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State of the franchise, coaching search: Retain Vic Fangio at all costs

After a period of confusion, deep reflection, loathing, and weeping in the shower, I've come out of hibernation to offer my take on the state of the franchise, the coaching search, and why keeping Vic Fangio should be the 49ers' biggest priority.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Right back where they started from?

Say it isn't so.

Watching Jed York fumble through that embarrassing press conference, riddled with vague, repetitive PR jargon announcing Jim Harbaugh's "mutual parting", was about as cringe-worthy as it gets. It was comedy hour, and it dishearteningly reeked of a presser that would have taken place during the dark ages of 2003-2010.

The whole handling of the Harbaugh situation; the sterile, desolate erector set that is Levi's stadium; all the player transgressions; and the pending lawsuit against York for age bias has led me to one conclusion:

Jim Harbaugh's successful tenure in SF was achieved despite ownership, not remotely because of it.

His product on the field masked what dedicated followers of this team have known all along--Niners ownership is still just as clueless and inept as they were for that 8-year span of awful football prior to Harbaugh's arrival. They rode the success of Harbaugh to a new stadium and sky-high boosts in revenue. And when things got difficult to manage, they showed him the door, effectively demonstrating to fans that we had been duped into thinking things changed over the past three years.

Is Harbaugh a tough guy to get along with? I'm sure he is. But as many writers have noted, almost all great coaches are. Instead of trying to do right by Harbaugh, playing nice, and giving him a much-deserved contract extension, the 49ers got on their high horse and played hard ball, effectively jettisoning Harbaugh after a four-year stint that is about as successful as they come (minus the lack of a Lombardi and this past season's meltdown).

Now that cash is flowing in and the 49ers have returned to prominence (again, minus this year's 8-8 campaign), they figure they don't need Harbaugh; but they're neglecting the fact that he's the only reason they got to where they're at. Unfortunately, York and the 49ers brass will soon realize just how integral he was to all of that.

The optimist in me thinks that there's enough talent on this team to stave off a period of rebuilding (Baalke is spinning it as "reloading"); but the realist looks at a new coaching regime, sizable roster turnover with the likely departures of key vets such as Frank Gore and Justin Smith, an empty wide receiver corps, and a quarterback who continues to regress, and I can't help but think that the team is staring down the barrel of a 5-win season in 2015 and could be headed back down that long dark path of failure.

Introducing the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers?

I can already see York pontificating about the 49ers' rich history and tradition of winning, and how they're returning to that by bringing back one of its dynastic former members and his son. Then, Mike Shanahan and Kyle will come up and regurgitate glory of years gone by (long gone, mind you--that offense Mike ran here in San Francisco won the Super Bowl 20 years ago) and talk about all the talent this roster has and how he's excited to work toward bringing a championship back to San Francis...err, Santa Clara.

To be fair, there's a still a very solid chance it's not Shanahan, but considering York's incessant talk about his uncle and the 49ers' storied past, it makes the most sense that he'd go gaga over a man who helped deliver the team's last championship. At any rate, given the wild success of Jim Harbaugh, no one will be under the microscope more than his successor (except for Jed York himself, since he and Baalke are orchestrating all of this). This is a very tough situation for a new head coach to step into and one that's not reassuring given the sordid mess that transpired between coaching and ownership in 2014.

Think about it for a second. Jim Harbaugh coached the entire 2014 season knowing that ownership tried to ship him off to Cleveland in the summer. He was the subject of ceaseless media questioning regarding "anonymous leaks" about his job status throughout the season. Would you want to step into a new role at a new company knowing that the guy before you, despite achieving historic success, was constantly being undermined by senior management in his final year on the job? I wouldn't.

And this is what concerns me. That toxic environment, which was put on display for the world to see, may preclude the 49ers from landing a truly great coach. It's just like when the team was terrible before Harbaugh arrived. The fan base chastised management for not bringing in talented free agents when, in all likelihood, San Francisco was probably the last place free agents wanted to take their services.

But I digress...

The prospect of Shanahan coming to town initially made me sick and, while it still doesn't instill any real confidence, the 49ers could do worse. Shanahan's last gig was marred by Robert Griffin III drama but it seems abundantly clear that Griffin himself was the real issue, as new coach Jay Gruden has run into the same problems with the quarterback that Shanahan did. As a couple of my friends who are Washington fans have pointed out, Shanahan did bring in Pierre Garcon and helped develop Alfred Morris and Jordan Reed. Plus, a quick statistical dive shows that the Redskins ranked number 5 in overall offense in 2012.

So what do I mean when I say San Francisco could do worse? I mean getting rid of Vic Fangio. Which leads us to our next, most important topic of this diatribe.


I don't care what the 49ers have to do but, above all else, they must retain Vic Fangio. Hell, I'll take money out of my own wallet to keep this guy in town. Ideally, they keep him as coordinator but if it means promoting him to head coach and pairing him with a strong offensive coordinator, so be it.

The job he's done since he arrived in 2011 has been remarkable; none more so than 2014's performance. If he was a head coach and the 49ers managed to make the playoffs, he'd be a candidate for coach of the year for what he did with this unit. By now, we all know just how decimated the 49ers' defense was this past season, and the fact that he still fielded a Super Bowl-quality defense is honestly unfathomable. That's true talent and that is someone you fight to hold onto for as long as you can.

Regardless of whether Fangio is promoted to head coach or not, the 49ers will still have a new offensive staff now that Harbaugh and Roman are gone. Given the huge question mark surrounding the offense and its horrendous performance this past season, it's crucial to keep the defense intact and consistent. Knowing the team can field a competitive unit and pick up where it left off will mitigate the overhaul on the offensive side of the ball. It may also help to eek another year out of Justin Smith before he rides off into the sunset of retirement.

Several players have gone on record expressing their approval of Fangio and desire to play under him next season. With so much doubt clouding this franchise, it's imperative that they hold onto the 49ers' brightest defensive mind since George Seifert. It also might recoup even a shred of faith for a demoralized 49ers fan base desperately seeking some sort of sign that this isn't a completely hopeless disaster.