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.