From the depths of mediocrity to a Super Bowl appearance and back to mediocrity, the 49ers have been through it all in the last 4 years. One of the most historic franchises found a way out of ridicule and back into contention and all it took is one simple move for all the pieces to come together. The hiring of former Stanford coach Jim Harbough turned the 49ers franchise from a 6-10 team to a 10+ win team and championship contender every single year.
For 8 straight seasons the 49ers failed to surpass the 8 win margin, reaching that just once, and they were so bad they even earned the first overall draft pick in the 2005 draft. They used that draft pick to select QB Alex Smith who looked hopeless from the get go, and the offense never looked promising even with RB Frank Gore. The only promising piece they had was LB Patrick Willis, who won defensive rookie of the year. They went through a flurry of coaches and different offensive and defensive systems and even then things looked like they were never going to turn around. And in comes Harbaugh.
Jim Harbaugh turned running back Frank Gore into one of the most dependable running backs in the league. He played every game during the 4 years that Harbaugh was the head coach and surpassed the 1000 yard mark every single season. QB Alex Smith turned into one of the most accurate passers in the league and Vernon Davis became one of the most dangerous tight ends in the league finally reaching his true potential to exploit mismatches. All of a sudden the San Francisco 49ers looked like they were as consistent as any championship team in the last few years. Add the explosiveness of WR Michael Crabtree to the mix and the emergence of QB Colin Kaepernick and it seemed that the 49ers were going to be a dominant force like the New England Patriots have been.
But even as potent and consistent as that offense appeared to be, the 49ers were known for becoming a defensive powerhouse. With Willis as leader, and incredible defensive superstars like Aldon Smith, Navorro Bowman, Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Dashon Golson, Donte Whitner, and Carlos Rogers, they seemed to have it all figured out now that coach Harbaugh put them all in the right system. Aldon Smith almost broke Michael Strahan’s sack record and Navorro Bowman was always among the league leaders in tackles and Willi’s leadership was unquestionable as the 49ers became one of the most feared teams in the league.
They won 13, 11, and 12 games in the first 3 years of Harbaugh’s tenure, won the division twice in a row, and Harbaugh was Coach of the Year the first year he coached. With their defensive dominance however, there was no lack of incredible games. The biggest one the NFC Divisional playoff against the Saints, where they went back and forth with New Orleans ultimately scoring the game winning touchdown with 9 seconds left the conference championship that took them to the Superbowl after being down 17 points, the largest comeback in NFC championship game history. None bigger however, than Superbowl XLVII. The first time in Super Bowl history where two brothers where head coaches facing each other, Jim and John Harbaugh would have a batter. Whether you remember it as the Blackout Bowl, or the “Harbaugh Bowl”, the fact remains that with the ball at the 7 yard line and 2 minutes left in the game, Harbaugh couldn’t design a play good enough to lead the 49ers to a Super Bowl victory. As disappointing as it was, the 49ers didn’t necessarily look like they were going to slow down.
Apparently some people thought differently. With the turmoil around the 49ers superbowl loss followed by a disappointing result the following year against the Seattle Seahawks, players came out against Jim Harbaugh. His rough methods and insensitive treatment of players led to a lot of tough football being played but nobody was quite happy being on that team. Management seemed to be the only one backing Jim. Not surprising considering he was winning games. During the 2014 season however, the difference and motivation off the team seemed clear. They were tired of him. Kaepernick didn’t look like the same guy that beat Alex Smith for the starting position, With Willis and Bowman hurt the defense didn’t have enough in them. Aldon Smith was already in trouble for his off the field antics, and Chris Bortland, the only good prospect on that team, is planning to retire now because of the dangerous situations he has been put through.
Jim Harbaugh will now be haeding off to Michigan University, quite a change of scenery, specially if players said he is a rough and insensitive coach. He was however a phenomenal coach for stanford, so the Wolverines should be quite excited. The 49ers however will need to rethink their strategy. 8 more years of mediocrity seem to be on the horizon once again.