Their owner-in-chief was a silver spoon who meant well but lacked a certain credibility. To wit: after vowing to search high and low for a general manager with proven chops as an organization-builder, he just handed the keys to the guy down the hall, whose most salient qualification was that he was there.

You could've had any job in the league. Hell, you could've had most of the jobs that were FILLED.

Why on earth would you choose the Niners?

Even now, there's no easy answer. The romantics among us leak tears as we theorize how determined you were to follow in the footsteps of your mentor, and our savior. How you poetically swore to rescue his franchise from the philosophical caveman who'd torn it asunder, to bring his West Coast Offense home. The cynics, on the other hand, assume merely that your wife didn't want your NFL dreams to uproot your family from its Bay Area niche. That you'd join us from Stanford, but wouldn't have done so from UCLA.

I myself prefer the romantic theory. But whatever. After a will-he-or-won't-he ordeal that put our hearts in our throats more than once, you were our coach.

For the first time in years, there was light in the darkness.

It was tough to sustain our momentum, though. The lockout kept you from installing your system, putting you immediately behind your opponents. Trent Baalke's draft showed some long-term potential but didn't produce any short-term starters. His free-agent class held some intriguing talent but featured no transformative star. And our exhibitions were, shall we say, mixed.

As a result, our emotions have swung wildly, along with our expectations. We promptly surrendered our initial fantasy of an immediate Super Bowl run, but the increasingly conventional wisdom, that once again we'll be at or near the bottom of our awful division...well, that's a bit too much reality to take.

Nevertheless, we've accepted that this is much more likely to be a transitional year than a championship one. Your preseason expressions, both verbal and facial, seemed to convey your recognition of the enormity of your task: you're trying not only to TURN the Queen Mary, but also to turn it completely around. Though our patience is thin after nearly a decade of misery, we understand. This'll take more than your mere arrival. Unfortunately, this'll take time.

So don't panic if you lose a few games. We know what you're up against, but more importantly, we trust you. Faith-leap or no, we believe in you, like no coach since Walsh, and a pile of losses is not gonna change that. (Not THIS year, anyway....)

But as much as we trust you, we still can offer a bit of advice. You might be a whiz of a football coach, but we've been watching the Niners for a long, LONG time, and we've picked up some special, inside-type knowledge that might help you raise the Niners up, instead of letting 'em drag you down. To that end, we humbly offer the following suggestions. After all, even a genius needs a little help.

1. Keep Alex Smith at a distance.

We know you're a quarterback-whisperer. We know that the lockout required some desperate measures. And we know it's tempting to think that within Alex Smith is a nugget of greatness still waiting to be unearthed. But it was very difficult--and dangerous--to watch you so aggressively recruit the single most divisive player in the history of the franchise. No one denies that Smith has had some of the worst head-coaches of all time, and no one denies that the revolving door of coordinators hasn't helped. But don't forget that among those coordinators were some superstars, much like yourself: Mike McCarthy, Norv Turner, Mike Martz. Four Super Bowl rings among 'em, and none of 'em worked any magic with Smith. Indeed, though Smith's apologists routinely point to just how many coaches he's had, they tend to obscure the larger truth: precisely BECAUSE of the revolving door, the only constant, in all this losing, has been Smith. No doubt, if you turn Smith around, you'll become a legend, immediately. But don't stake your reputation on this. You've got your QB of the future, as rough as he's looked. Let Smith drive your transition, and then, please, just let him go.

2. Stick with the WCO, no matter what.

As you've recently discovered, our last head-coach's cavemanism wasn't just a matter of philosophy. It was also a matter of personnel. Look at that offensive line, with all those bruisers who create plenty of holes for our running backs but just as many for opposing pass-rushers. Look at that fullback, who plows nicely into linebackers but can't even dream about catching passes. Clearly, this roster isn't built for the WCO, and if losses mount, you'll be sorely tempted to throw up your hands and revert to the brain-dead style you're here to replace. Don't do it. We might've been built for a run-first vision, but that doesn't make it a WINNING vision. And if we're gonna lose, let's lose while still restoring the single most crucial component of our glorious identity. Since you've arrived, you've made some bold promises. Yet none was more important than the first: "We will install the West Coast Offense in San Francisco, the birthplace of the West Coast Offense." We'll accept some transitional losses, Coach. But the WCO is an absolute must.

3. Don't be afraid to put Baalke in his place.

You've done a lot for Baalke. First, of course, you took the job; otherwise Baalke would've been lynched. And since then, you've said all the right things, showering him with outlandish praise and deferring to his status above you on the org chart. But we all know that the org chart is upside down. And if, again, the losses mount, you must show us that you know it too. The jury might be out on Baalke, but the fact that he outranks you--the notion that he controls your fate--is ridiculous. If you want him to be your John McVay, fine. But if things go south, don't let him become your Terry Donahue. YOU are the star here. Take charge.

4. Don't give up on us.

It's entirely possible--though terrifying--that Stanford's wins will double your own. At some point, you might find yourself wondering why you bothered, why you didn't just wait for a better chance. Contract or no, you'll always have opportunities, and you might be tempted to work your way toward one. Please don't. We know we aren't Walsh's Niners; we aren't even anywhere close. But Walsh had early struggles too, until his genius just couldn't be stopped. Oh, sure, it's a different age; all of us want the quicker fix. But once you take your rightful place, fulfilling Walsh's prophecy, the rewards for you will be utterly limitless.

See, Coach, you are the one. The vessel of our hopes and dreams, the keeper of a glorious flame. The road to greatness might not be as short or smooth as we might want. But we're with you, Coach. We are with you, absolutely.

And if you won't give up on us, we will not give up on you.

Sincerely yours,

Jeff Kaplan
Staff Writer
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.


  • Real_9er_fan
    Really dude if u are just a bandwagon fan who can nvr be happy please stop writing articles hw bad the niners r ...
    Sep 14, 2011 at 5:07 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Coach Harbaugh has been using a lot of banners and preaching a work ethic he wants his players to live by this season. This week against Seattle was a poster that said "Go For Two", with a picture of Pete Carroll's nuts nailed to a wall. Mission accomplished, Go Niners!
    Sep 12, 2011 at 9:37 PM
  • The_Real_Randy
    Ultimately, Harbaugh's fate will be decided on whether or not he can get rid of the elephant in the room. That elephant being Baalke and the rest of the York minions. If Harbaugh can get control over personnel decisions he can right the ship. If not, he'll be just another coach who should have stuck with college.
    Sep 8, 2011 at 10:47 PM
  • Real 49er Fan
    Great with the girl you brought to the matter what....
    Sep 8, 2011 at 3:18 PM
  • justin perez
    i have been depressed for about 17 yrs as a niners fan and my comment isn't going to be anything but LUCK. i want him bad and hopefully what has happened is just a sign of future LUCK. we need to trade up for him next year and keep on getting QBs until one works out cause i'm sick of this qb crap. we are bums every year in the qb spot with a good team all around us, and players in the league need to get back to fearing the niners when it comes playoff time.
    Sep 8, 2011 at 12:32 PM
  • Dave
    This is the first time since Mariucci was coach that I have any sense that the coach has a clue. Throw in Terry Donahue...what a nightmare. The sun is rising now, may take a couple years, but the needle is pointing up.
    Sep 8, 2011 at 9:56 AM
  • Terry B.
    What is it about being named "Dan" that makes one see greatness in Alex Smith?
    Sep 8, 2011 at 8:14 AM
  • M. Horner
    My God, does Alex Smith suck, and My God, are 49ers fans pathetic. How is it possible that fans of the team of Montana and Young (Hell, even Garcia) don't know bad QB play when they see it? Why is it so hard to just accept that Alex Smith is a bust? How much more do we need to see? Is it really that hard to believe we blew the number one overall pick in the draft when we've blown so many other picks over the past decade? I can just imagine the love and support that JaMarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf would get on this board. I'm guessing that half the people here are still harboring a burning resentment towards the franchise for not giving Jim Druckenmiller enough of a chance. Just watch Alex Smith. Just watch! Alas, in the words of George Orwell, "to see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle."
    Sep 8, 2011 at 7:27 AM
  • Scott
    Man I get your point Jeffrey, but no need to turn into a drama queen.
    Sep 7, 2011 at 9:00 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    AHHHHHHH $HIT you have to be kidding me! Where in this article did you get the idea that A. Smith is the primary reason the Niners have had losing seasons? If you have read Jeff Kaplan's articles and read the comment boards for more than a few months, Smith is one of many reasons. Ownership, coaching, and talent have been mentioned in numerous articles and comments. And it's not that we are bashing the Niners because we hate the team and we want them to fail. It's because if you're a fan as much as I am and your HC last yr.'s idea of inspiration was dropping his pants and yelling at his team below his own nut sack and thinking that's gonna win games, I have a problem with that. And if you think A. Smith is the solution and not one of the problems, give me a reason to think so. Yes, he has had numerous OC's and a terrible O-line. But Shaun Hill had the same O-line and coaches and not only put up similar numbers but won the starting job two years in a row. Troy Smith knowing 5% of the offense put up bigger numbers in his first game than A. Smith for half the season. These are career backups at best. Why would u expect more from A. Smith?
    Sep 7, 2011 at 8:49 PM
  • Dan
    The Alex Smith thing is so tired. Really? I know you are just as tired watching him lose games, but honestly I have watched those games too, and they aren't all his fault. I think it is overly simple and lazy to blame him. Baalke hasn't even had a chance yet and there are already rumblings about his performance too. I get it...It's a win now league. Problem is, it's very difficult to win now even for teams with every piece in place for years... (Texans). Sometimes the stars just align (Giants a couple years ago) and sometimes you are a pretty good player stuck in a crappy situation. (Alex Smith vs Mark Sanchez) Jeff, sometimes I wish you would take the advice of some of the folks on here.....breathe.....relax.....let it happen. The intense scrutiny is enough without fans like you second-guessing so fast, and so much. I know Alex Smith has been here for 7 many years were QB's like Plunkett, Stabler, Young, Namath, ELWAY in the league before winning it all??? What about the greats who NEVER won? Marino, Kelly, A. Manning, Brodie etc....? My point have lost sight of the big picture. Remember most folks thought GB were idiots for hiring McCarthy!
    Sep 7, 2011 at 4:54 PM
  • Jake Rosenberg
    A great letter to the coach, but I disagree with your line about the "superstar coordinators" and Alex. McCarthy didn't know how to call plays for a just plain bad team and a rookie QB that had no time to throw. Smith did well under Turner, and his stats were better than the 16-16 mark he put up that year as the only QB to take every snap for his team that year. As for Martz, Smith missed that entire season, and I believe Alex would have done better than JTO and Hill if he wasn't mishandled by the staff the previous year. Alex is starting his seventh season with the same team for a reason -- he's displayed a quality skill-set that still brings a lot of potential. Don't get me wrong, he has no touch-pass, an inaccurate short toss, and lacks consistency, but that is more a product of the supporting cast that has been around him in his previous six years. That is sad because, even after that long of a period, we still can't accurately assess him as a QB.
    Sep 7, 2011 at 4:11 PM
  • JR San Diego
    I thought the A Smith comments were fair, not too bashing. But if Smith gets a hot hand in this new offense, also don't be in a rush to send him away. Interesting writing style, well done.
    Sep 7, 2011 at 3:44 PM
    NOT EVEN A PROFESSIONAL JOURNALIST can look at our situation for what it is, everything that has happened and why we are where we are now. All of these jeff kaplan articles and most of the "smith sucks so bad" fans of these years CAN ONLY FOCUS ON THE BIG PICTURE, ONLY POINT OUT THE RESULT NOT THE CAUSE. when they argue how bad smith is and how bad this decade has been all they can say is "oh look at our record this season, look at how many times smith's been sacked, why haven't we made the playoffs in 10 years, every problem we've had is the fault of our QB alex smith." BULLSHIT, if you guys are fans then why can't you see why these things have happened? why can't you see why alex has had these problems? CAUSE YOU'RE NOT FANS! you're just more people who have noticed the niners aren't doing as well as they have before. there is a reason for everything even though jeff kaplan and half of our "fans" believe alex has these problems because naturally god intended that to happen. i just don't see why if you're going to analyze an NFL team you would go off what you see and hear people say rather than WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS.
    Sep 7, 2011 at 2:30 PM
  • Terry B.
    Blame others for once?? Where have you been Charles? Are you unfamiliar with Jeff's opinions of Trent Baalke and Mike Singletary?
    Sep 7, 2011 at 2:14 PM
  • Tempt
    The Alex Smith of 9ers writers. I don't know why I keep reading them. It's my fault not yours. Lesson learned.
    Sep 7, 2011 at 1:33 PM
  • 5e3deluxe
    I won't stop bashing Alex until he shows me something. Didn't show a thing in preseason (again). He's a loser, a bust, and a cancer. He doesn't have to be a jerk to be a cancer. His play is a cancer on the team and until the team is shut of him, there will only be mediocrity. You Alex cheerleaders are enough to make a rational person vomit.
    Sep 7, 2011 at 1:19 PM
    Sep 7, 2011 at 12:06 PM
  • fireandice51
    The real question: will Harbaugh make the 49ers relevant enough to attract or KEEP free agents again? Since the Yorks have taken over, the franchise has become the laughingstock of the west coast. Clements signed only by being given a STUPIDLY huge contract, and we have seen how many other top-tier free agents have signed here in the last several years, 0. Although Baalke may not be a great GM, his real problem has been with the cheap and boorish owners. Maybe, just maybe, Jed and JH can turn this around, but it will be a herculean task. Kap, you're right. AS, aka coach-killer, will never be anything but a huge frustration, and should be put on the shelf at the earliest possible moment.
    Sep 7, 2011 at 8:40 AM
  • shobbrobb
    Great article Jeff, keep up the good work. I love how your realistic takes irritate the hell out of these braindead cheerleaders who think solely with their hearts and not with their minds. Only one thing, Jim Harbaugh is a work in progress himself and we do not know what type of coach he will be. So let's stop proclaiming him to be the second coming because he's done nothing in the NFL as of yet. Let his track record speak for him.
    Sep 7, 2011 at 8:19 AM
    Response: Fair point, Shobb. That's the thing about me. Sometimes I'm just so irrationally positive!
  • Alden Brown
    Although I agree with you that Harbaugh was the right choice for the 49ers, your hyperbole is a bit much. Not only could Harbaugh not have any of the filled head-coaching jobs in the NFL, he couldn't even have had all of the open ones. The only jobs we know for sure that Harbaugh could have had are Michigan, Miami, and the 49ers. Carolina was the worst team in the league last year, and there was speculation that Luck would have left school early if Harbaugh would have taken the Carolina job, but Carolina wasn't interested in even interviewing Harbaugh. Given the abysmal record of college head-coaches in the NFL, the lack of interest in Harbaugh was perfectly understandable. (The look on Harbaugh's face during the preseason games was reminiscent of so many other college head-coaches who tried the jump to the NFL.) I get that you have a man-crush on him and believe that he sits at the right hand of God (Walsh), but not everyone in the league shares your feelings.
    Sep 7, 2011 at 8:15 AM
  • Smithapologist
    Really? You just can't stay away from that piece of the puzzle can you Jeff? Got to make sure Alex is front and center of your wonderfully dismal articles. You state all the reasons why Alex has had such a tortured and bad career and then brush it all under the rug and say that it's Alex's fault that the team has sucked these years. I understand that there are more of you than of me when it comes to Alex. And that you will surely get more hits on your little webpage for it. But man it's just starting to become a broken record with you. Anyways I'll see you at the end of this season. And I'm really hoping that your negativity is misplaced. And on another note Jim doesn't need no letter from you. I think he understands football a hell of a lot better than you ever will.
    Sep 7, 2011 at 3:49 AM
  • Chris PLatt
    Kaplan, honestly, you need to get over Mike Singletary. Why do you persist to take these classless potshots at this guy? Every chance you get. Enough already. Singletary put his heart and soul into this team for a long time and it didn't work out. Leave it at that. Get over it.
    Sep 6, 2011 at 11:20 PM
  • txtumbleweed
    Why can't you cut Alex some slack. Let his play this year be what he is judged by. If you are a Niner fan get behind him and pull for him to succeed. If he fails he will be gone, if he succeeds like I'm hoping he will be here for a few more years!
    Sep 6, 2011 at 8:30 PM
  • louie
    Very enjoyable read. Well written with lots of humor, and we'll need it. Harbaugh (unlike Singletary) has earned our trust and support by what he's accomplished. As I've said before, it's re-build time, so let's all be patient and hope Harbaugh is as good as we all hope. Considering he's doing it alone (Trent Baalke couldn't sniff John McVay's...), due to Jed's fear of hiring a REAL GM. Harbaugh has a monster job to do, and he'll need our support as well as a ton of talent and luck.
    Sep 6, 2011 at 8:00 PM
  • overthemiddle
    Verdict, well now seeing that I have been watching/playing some football since 1962 I have seen some strange things such as, Marshall's running the wrong way, holy roller, so on so forth. My verdict is 13-3 with losses to Eagles, Steelers, Ravens. Or it could be bad at 3-13 with wins vs. Seattle (2) and the Cardinals. If that's not wishy washy enough, my final verdict, Niners 9-7.
    Sep 6, 2011 at 6:56 PM
  • overthemiddle
    1. What if and that's a big if Alex has a big year QB-wise not Alex-wise? What do you do then? 2. I do like the WCO. I watched its birth and I hope it thrives once again. But what if it doesn't over the next few years? We already defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same results. 3. Baalke right now seems to be doing ok. I agree with you that if Baalke proves to be a failure by all means Harbaugh just take over. 4. You're sounding like a lawyer talking to a jury before a trial.
    Sep 6, 2011 at 5:41 PM
    Response: 1. Too big an "if" to wrap one's head around. 2. If the WCO isn't working after a few years, we should trade our entire roster for Green Bay's. 3. Oh, why wait. Just take over now. 4. So, has the jury reached a verdict? What say you?
  • Captain Comeback
    Welcome Niner Fans to What's Your Problem II. In the tan pants Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks, in the brown pants Jim Harbaugh of your San Francisco 49ers. I can't tell you how the game will go, but the end of the game will go down something like this. After a grueling game both men walk to the center of the field for the obligatory handshake. Except after this game there will be no handshake. Carroll and Harbaugh will walk up to one another, and two feet from Harbaugh's face Carroll will ask "What the Hell?" Harbaugh's reply, "What the Hell .... Are You Trying to Say?" And that's the end of it. Niners 50 - Seahawks 3.
    Sep 6, 2011 at 5:32 PM
  • Darrell G
    Jeff, Harbaugh doesn't strike me as the type to sit around feeling sorry for himself and whining about everything he "inherited", or playing the blame game on the weather, circumstance, or previous administrations. He loves the competition and the challenge and embraces it. He's said as much. He doesn't make decisions based on the latest polling data or outcry from fans. He's ACTUALLY a real leader. This is the antithesis of "hope and change"...........He actually DOES something.
    Sep 6, 2011 at 5:24 PM
  • Ron Temple
    Harbaugh doesn't need any advice from us or worship. Let the guy do his job and gain praise or criticism by the results...and lay off Baalke...they are tied at the hip this season, unlike his probationary trip with Sing. Whatever level of success or failure this season is heavily dependent on the players being able to absorb and execute the new system. It's not even personnel dependent. Until the team can execute the schemes without having to think about them, we'll be a step slow in relation to teams with years of experience. We won't even be able to evaluate most of Baalke's personnel moves until the 9ers become efficient. So far, he's made good business decisions. As stated, let it play out either way without sending the guy flowers or anthrax.
    Sep 6, 2011 at 4:24 PM

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