Jim Harbaugh is learning the hard lesson that many have learned, too much success early raises the level of expectations. Not meeting the new set of expectations will likely be reason enough to terminate employment.
When Harbaugh was hired to replace Mike Singeltary, the San Francisco 49ers would have just been happy with making the playoffs and being respectable. Everyone was certain Alex Smith was a bust. Harbaugh changed that opinion. Not only did Smith have his best season to date, he out dueled Drew Brees in a playoff game. An Alex Smith led team went to the playoffs and beat the defending Super Bowl champs. Before Harbuagh, the thought of that happening would have seemed unfathomable.
Harbaugh took the team in his first year to the NFC championship game. They were two fumbles away from going to the Super Bowl. The idea of what the 49ers were capable of had changed in just one season. The team was now expected to be amongst the best teams in the league.
During his second season Harbaugh made one of the gusty decisions of recent memory. He benched a hot quarterback for a quarterback with a higher potential in Colin Kaepernick. Moves like that could tear teams a part but Harbaugh not only held his team together, he led them on a Super Bowl run. The team ended up falling just short of winning the Super Bowl. Even in the lost, it was felt that Harbaugh made the right call switching quarterbacks and his team would be a team to be reckoned with moving forward.
It was during the 2012 season that the whispers first started. The offense was not functioning as well as before. Harbaugh’s personality which was a wonderful change for players when he first arrived had started to wear thin on some of the veterans. Even with whispers, the team got back to its third consecutive NFC Championship game. They were one throw away from returning to the Super Bowl.
In the offseason, the noise around the 49ers became louder. Harbaugh’s ways were driving not just players but people in the front office crazy. After three successful seasons most coaches would receive an extension, Harbaugh was not given one.
The 49ers did not get off to a hot start. Again the offense dragged and now the defense looked vulnerable. Harbaugh managed things like it was just outside noise but the noise appeared to bother some of his players. The team faltered down the stretch and now sits at 7-7 and will miss the playoffs.
As bad as things look for Harbaugh, upon closer examination, he managed his team well this season.
Consider the fact that for the first nine weeks of the season he was without his best pass rusher, Aldon Smith. Add to that he was without Narravo Bowman all season long due to the knee injury he suffered during the NFC Championship game last season. To further complicate things, his best defender, Patrick Willis, was lost midway through the season because of injury. That is just the defensive problems.
On offense, management did not equip the team with a much needed deep threat to help the offense with explosive plays. Frank Gore finally lost a step and the team did not trust the run game as much as they had in the past. Kaepernick did not take the big step forward the team was hoping for. He appeared to still struggle going through his progressions. Vernon Davis either fell out favor with the offense or he lost a few steps and was completely unproductive.
All the issues facing the 49ers would normally have a team end up with a 4-12 or 5-11 season. Harbaugh kept the team in the playoff hunt until Week 15. There is no reason to think that if healthy and with a few additions the 49ers could be right back in the championship hunt next season.
This is not to absolve Harbaugh of all wrong doing. If Harbaugh received the majority of the praise when Kaepernick was playing well, then he has to foster some responsibility for the fact he has not progressed the way the team had hoped. He also has to take to partial responsibility for the fact that his relationship has soured with general manager Trent Baalke. Lastly, he has to be held accountable for the play calling that at times has been subpar. Greg Roman is the offensive coordinator and calls the plays but Harbaugh should intervene when he sees that things are not progressing properly.
The easy way out is to try and trade or fire Harbaugh. The problem is who would the team bring in that would be an improvement? The talk around the league is that the 49ers are thinking about promoting from within. Late last month, Jason La Canfora of CBSsports.com reported the team was looking at Jim Tomsula or Vic Fangio as possible replacements.
No one can say for certain what type of coach Tomsula or Fangio would be but the team may want to consider how many coaches they missed on prior to Harbaugh. The team missed with Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, and Singeltary before finally getting it right with Harbaugh.
The other factor that may need to be considered is that the team has to reload in several in key areas. The wide receiver core needs to be addressed. Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin are quality receivers but neither is a true No. 1 receiver. The tem must address whether Vernon Davis is in their future plans. The team has to address the running back position as this is likely Gore’s last season with the club. The secondary lacks playmakers and also must be handled in the offseason.
Again, Harbaugh is far from perfect. Furthermore, he appears to be difficult to work with. While those facts may be true, he still is likely the best man for the job. Sometimes great coaches are not the most likeable guys. The point is that his goal is winning and the team claims their goal is winning. Since 2011 under Harbaugh the team is 43-18-1. From 2003 through 2010 the team’s record was 46-82. The team should consider that prior to making a change.