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Reflecting on Jim Harbaugh's tenure: Why firing the 49ers head coach is a massive mistake

The 49ers appear ready to part ways with head coach Jim Harbaugh in the very near future. We look at how we arrived at this point and attempt to put Harbaugh's imminent departure into context.

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The San Francisco 49ers season is about to come to a close, and the team appears ready to part ways with Jim Harbaugh — a thought that seemed unfathomable (at least to me) only a year ago.

To put that sentence into proper context, let’s reflect a bit on Harbaugh’s tenure and revisit the journey that brought us to this point, beginning all the way back when bad didn’t properly describe the state of the 49ers.

The Lead-up

After an unprecedented run of success in which the 49ers failed to reach double-digit victories just three times in 22 seasons, San Francisco had fallen into one of the worst periods in franchise history. Steve Mariucci was relieved of his head coaching duties following the completion of the 2002 season, a year in which the 49ers went 10–6 and lost in the Playoffs to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Buccaneers. Dennis Erickson was hired in his stead a month later, beginning an eight-year run as one of the worst franchises in football.

San Francisco’s .359 winning percentage over that time frame topped only the Browns, Raiders, and Lions

Under the likes of Erickson, Mike Nolan, and Mike Singletary, the 49ers went 46–82, failing to produce even a single winning season. San Francisco’s .359 winning percentage over that time frame topped only the Browns, Raiders, and Lions — not exactly model franchises in the modern NFL.

It was comically bad at times. For instance, the 2005 offense, predominantly led by rookie Alex Smith, was historically inept and Smith produced one of the worst seasons Football Outsiders has measured. For an organization and fan base that had experienced nothing but success for two-plus decades, it was perhaps the darkest stretch in franchise history. You have to go back to the late 1970s to find another period that comes close. The 49ers posted a .331 winning percentage in the eight years preceding their first Super Bowl victory in 1981, having experienced only brief runs of success to that point.

Meanwhile, a young, former NFL quarterback was getting his feet wet as a head coach at the college ranks, building a reputation for turning around football teams. Jim Harbaugh took his first head coaching job at the University of San Diego prior to the 2004 season, proceeding to go 29–6 in his three seasons with the Toreros.

It didn’t take long for larger schools to become interested in acquiring Harbaugh’s services, but he was hardly considered a sure thing at the time. When Harbaugh eventually took the Stanford job prior to the 2007 season, some considered the move to be a huge gamble, even for a team that was coming off a one-win season. People questioned whether Harbaugh was ready for the jump to Division IA football, and especially whether he could recruit Division I-caliber athletes to a school with the high academic standards of Stanford University — a silly notion in hindsight considering that Harbaugh began recruiting for his dad some 13 years earlier at Western Kentucky… while he was still playing in the NFL.

Harbaugh wasted no time making his presence in the Pac–10 known. Before having coached even a single game at Stanford, Harbaugh set his sights on USC’s Pete Carroll. In an interview with CBS Sportsline’s Dennis Dodd, Harbaugh told Dodd somewhat off the cuff, "[Carroll’s] only got one more year, though. He’ll be there one more year. That’s what I’ve heard. I heard it inside the staff."

Carroll obviously wasn’t thrilled with another coach commenting about his future, advising Harbaugh that "he ought to get his information right." Harbaugh’s response? You’ve probably heard this one before.

"We bow to no man. We bow to no program here at Stanford University."

Harbaugh’s comments proved to be inaccurate — Carroll remained at USC for three more seasons. But that wasn’t the point. Harbaugh put Stanford in the national conversation. He showed everyone that he wasn’t there to make friends. He wasn’t comfortable elevating the Cardinal to good enough, finishing second to the conference’s juggernaut year after year. Harbaugh was there to compete. He was there to win.

It was far from the last incident Harbaugh would have with Carroll. In Harbaugh’s fifth game as Stanford’s head coach, the Cardinal went into the Coliseum as 41-point underdogs and took down no. 2 ranked USC 24–23. Two seasons later, in Carroll’s final year at USC, Stanford stomped the Trojans 55–21, again at Southern Cal, culminating in the infamous "What’s your deal?" exchange when the two coaches met at midfield after the game.

A year later, Harbaugh’s revival of Stanford’s football program was complete. He had taken Stanford into the AP top five for the first time since 1970, finishing off a 12–1 season with the Cardinal’s first BCS Bowl — a 28-point blowout over Virginia Tech.

Credit: Douglas Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Thirty miles up the bay, San Francisco had just fired its third coach in eight seasons, bringing a disappointing 6–10 season to a close.

As their 2010 seasons were wrapping up, Harbaugh and the 49ers were at opposite ends of the football spectrum, which ironically is exactly what needed to happen for the two to come together.

The Perfect Competitive Opportunity

The pairing between Harbaugh and the 49ers felt like a match made in football heaven. Many had felt San Francisco had talent on hand, but the team constantly performed below expectations and were desperate to return to the franchise’s former place among the league’s best organizations. Harbaugh had built a reputation of rebuilding football teams, rebuilding the culture in the locker room, and getting the absolute most from his players. Harbaugh’s hiring simply made too much sense for either party to pass up.

Harbaugh was undoubtedly handed a core group of players to work with — Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, and three first round offensive lineman were already on the roster when Harbaugh arrived — but there were numerous changes on the fringes that would make a big difference.

Jonathan Goodwin was added via free agency and inserted for David Baas at the fulcrum of the offensive line, a spot he manned admirably for three seasons. San Francisco rebuilt their secondary by buying low on a couple of veterans, Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner, that had worn out their welcomes with the teams that drafted them.

Harbaugh and his staff also unearthed several key players on defense that had been buried behind disappointing starters. NaVorro Bowman, Ray McDonald, and Tarell Brown all moved into the starting lineup after receiving minimal playing time under the previous regime. In all, the 49ers would insert six new players into the starting lineup on defense, and a seventh, rookie pass rushing phenom Aldon Smith, would play a significant role in the team’s nickel package.

The results speak for themselves — the Niners improved from 15th to third in defensive DVOA, and behind that dominant defense, wins quickly piled up. San Francisco got off to a blistering 8–1 start, matching the 49ers best win total from the post-Mariucci era in just over half of a season, ultimately finishing 13–3 and securing a first round bye in the playoffs.

As great as the improvements on defense were, Harbaugh’s impact was most felt on the opposite side of the ball. With effectively the exact same group that had produced some of the league’s worst offenses prior to his arrival — Goodwin was the only 2011 opening day starter that wasn’t there the previous season — Harbaugh produced far superior results.

San Francisco’s offense improved from 24th to 11th in points scored; from 24th to 18th in offensive DVOA. Those are modest improvements to be sure, but those numbers don’t capture the significance of the changes on that side of the ball. Harbaugh constructed a conservative, power-rushing attack that masked his player’s many weaknesses and accentuated their strengths. Most impressively, Harbaugh turned Alex Smith into a competent quarterback.

By any measure, Smith was one of the worst quarterbacks in football prior to Harbaugh’s arrival. That Smith lasted five seasons with the team is nothing short of miraculous considering his production. Smith had never finished higher than 27th in DVOA among quarterbacks and his offenses ranked in the bottom third of the league every season he was with the team. It’s hard to imagine a quarterback getting more opportunities after playing as poorly as Smith had for such an extended stretch of time.

Under Harbaugh’s tutelage in 2011, Smith posted career highs in every meaningful passing metric, finishing the season 14th in DVOA. As a unit, San Francisco’s passing offense improved from 24th to 13th in DVOA, their highest ranking since the final days of Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens.

The conservative offense worked, in part, because Harbaugh’s squad was nearly perfect in every other area. The 49ers did all of the little things well — they had the league’s best turnover differential, the league’s largest field position advantage, and were fantastic in every phase of special teams. Harbaugh himself proved to be a brilliant tactician, staying conservative when it suited the team and becoming aggressive in opportune moments. Harbaugh milked every advantage he could, exemplified by San Francisco’s abrupt offensive shifts to draw defenses offsides.

It was an incredible ride for 49ers fans. San Francisco gave us one of the most memorable playoff games in recent league history — a thrilling victory in the Divisional Round over the Saints — and came just a couple of Kyle Williams fumbles away from squaring off against the Patriots in the Super Bowl. For the first time in nearly a decade, 49ers fans had legitimate reason to be optimistic about the long-term future of the team.

The Second Act

As impressive as San Francisco’s turnaround was in Harbaugh’s first season, it wasn’t all that uncommon of a feat. Quick turnarounds happen every season in today’s era of parity. Since the NFL expanded the playoff pool to 12 teams in 1990, nearly 20 percent of the league’s playoff teams finished with six wins or fewer in the previous season. Entering 2014, there had been at least one such team in every season except 1995. The real challenge comes with sustaining that success.

While there were many pundits out there who thought San Francisco would again challenge for a championship, loads of historical trends were working against them and several of the more analytically-minded folks in the football community had their doubts.

Grantland’s Bill Barnwell outlined the case against the 49ers repeating their success, predicting nine or fewer wins. Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 gave San Francisco just a 39.5 percent chance of reaching the postseason.

Many of the basic tenets of those arguments did in fact come to pass — the 49ers faced a far more difficult schedule, their incredible turnover differential fell back to earth, and they didn’t have the same success in close games. But it didn’t have the impact on San Francisco’s record that many anticipated, largely due to Harbaugh’s influence.

San Francisco’s win total dropped slightly, to 11–4–1, but the 49ers underlying performance actually improved in many ways. The defense maintained their dominant levels, but it was again the offense that took a leap forward, improving from 18th to fifth in offensive DVOA.

Frank Gore and a mauling offensive line were operating at peak efficiency, putting together one of the most proficient stretches of rushing football in league history during the first half of the season. But the defining moment of the season came with the midseason transition at quarterback to Colin Kaepernick.

The Nevada product was universally considered by draftniks to be a raw product coming out of school, requiring years of development before he would be ready to lead an NFL offense. The rest of the league showed they felt the same by selecting the likes of Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and Christian Ponder ahead of Kaepernick in the 2011 NFL Draft.

Even at his career low point four seasons later — the point when many expected Kaepernick would finally be ready to compete for a starting job — there’s not a single football person that would take one of those players over Kaepernick today, a testament to how Harbaugh was able to mold Kaepernick’s raw talent in such a short period of time.

Kaepernick was brilliant from the beginning, dismantling the top-ranked Bears defense on Monday Night Football in his very first start. He played well on the road in difficult environments such as New Orleans and New England, staving off a second-half defensive collapse against the Patriots by scoring 10 fourth quarter points to secure the victory.

Kaepernick added an explosive, quick-strike element to San Francisco’s offense that hadn’t been there before. With Smith, if the 49ers fell behind early the game was all but over; with Kaepernick, the 49ers never seemed truly out it.

Credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

In the playoffs, Kaepernick and the 49ers offense reached another stratosphere. Kaepernick singlehandedly demoralized the Packers with his feet in the Divisional Round before bringing the 49ers back from a 17–0 deficit almost entirely with his arm the following week in Atlanta, sending San Francisco to its sixth Super Bowl. The ride ended in devastating fashion against the Ravens, but not before Kaepernick produced a scintillating comeback effort that was an unlucky timeout away from reaching its completion.

Harbaugh’s stature was at its absolute peak entering that Super Bowl run. Though he was named AP Coach of the Year for his efforts in turning around the 49ers in 2011, you could argue 2012 was even more impressive. Bill Barnwell declared Harbaugh the league’s most valuable asset for what he’d been able to do for the 49ers at a pittance of a salary relative to his actual worth.

The following season wasn’t without its bumps and bruises, but Harbaugh continued his run of success, reaching the conference championship game for a third consecutive season. That feat put Harbaugh in some rarified air. The list of coaches to pull off that accomplishment reads like a shortlist of the greatest coaches in NFL history: Bill Belichick (2011–13), Andy Reid (01–04), Mike Holmgren (1995–97), Marv Levy (90–93), Tom Landry (80–82, 70–73), John Madden (73–77), Chuck Knox (74–76), Chuck Noll (74–76), and Don Shula (71–73). If you want to go pre-merger, you can toss in names like Lombardi and Gillman.

If you notice one thing about that list other than the number of impressive names on it, it’s the years in which they did it. Most of the coaches on that list went on their championship run prior to the advent of the salary cap and free agency, in an era when it was much easier to build teams that could stay together for the long haul. Only three other coaches managed to do it in the salary cap era (Belichick, Reid, Holmgren) before Harbaugh. And not a single coach on that list did it in their first three seasons with their respective team. Harbaugh had established himself as one of the handful of truly great coaches in the profession.

The Rumor

Shortly after that Barnwell feature, the groundwork was laid for what would be a long, demoralizing year of rumors and speculation surrounding Harbaugh’s future with the 49ers.

In mid-December, Tim Kawakami reported tensions in the relationship between Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke. Though Kawakami mentions creative tension between the two parties can be a good thing, adding that Harbaugh and Baalke share each other’s respect and believe their relationship is for the good of the organization, he proceeds to speculate on possible points of contention between the two men, eventually concluding that the relationship will sour due to a power-hungry Harbaugh seeking greater control of the team.

A few similar reports piled on in the days that followed, but the story mostly went away during the 49ers playoff run.

On February 21, 2014, just a month after the 49ers narrowly missed out another Super Bowl appearance, Mike Florio reported that a deal was in place to trade Harbaugh to the Browns, with Harbaugh ultimately nixing the deal and deciding he wanted to remain in San Francisco. Kawakami’s report provided the motive for Harbaugh and the 49ers parting ways, but Florio’s report attempted to turn motive into action and kicked off a stream of rumors that has yet to cease. Here’s an abbreviated timeline of how events have transpired since then:

February 21, 2014: Ian Rapoport claims that Florio’s report on the potential Browns trade is false and ridiculous, inciting a Twitter pissing contest between the two. Jed York later tweets the report isn’t true, with Harbaugh echoing York’s comment.

February 24, 2014: York tells Sports Illustrated’s Peter King that the Browns reached out to him about a possible trade, but the 49ers had no interest in pursuing it.

March 1, 2014: Ann Killion reports friction between Harbaugh and Baalke has worsened, adding that Harbaugh’s act has worn thin in the locker room, specifically among a few "face of the 49ers" type players.

March 3, 2014: Harbaugh dismisses the ideas that he wants more money or more power in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg. Harbaugh repeated emphasizes that he makes "plenty of money" and that he believes in the structure the 49ers have in place.

March 24, 2014: Baalke speaks with CSN Bay Area at the owners meetings in Florida, reiterating that he and Harbaugh have a good working relationship and any controversy in media-driven.

July 31, 2014: York tells Yahoo! SportsTalk Live that he and Harbaugh have agreed to table contract discussions until after the season.

August 1, 2014: Again speaking on the topic of a Harbaugh contract extension, York tells Matt Maiocco he spoke with Harbaugh about a new deal and Harbaugh decided that it was too early to do an extension, because as the leader of the team he didn’t want to set the wrong precedent by signing a new deal with two years remaining on his current contract.

September 22, 2014: Following a 23–14 loss to the Cardinals that sent the 49ers to 1–2 on the season, Kawakami begins stirring the pot again, speculating on possible scenarios for Harbaugh after the season and again reporting that Harbaugh desires more money.

September 28, 2014: The morning leading up to the 49ers matchup with Chip Kelly and the Eagles, Ian Rapoport tells NFL GameDay Morning that 49ers players continue to have issues with Harbaugh, claiming they have doubts as to whether Harbaugh is all in.

September 29, 2014: Deion Sanders jumps into the conversation on NFL Network following a 49ers win over the Eagles, reporting that the players want Harbaugh out and that they’re not on the same page.

October 5, 2014: Jay Glazer reports on FOX NFL Sunday that there’s no way Harbaugh returns to the 49ers in 2015, even if they were to hoist the Lombardi this season. This was following a report by Adam Schefter the same morning on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown that Harbaugh began to lose some players in the locker room when he was dishonest with Alex Smith about the 49ers pursuit of Peyton Manning.

October 6, 2014: York is again publicly refuting a report about Harbaugh, this time telling Rich Eisen that Glazer’s report is, "categorically not true."

December 2, 2014: Matt Maiocco reports of a recent incident between Harbaugh and Baalke that, "irreparably tore at the trust that must exist between a coach and general manger."

Since that time, a seemingly infinite number of reports have come out regarding potential Harbaugh destinations for next season. Reports are putting him everywhere from the Raiders to the Jets to back at his alma mater in Michigan, with most believing that Harbaugh and the team will come to a resolution on his future within 48 hours of the completion of the 49ers’ season.

The End

Throughout this entire convoluted mess, actual football continued to happen and things obviously haven’t turned out as the 49ers hoped. Facing the playoff-bound Cardinals in the final game of the regular season, the 49ers are in danger of their first losing season under Harbaugh. The offense has been the biggest issue, struggling in myriad ways with seemingly every break going against them.

When everything breaks your way, you get 2011; when everything breaks against you, you get 2014. That’s life in the NFL.

In many ways, this year has been the antithesis of that magical run in 2011. Offensively, the 49ers are playing at an almost identical efficiency level (San Francisco finished 2011 with a minus–3.9 percent offensive DVOA; they have a minus–3.5 percent offensive DVOA this season), but this team is far more flawed in the other, more subtle aspects that they were nearly perfect in during the 2011 run. When everything breaks your way, you get 2011; when everything breaks against you, you get 2014. That’s life in the NFL.

From the beginning of his coaching career, Harbaugh has been regarded as a coach who is able to get his teams to play for each other, and to be resilient when adversity strikes. I don’t see how you can say anything different about this season. A lot of things have gone wrong for the 49ers, but I don’t think you could reasonably say that this team has given up. And from their comments, it’s hard for me to feel like this team has stopped playing for each other.

With things falling apart around them, players have continuously come to Harbaugh’s defense. Anquan Boldin, Alex Boone, Antoine Bethea, Michael Crabtree, Colin Kaepernick, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, Michael Wilhoite, and Jonathan Martin have all made public, on-the-record comments in support of Harbaugh at various points in the past 11 months. While they certainly don’t have any incentive to say otherwise, you’d think they’d take a more neutral stance if there was truly the amount of dysfunction present that’s being portrayed in the media.

I don’t doubt that there are players in the locker room that declined their invitations to the Jim Harbaugh Fan Club. But to pretend that’s a situation only happening in San Francisco is naive and flat out incorrect. Name a great coach and you can produce a story about a clash that was had with someone in the front office or a player that didn’t like him. Great coaches don’t need to be universally liked; they are there to push players beyond the limits of what they thought could be accomplished. Most importantly, great coaches are there to win, and Harbaugh has done that at a rate few others can match in his four seasons in San Francisco.

Amidst all of this chaos, I can’t help but think Harbaugh has remained the exact same person the 49ers had to know they were getting when he was hired in 2011, yet the spin surrounding his actions have flipped.

Harbaugh’s, uhh… sideline enthusiasm we’ll call it, was around before he made it to the professional ranks. Thomas Bonk of the Los Angeles Times described a few examples during Harbaugh’s final season at Stanford:

During Stanford’s 35–0 victory over UCLA last month, Harbaugh demonstrated to an official his impression of what actually happened on a previous play by flopping on his back. With less than six minutes to go against Wake Forest, Stanford recovered a fumble, but the officials said the play had been blown dead. Harbaugh challenged the call and it went to replay. Stanford was ahead, 68–24. In the same game, Harbaugh called a timeout just before halftime to try to ice the Wake Forest field-goal kicker. The score was 41–7 at the time.

What was once an example of the competitive swagger Harbaugh brought to his teams is now whining and pouting when he doesn’t get his way. Harbaughisms that were once considered great motivational techniques when the team was winning are now antics that the players are tired of when they’re losing. It’s all the same stuff, just spun in a negative light.

As ridiculous as the rumors seemed when this whole thing started a year ago, at some point the reports became so numerous and so frequent that it was impossible to ignore. There’s probably a greater than zero chance Harbaugh remains with the 49ers for the final year of his contract, but it’s difficult to think it’s much higher than that. And that’s unfortunate for all parties involved.

Jed York and Trent Baalke appear ready to cut ties with a coach that’s brought them within mere plays of three Super Bowl appearances in as many seasons for reasons that have nothing to do with football. To fire Harbaugh after one down year would be like firing Baalke after the 2012 draft — it’s reactionary and shortsighted.

It’s an absolutely massive mistake if things indeed play out that way. If the reports are to be believed, York and Baalke are putting their feelings and need to have a yes man above the success of the organization. And if they didn’t want to deal with Harbaugh’s hyper-competitive temperament, they never should’ve hired him in the first place. Because Jim Harbaugh has been exactly as advertised.