So it’s come to this. The relationship between Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers organization has apparently deteriorated to the point that it’s become a foregone conclusion that the coach will not return for the final year of his contract in 2015. How does a coach who has won 43 regular season games (and technically counting) in less than four years get the axe? A coach who has won five playoff games (and definitely not counting) in three years will be handed his walking papers. A coach who has amassed the fourth best winning percentage in the modern era of football will be without a job (unless traded) in the very near future. The fact that Harbaugh has produced such historically successful results yet is not going to coach the 49ers next season speaks to the level of disconnect there is between Harbaugh, the front office and the players on the field. Harbaugh’s offense has hit a wall in his fourth season and the almost daily drama that’s included in the Jim Harbaugh package has become too much for the team and the organization to handle. On the surface it seems insane, but it appears that Coach Harbaugh has finally worn out his welcome in San Francisco.
You don’t have to look far for a very appropriate comparison to what is going on between Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers. Last season the Golden State Warriors made the very difficult decision to let then head coach Mark Jackson go after a second straight successful season. Up until Jackson took over as the Warriors coach Golden State had been one of the worst franchises in all of sports for roughly two decades, making the playoffs just once in 17 seasons. Jackson took over the Warriors and by his second season the team had already won a playoff series. In his third year the once destitute team won 51 games and established themselves as one of the most exciting young teams in the entire NBA. However, Jackson had repeatedly clashed with the front office over his assistant coaches, which led to a issues between the owner, the GM and the head coach. Plus, while the team was playing well, some felt that they still hadn’t reached their potential. Most viewed Jackson as a master motivator, but questioned the coaches savvy when it came to player usage and calling the right plays in the right situations. Well here we are a half a year later and 49ers owner Jed York finds himself in a very similar situation. Harbaugh took over a team in 2011 that had not been to the playoffs or even enjoyed a winning record in eight years. Things immediately changed under Harbaugh and the 49ers have been one of the most dominant teams in the NFL under his watch. But despite the winning on the field, Harbaugh and York have reportedly not seen eye to eye on several matters off the field. The schism between Harbaugh and York would seemingly be the main reason as to why a coach with such a historically great beginning to his career was never signed to a huge contract extension, even after leading the team to a Super Bowl.
Another reason why Harbaugh’s star is shining less and less brightly these days has to do with the woeful performance of the 49ers offense. During the majority of their recent run of success, the 49ers mostly relied on a top flight defense and an offense that was just good enough to win games. This season the defense has continued to perform at it’s usual outstanding level, an amazing feat considering the amount of games missed by some of the NFL’s great defensive stars. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio might be the best in the business as his unit has finished in the top three in points allowed in each of his first three full seasons with the 49ers. Fangio’s defense has, for the most part, been the backbone of the franchise. The teams offense, constructed by Harbaugh with help from OC Greg Roman, has been hit or miss over the last almost four seasons.The first incarnation under Harbaugh was a grinding ground and pound attack, led by the running of Frank Gore and a cautious Alex Smith at QB. When Smith was injured halfway through the following season, the QB position was taken over by Colin Kaepernick. The latter half of 2012, including the post season, was really the only time that Harbaugh’s offense was truly outstanding. Behind the dynamic Kaepernick the team averaged almost 35 points a game in the playoffs and Super Bowl. In 2011 Smith finished 30th in the NFL in passing yards per game. Just a year later and in his first year as the starting QB no less, Kaepernick threw for 300 yards in a playoff game and again in the Super Bowl. The future seemed extremely bright for the 49ers offense.
The promise of 2012’s offense was never delivered upon. In 2013 the 49ers struggled their way to a 24th overall ranking in yards per game. This season they are even worse, once again in 24th place in yards per game and 26th in points. The current offense struggles to accomplish anything against even the most porous defenses in the NFL. Each week seems to bring a new low point. 17 points against a Washington defense that allows 26.6 a game. 13 versus an Oakland defense that concedes 26.9 points a game. The offensive line can’t effectively run block or pass protect, the receivers can’t get open and the QB’s play has deteriorated as the season has gone on. The offensive coaching staff has been thoroughly out coached for several games in a row. The 49ers faced Seattle on Thanksgiving night for the eighth time in four seasons under Harbaugh. The Seahawks did nothing out of the ordinary defensively, rarely blitzing or deviating from their very well known (especially to SF) cover 3 look. Yet, the 49ers offense was shockingly unprepared for a defense they’ve played against on multiple occasions and seen on film dozens of times. Each recent regular season loss San Francisco has suffered to Seattle has been embarrassing to some degree, but putting up three points on your home field in a highly anticipated national TV broadcast against your arch rivals is a travesty. In short, the entirety of Jim Harbaugh’s offense is a complete mess, from top to bottom.
Matt Bowen of Bleacher Report:
“Overall, there are multiple issues with this unit in San Francisco. From the play-calling to the offensive line, this thing has layers. And, in my opinion, that has limited the development of Kaepernick to a degree in a system that used to cater to his abilities in the past.
The quarterback hasn’t progressed, and while he has to take the responsibility for that as a pro, I can’t just point the finger at Kaepernick for the lack of offensive production in San Francisco. This is a collective problem that has resulted in a disappointing season…”
Bill Barnwell of Grantland
“...It’s a team problem on the San Francisco offense. The 49ers are a mess in just about every way an offense can be a mess.”
As far as using the players the coaches have at their disposal, the offensive staff seems to have no clue as to what they’re doing in this area either. Brandon Lloyd, for reasons that haven’t been explained, received the most targets of any receiver versus Seattle. The next game against Oakland he was inactive. The team traded for Stevie Johnson in the off season in hopes of bolstering the receiver group. Johnson showed flashes of being very effective and most importantly, having an instant rapport with Kaepernick. In week three versus Arizona Johnson had 9 catches for 100 yards. The following week he only played 14 snaps and the week after that he played just 5. Despite only playing 19 snaps in two weeks, he still managed to catch a touchdown pass in each game. So why does a player who has clearly been a desperately needed weapon on a struggling offense only manage to get on the field for 34% of the teams snaps on the season? Johnson was hurt in week 7, but was barely seeing the field well before his injury. GM Trent Ballke has acquired countless players in the last four season that the offensive coaches have struggled to integrate into their system. LaMichael James goes from being a second round draft pick and seeing significant playing time in the Super Bowl to being inactive for a large portion of the following season. The next year’s second round draft pick Vance McDonald has played 23 games in his career and has 10 catches. Kendall Hunter gained almost 500 yards his rookie season and looked to be a perfect compliment to Gore in the backfield. Hunter averaged 5.2 yards a carry in his second season and 4.6 in his third. Despite his increased effectiveness Hunter’s carries began to dwindle. Hunter carried the ball 78 times in 2013, down from 112 in 2011. This culminated in last season’s NFC Championship game when Hunter out gained Gore despite only having 3 carries to Gore’s 11. This year’s second round draft pick Carlos Hyde has less rushing yards than Jacksonville QB Blake Bortles and former 49er emergency RB Boobie Dixon. Contrast this with the defense where lightly regarded, rookie, mid round draft picks like Dontae Johnson, Aaron Lynch and Chris Borland have received significant playing time and there has been little discernible drop off. The defensive coaching staff has done far more with the players Baalke has provided than the offensive coaches have.
Jim Harbaugh has been a revelation as head coach of the 49ers. During his tenure as head coach the franchise has been completely revitalized and is once again an elite NFL team. It seems ludicrous to even think about firing the coach with the fourth best winning percentage in modern league history. Despite all this Jed York and the 49ers front office seem to be left with no choice. Maybe we are spoiled. Maybe three seasons of success has made us forget the rough times, the Erickson/ Nolan/ Singletary era. But Jim Harbaugh is not completely irreplaceable. The unquestioned strength of this team during Harbaugh’s tenure has been Vic Fangio’s defense, which Harbaugh has nothing to do with beyond bringing Fangio along with him from Stanford. Retain Coach Fangio and retain the core strength of your franchise. One might wonder if a new head coach would be less than thrilled to have half of a staff already in place when he took the 49ers job, therefore not being able to handpick his own defensive coaches. On the flip side, a new hire might be ecstatic at inheriting one of the best, if not the best, defensive minds in the entire NFL. Harbaugh is quite obviously an amazing head coach, but the offense that he oversees has struggled for quite some time. If he has burned all his bridges in San Francisco then it”s time for the team to move on. A steadying, less abrasive presence would do the team good after the drama that’s unfolded week after week in 2014. Jim Harbaugh will go down as one of the greatest head coaches in 49ers histroy, which is really saying something. When the Warriors fired Mark Jackson they needed to make sure their next hire was an unquestioned home run. So far that decision is looking pretty solid. Here’s hoping Jed York and Trent Baalke make a similarly wise decision and the new coach can take the reins and win the one prize that Harbaugh could never get his hands on, the Vince Lombardi trophy.