As the 2014 NFL Regular Season draws to a close, many teams will be parting ways with their current Head Coaches in what is annually labeled, “Black Monday”. More than likely the Jets, the Buccaneers, the Titans, the Bears, and the Raiders will fire their coaches sometime today. Of course the other team on the radar for Black Monday is the San Francisco 49ers. Unlike those other teams, the success or failure of the Franchise had nothing to do with the inevitability of this move.
Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers have been in a dance of death since the beginning of the 2014 Regular Season when it was announced that both parties would put contract negotiations on hold until the end of the Season. That in it of itself should have been the writing on the wall for the Niner Nation. But there seemed little to be afraid of when the season started. Afterall the 49ers had been to THREE consecutive NFC Championships Games. They had been to 1 Super Bowl in that time as well, coming 4 yards away from winning a 6th Super Bowl Title. So when the 2014 NFL season got under way the only question in the minds of 49er fans were: “I wonder if we’ll be able to knock off Seattle in the NFC Championship game this year?”
Fast forward about 18 1/2 weeks later and here we are. Even though the drama was played out in front of all of our eyes, every Sunday, let’s recap the Jim Harbaugh Era (or as people are dubbing it, “The what could have been Era”).
2011: The Beginning
When Jim Harbaugh came a calling from the ranks of the NCAA people wondered if his style of coaching would work in the fast paced, no nonsense World of the NFL. Afterall, not many College Coaches make the transition into the NFL as successfully as they would like the first time around (Nick Saban and Pete Carroll pop into mind). Most of these newbies take their lumps in the Pro game for a couple (or three) years and then high tail it back to the comforting arms of the College game. Harbaugh was different. He was more Dennis Green and Bill Walsh, he succeeded from the get go compiling an eye-popping 13-3 record in his first year. The 49ers were not only back in the playoffs for the first time in about 6 -7 years, they had won the NFC West in dominating fashion. Harbaugh was on the map, and he had brought the Franchise along with him.
This was the last 49ers team that was led by QB Alex Smith. Smith had a resurgence in his career. The former “1st Round Bust” was doing his best to run the system that had been put in place:
This 49ers team was breath of fresh air among the 49er Faithful. The Niners were back to playing the way the fans wanted them to play. It looked like the start of maybe another 49er Dynasty. Those were the days of ignorance and bliss, just being happy to be relevant again.
The 49ers running game, and defense, also showed that they were up for the challenge as well.
Like I said, it was a breath of fresh air after almost a decade of futility. The future indeed looked bright heading into the 2011 Playoffs.
When the Playoffs started for the 49ers they were up against a high-powered offense, in the Saints. The game was everything the NFL would want in a Divisional Playoff Game. Back and forth action, and a close finish that had viewers glued to their TV sets right til the end. That end being: Alex Smith throwing a GW strike into the arms of Vernon Davis while time was dwindling down. Alex had literally grown up in front of the Niner Nation that day. He did what no fan thought he could do, lead the 49ers to a comeback win in crunch time.
A week later a couple of Kyle Williams fumbles on a couple of Punt Returns (the 2nd one in OT) cost the 49ers a chance at facing the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. No one knows what could have been, but in my eyes (looking back on it now) that was the beginning of the end for Jim Harbaugh and his relationship with the 49ers. If they had made it to the Super Bowl maybe the future would have shaped differently. I will get back to that at the end.
2012: Year 2 – Kaepernick takes over
Jim Harbaugh’s 2nd year behind the helm, of the 49ers, started off just where it had left off in 2011. He guided the 49ers to a 11-4-1 record, and won the NFC West yet again. Although the harmonious winning of 2011 was replaced by doubting questions mid way through the season as Alex Smith went down to injury, and Colin Kaepernick took over the QB duties. Kaepernick was much more of an athlete that Smith. He was faster, stronger, taller, much more athletic, and apparently the future. Kaep took over in Week 9 versus the St. Louis Rams, he went 5-2-1 (Smith had gone 6-2 at the time of his injury). It wasn’t the finest of moment for Harbaugh when he announced that the 49ers were moving forth with Kaepernick as their starting QB, even if Smith was deemed healthy enough to play. It was the first time, in a long time, that my eyes had seen “an injury take away someones starting job”. Sure it had worked in New England with the Tom Brady/Drew Bledsoe situation, but would it work here in 49er Country?
Kaepernick proved Harbaugh a genius in the games he played. Starting with his “coming out party” against the Bears on Monday Night, right up to his NFL Record Breaking performance against the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round of the 2012 Playoffs.
Here’s the real question though: “Was it really the best thing to do for the 49ers, at the time?”
Looks like the numbers don’t lie. The 49ers seemed to have played better under the leadership of Alex Smith. The reason for that being Smith was a veteran at the time, and all he ever needed was a system that he could flourish in (and he had that in the Harbaugh system). Sure Kaepernick had better running ability, and was more athletic; but Smith was a overall BETTER QB (at that time). I know it sounds mind-boggling when you hear it/read it but think about his for a second:
Alex Smith under Harbaugh: 426-663, 64.25%, 4,881 yards, 30 TDs, 10 INTs, ~94-97 QBR
That sounds pretty good to me. Especially when you consider how bad Alex Smith had been leading up to this marriage. But once again we’ll get back to that at the end of this.
Anyhow the 49ers through all of that made it to the Super Bowl to face off against Jim’s brother John and the Ravens, in what was dubbed Har-Bowl II (The first happening the prior year on Thanksgiving). The 49ers staked the Ravens to a 28-6 lead before the lights went out (literally). After a 30 min or so delay the game restarted, and the 49ers showed the Nation that they indeed had made it to the game after all. They clawed their way back to 34-31. Frank Gore had just busted out for a 55 yard run to get the 49ers on the doorstep of their 6th Super Bowl Title (their first since 1995 versus the Chargers). Then the unexplainable happened. They didn’t run Frank Gore ONE TIME from inside of the 5 yard line. In the end there was no Pass Interference call, and the Ravens had won the Super Bowl. Sure there were empty feelings in the pits of all 49ers fans across the World that day, but it seemed like a moot point after a while. So what the 49ers hadn’t sealed the deal, they were back, there would be more chances at #6, the 49ers would be back no problems, Just wait til next year….
The 49ers came into the 2013 season with a mission. Their mission was to get back to the Super Bowl and win #6 for the Faithful. The season started off slow as they came out to an 1-2 record. That wasn’t the only thing that was on their minds. During the offseason there had been talks about a possible trade with the Browns that would have netted them Jim Harbaugh in exchange for Draft picks. The Faithful, and the media, were dumbfounded. This story couldn’t have been true, could it? Harbaugh once again led the 49ers to double-digit wins. The 49ers ended up 12-4, but 2nd in the NFC West behind the 13-3 Seattle Seahawks. The playoff tested 49ers would have to don their Wild Card hats, and take off for the road, if they wanted to return to the Promise Land.
Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers took to the road with a chip on their shoulder that I haven’t seen from a 12-4 team in quite some time. They went into Lambeau Field and took down the Packers. They went in Carolina and got revenge on one of the teams that had beat them in the Regular Season. Then they went into Seattle, and the home of the “12th Man”, to face the Seahawks in what would be their third consecutive NFC Championship Game. They were looking to get to their second consecutive Super Bowl. It was a football game for the ages. In the end the Seattle defense would do enough, as the 49ers offense couldn’t get over the hump. Fittingly it came down to the last play of the game when Richard Sherman deflected the would be GW TD pass to seal the deal for the eventual Super Bowl Champion Seahawks. The offseason that followed wasn’t like the previous 2 though. There was speculation that Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke didn’t get along, that Jim and Jed didn’t see eye to eye, that maybe….just maybe the 49ers weren’t going to extend Jim Harbaugh, and that the contract he had was going to be it. 2 more years before an inevitable separation of ways.
2014: 4th a Goal from the 1/2 yard line
This last year is so fresh in my mind that I don’t know if I can separate myself from it quite yet but I will try. The 2014 season started much the like the year before: 1-2; and much like the year before the 49ers “righted the ship” as they won 3 out of their next 4 heading into the BYE week with a 4-3 record. Their back to back collapses against the Bears and the Cardinals in Weeks 2 and 3 seemed to be in their rear view mirror, even the almost debacle in St. Louis seemed so far away, as they headed into the break. The Rams were coming into Levi Stadium after the break as the schedule set up nicely for them leading into the 2 out of 3 weeks against the Seahawks. The smart money was that they 49ers would be 8-3 when they headed into their Thanksgiving Night matchup with the Defending Super Bowl Champions. Then it happened. I mean it was happening all year, but against the Rams the 49ers struggled all game. Even with that being said they had a chance to win at the end. Trailing 13-10 under a minute left, with the ball. The 49ers got all the way to the 1/2 yard line. Then they passed it 3 times, and then tried to do a QB sneak on 4th and Goal from the 1/2 yard line. If you watched that game you know what happened. I’m not going to talk about the controversial “was it a TD before the fumble, or wasn’t it” because they shouldn’t have had to be in that situation in the first place. They should have handed the ball to Frank Gore 4 times, he would have gotten there (just like against the Ravens in 2012).
After that game against the Rams the 49ers struggled offensively. They were unrecognizable, it wasn’t the brand of football the Faithful had grown accustomed from the previous 3 years. Too much shotgun, too many 4 WR sets. Not enough Power Football with Frank Gore & Co. They did to manage to win 3 in a row against the Saints, the Giants, and the Redskins, but even those victories seemed to be potential losses when the games were hanging in the balance. They no longer passed the eye test. The 49ers seemed lost at sea, drifting aimlessly, hoping to spot land and save themselves one more time. This time though there was no magic island in the middle of the ocean, there was only desolation and loss. The 49ers would end up losing 4 in a row, including an embarrassing loss to their cross the bay rivals the Raiders. With every loss the rumors became more substantiated chatter. The Raiders were going to trade for Harbaugh. The Jets would be interested once they fired Rex Ryan. The Wolverines were calling for their prodigal son to return home to Ann Arbor, and restore their Program back to prominence. There wasn’t going to be a 5th year, they were just going to turn it over on downs after 4.
They ended the Regular Season by beating the Cardinals with a style of offense that the Faithful hadn’t seen in almost a year. It was too late though. The players doused Jim with a Gatorade bath at the end. I’m sure everyone in the Stadium got a little teary eyed when they saw it. Not because it was a heartfelt moment between the team and their soon to be fallen leader, but that the scenario being played out in sadness was what the scene should have been like against the Ravens in 2012, or against the Seahawks in 2013, and even against the Giants oh so long ago back in 2011.
Final Thoughts from the mind of a Mad Man
I said earlier that I would come back to that NFC Championship Game against the Giants in the end, and here we are.
If Kyle Williams doesn’t fumble away the 49ers chances at the Super Bowl in 2011 maybe, just maybe we wouldn’t be where we are right now. Stay with me folks, I swear I’m going to make sense.
If the 49ers had beaten the Giants in 2011, even if they would have lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl it would have been harder for Jim Harbaugh to go with Kaepernick in 2012 in the middle of the Season. Alex Smith would have had more credibility as a game manager heading into the 2012 season and thus Harbaugh (in my opinion anyway) would have had Smith’s back a little longer, because he knew that Smith wouldn’t mess it up (via the turnover) for the team. Thus Kaepernick would have had more time to learn on the sidelines (maybe only one or two more years, but nonetheless it would have been beneficial). The offense would have stayed on course with their run first philosophy, and the 49ers would have leaned on the Power Running game and their defense again, and with Alex Smith having a career year it is conceivable that the 49ers would have made the Super Bowl again that year. A second go around would have been much easier for the team in general since they would have “been there once before”. The shock and awe wouldn’t have been there and quite possibly they would have won their 6th Super Bowl. Once that happens all bets are off. There is no speculation about Harbaugh’s future. Potentially losing to the Seahakws to deny them a 3rd consecutive Super Bowl appearance would have been a motivating factor for the 2014 season. Alex Smith would have still been apart of the fold in 2013, with maybe Kaepernick finally emerging as the heir apparent. The transition would have been delayed for an extra year, and then 2014 could have been Kaep’s “go to year”. The offense would have still been a Power Running attack because the 49ers wouldn’t have known about the potential of Kaep yet, and then who knows. Another deep Playoff run? Maybe another Super Bowl? For sure Harbaugh would have finished out his contract and maybe even signed an extension.
Now calm down, I know what you’re thinking: “How can he say that. It may have happened EXACTLY the same way regardless because Kaep is a Harbaugh guy, and Smith wasn’t. You can’t just imagine history like that!”
I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. But to you I say this: “If the 49ers ran 4 times from the 4 yard line against the Ravens, do you think they wouldn’t have gotten 4 yards?” The stats say that they would have gotten it, then history would have been different.
But once again that is just me yearning for something that will never materialize.
I wish Harbaugh the best at Michigan but I leave Jim with these 2 question as he exits stage left:
“So you couldn’t beat Pete Carroll in College, and you found out that you couldn’t beat him in the Pros, so you just took your ball and ran back to College like a coward?”
“After you get Michigan back to the top in like 5 years, then what? Are you coming back to the Pros, like Pete Carroll, to finish your unfinished business?”
I hope whomever is the next Head Coach will understand what he is getting himself into. I just don’t want to be back to 6-10 and 7-9 seasons, while celebrating 8-8 and 9-7 seasons as if that’s the limit to the 49ers potential. This team is too good for that. Keep the faith 49ers Nation. We will rise again. Lastly, I vote for Vic Fangio as Head Coach.
I will unveil my opinions concerning the 49ers Front Office, and how they handled this mess next week in another Edition of “The Monday Heckle”.