By Morris Phillips
First, the 49ers attempted to trade Jim Harbaugh in the off-season, hardly a gift after three straight conference championship games and a Super Bowl appearance. Then they didn’t quell the talk during the season, saw the team suffer injuries and falter, and Jed York sent that pointed tweet after the loss to the Seahawks.
So the complicated stage was set for Sunday when after the season-concluding win over Arizona, 20-17, the organization announced coach and team would split via mutual agreement after four seasons together. Harbaugh, just minutes prior to the announcement, said this of his tenure:
“I thought we accomplished great things. Tremendous football. So many people to thank for that. So many people worked so hard to construct where this football team is. Feel great to be a part of it. Feel it’s been signature years in my life and I have much gratitude for everyone involved.”
Now that it’s over, how did things deteriorate so within the inner sanctum of the team? Although it’s who knows for sure with all of the players involved being so tight lipped, it probably centers around critical personnel decisions regarding players and assistant coaches that did or didn’t go as the disposed coach would have liked. Supposedly, the organization wanted offensive coordinator Greg Roman released, while Harbaugh demanded he stay.
If that disagreement indeed took place, it was one of only many. Throughout, Harbaugh gained the reputation of being argumentative and dismissive, in direct issue with the organization’s other stars, GM Trent Baalke, owner Jed York and likely team president Paraag Marathe as well. Over time, a division grew wider and Baalke, York and Marathe decided they would undertake the challenge of replacing Harbaugh with someone just as good–and as unlikely as it will be–just as successful.
Who that someone will be is tomorrow’s news, just as the fates of Frank Gore, Justin Smith, Michael Crabtree and others who have been critical players in the team’s previous three seasons will be major storylines. What’s undeniable is that in a 32-team league where the stakes are this high, and the resources this even, the 49ers could just as easily lapse into mediocrity over the coming years as continue an upward arc and form a Super Bowl champion.
Gore knows all too well. He spoke eloquently (for him) about how Harbaugh allowed him to develop from a great player into a great player that won. The last four years have transformed Gore from a cornerstone player on subpar teams into a likely Hall of Famer. Along the way, through Harbaugh’s admiration for Gore, we learned how brilliant a leader and prepared a competitor the veteran running back is.
“I like how he approached the game of football. My best years, they were with him,” Gore said of Harbaugh. “He was here and we won. I just wish him the best. I know whatever team he goes to, whether it’s NFL or college, he’s going to be fine.”
On Sunday, Gore made a definitive pitch for another contract by giving the Cardinals’ defense fits with 25 carries for 144 yards rushing. It was the second straight week Gore was fantastic, following a concussion he suffered three weeks ago in Seattle. Not surprisingly, the offensive line without Alex Boone, but with Joe Staley, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis was settled and staunch.
Accordingly, Colin Kaepernick played unencumbered, finishing with two touchdown passes, no picks and just one sack. In a season in which the 49ers’ established a new franchise worst for sacks allowed, the protection afforded their quarterback against a ferocious defensive front may have been the most hopeful sign of the day.
Trailing 7-0 in the first quarter, it was Kaepernick extending a play by escaping the pocket, who found Anquan Boldin on a pass-run play that would cover 76 yards and tie the game.
Then in the third quarter—after the 49ers were made to trail again by an Arizona quick-strike drive before the half—Kaepernick threw to a wide-open Bruce Miller in the back of the end zone for the game’s only scoring play after halftime.
The 49ers’ defense came up with a pair of timely interceptions of Ryan Lindley, who started for Coach Bruce Arians after the Cardinals put up a smoke screen during the week that said rookie Logan Thomas would go for a struggling offense that was outclassed twice by Seattle in recent weeks. Lindley made some big throws to Michael Floyd and was productive for a half, but he was picked off by Chris Culliver in the third quarter, and then again by Craig Dahl as the Cardinals sought a late, game-tying field goal or more.
The 49ers finished 8-8, giving Harbaugh and team four consecutive non-losing seasons and a much-needed send off into the off-season. As expected, the announcement of Harbaugh’s fate was almost immediate, following his departure from his post-game press conference by less than two minutes.
The former Stanford coach is expected to accept a lucrative offer to coach Michigan, his alma mater, with an announcement that could come as early as Monday.