The Second Annual ‘We Don’t Deserve You’ Awards

gore-sfBrant Ward/San Francisco Chronicle

It’s that time of the year again! The 49ers are missing the playoffs for the first time in three years, making this a somewhat sombre edition of the WDDYAs. Thinking back over the season, it’s hard not to let the dark cloud of Jim Harbaugh’s departure distort my view. However, there were plenty of bright spots in 2014, even if you have to squint to see them. Here are the brightest:

Offensive WDDYA:

Frank Gore

2014 Stats: 255 Att.*, 1106 Yds.*, 4.3 Y/A, 4 TD, 11 Rec on 19 Tgt., 111 Yds., 1 TD

(*=Leads Team)

I remember when they announced that Gore had finally broken 10,000 rushing yards. I couldn’t believe it. Behind this offensive line? In this offensive scheme? There was no way. Gore was the greatest tragedy of the 2014 season. Rather than leading the offense to another playoff run, he became a misused instrument, repeatedly battered behind the line of scrimmage and held back from his role as the 49ers’ tone-setter. In a year when all of the team’s greatest assets vaporized, Gore faced the reality of the 2012 run being the closest he would ever get to a title, and the possibility of leaving the team he had given everything to. His response was one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen. Despite being eliminated from the playoffs, he delivered two of the most electrifying performances of his career: a 158 yard game against the San Diego Chargers, followed by an incredible 144 yard performance against the playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals. It was Frank as he had always been, patient, relentless and incredibly productive. We don’t deserve you, Frank.

Honorable Mentions:

Carlos Hyde

Very few backs could split duties with a player as talented as Gore and still stand out. The most remarkable thing about Hyde was how well he seemed to fit into the 49ers’ identity. He wasn’t perfect, but he responded to the rigors of NFL football with scads of physicality and some beautiful downhill running. I will be very excited to watch his career unfold.

Anquan Boldin

Even in an offense as dysfunctional as the 49ers’, Boldin got the job done. He put together his second consecutive 1000+ yard season, and the seventh of his career, bullying defensive backs several years his junior.

Defensive WDDYA:

Philadelphia Eagles v San Francisco 49ersEzra Shaw/Getty Images

Antoine Bethea

2014 Stats: 71 Tckls., 14 Asst., 4 Int., 1 Sk., 10 Pass D., 1 FF

Donte Whitner’s replacement was everything Whitner promised, with plenty more. His ability to hit as hard as Whitner was not in question after week one, and he was a huge part of one of the NFL’s best pass defenses. There were defensive players with gaudier numbers, or who had a more tangible presence, but nobody was as much of a surprise as Bethea. He seemed to come into his own in Vic Fangio’s system, making highlight reel plays despite being a typically low-key player. His history with the Colts was successful, if unremarkable (Super Bowl win aside), and many were concerned he would struggle to produce in San Francisco. His consistency was something the 49ers relied upon, particularly against high-flying offenses like the Eagles and Saints. I am looking forward to another year of Bethea leading the secondary. Congratulations, Antoine, we don’t deserve you.

Honorable Mentions:

Chris Borland

Had he played for a full season, Borland would be taking home the WDDYA trophy, as well as defensive rookie of the year. Borland’s brief stint as a human cyclone was something to behold. To think that a rookie could so ably step into the massive hole left by Patrick Willis was absurd to begin with. The fact that it was an undersized 3rd round draft pick with ‘t-rex arms’ only added to Borland’s epic story.

Aaron Lynch

Another rookie who nimbly stepped in to fill a major hole, Lynch had an incredible year. He didn’t put up incredible numbers, but has been recognized as one of the best rookie linebackers to play in 2014. He was asked to replace the skills of Ahmad Brooks, who spent much of 2014 having hissy fits on the sideline, and took full advantage of the opportunity. Lynch is one of many reasons to be very excited about the future of the 49ers’ defense.

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Bullshit

jim-harbaugh-deion-sandersGetty Images

During last Sunday’s game, my roommate, a Broncos fan, asked me why the 49ers were moving on from Jim Harbaugh. I thought about his question for most of the game, and realized I didn’t have a good answer. There were reasons, to be sure, but none of them made any sense.

“There were philosophical differences.”

“Harbaugh and Trent Baalke butted heads.”

“Jim Harbaugh’s attitude was an issue.”

The reasons came readily, but I couldn’t say them. I wouldn’t. I wasn’t going to borrow the woefully insufficient language that the 49ers organization tossed to a ravenous and frustrated fanbase. No matter how insignificant the question, I wasn’t going to add to their bullshit.

2014 was a year of problems, and of blame. For the first (and last) time in the Harbaugh Era, the 49ers struggled. In truth, the problems started almost a year ago in Seattle, when Navorro Bowman saw his knee destroyed while recovering a Seahawks fumble in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship. The problems kept on; the roster was worn down to a stump, but still managed to stay productive. Through all of this, there was talk about Harbaugh being difficult to work with, Harbaugh losing the locker room, and Harbaugh being too expensive for Jed York’s taste.

It was as if the ownership could not stomach anything less than total success. Despite the fact that Harbaugh was one of the surest bets in football, the team’s immediate failures outweighed a history filled with winning. Perhaps they bought into the perpetual myth that Harbaugh is only good at rebuilding programs. Perhaps the front office and ownership were convinced he was no longer necessary.

The only rational explanation is that Harbaugh was unwilling to shake up the offensive staff. Once again, I think ALL of the 2014 49ers’ problems start with injuries, but anyone that reads my blog or any other outlet that covers the 49ers knows that Greg Roman was a very unpopular offensive coach. Harbaugh could have refused to get rid of Roman, but this theory has no actual basis.

Until we know more, we have to go with the answer that makes the most ‘sense’, even if it isn’t sensical. After a year of problems, another one has cropped up: the 49ers aren’t a well-run organization. You can point to the drafts and the recent playoff berths, but I can just as easily point to the unpopular mess that is Levis Stadium, or York’s insistence on venting his frustrations on Twitter and elsewhere. Perhaps as a corporation interested in making the largest amount of money possible, the 49ers are succeeding. However, as an organization hoping to pay back a fanbase that remained mostly loyal through ten years of futility, York and the 49ers just made their debt much harder to repay.

For a million or so a year, the 49ers have transformed from a juggernaut to a league laughingstock. Some have contended that this is simply a short-sighted attempt to reap the benefits of a new stadium without the cost of a premium coach, but no matter what the case, it is clear that York, and perhaps Baalke, have goals distinct from those of the fans, and of the team.

If I were not a huge fan of Harbaugh, I might try to look at this more empirically. Even from a hyper-rational standpoint, this move makes little sense. Harbaugh was the fifth-winningest coach in NFL history, and there are no obvious replacements on the market. Harbaugh was simply too good, and the head coach market too lacking in viable options.

So there you have it. The 49ers have made a move that has no logical basis. They continually backed down from defending Harbaugh, and from acknowledging the actual circumstances of a lost season. York has shown the fans and the team that his ego and profit margins are vastly more important to him than winning, and that he considers his negligible football and business experience more estimable than Harbaugh’s actual, tangible, record-setting accomplishments.

I wish there were some positive to take away from this, but there isn’t. Maybe in a year I will look back on this post and laugh at my own lack of foresight, but from where I sit now, there is no one in the world of football capable of filling Harbaugh’s shoes.