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Harbaugh: a Preview of Coming Subtractions


While a captain has to go down with the ship, rats are often the first to know a boat is sinking and the first to evacuate. We all listened with bated breath to the season-long rumors of Jim Harbaugh’s future with the San Francisco 49ers. We heard the off-season rumblings; with Trent Baalke, Jed York, and Paraag Marathe on one side, and Jim Harbaugh on the other, which resulted in both sides walking away from the contract extension discussion. By now we’ve all heard the news that Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers parted ways, with Harbaugh headed to University of Michigan in Ann Harbor, a rather good school and a fairly storied football program. The question we are all left asking after this disappointing season is why is Harbaugh so apt to depart? The answer I’ve come up with is a depressing one.

Jim Harbaugh saw the handwriting on the wall: the future in Santa Clara is dim. The injuries, specifically to the offensive line and line-backing core, made this season a throwaway.  Even if we had made the playoffs, the 49ers would not have been able to protect their quarterback nor would the defense have had their All-Pro foundation. When you play a lost season, you look ahead to see what you have to look forward to and Jim Harbaugh saw a team dying from age, contract statuses, and poor personnel choices.

Unrestricted Free Agents (FA) (in alphabetical order): Chris Cook, Michael Crabtree, Chris Culliver, Blaine Gabbert, Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Brandon Lloyd, and Dan Skuta

Restricted Free Agents (RFA): Garrett Celek, Michael Wilhoite

Exclusive Rights Free Agent: Tony Jerod-Eddie

Other players not under contract for next season: Desmond Bishop, Trindon Holliday, Kasim Osgood, Alfonso Smith

Harbaugh has to know that not every one of those players is coming back, especially the ones we need, like Iupati. And he knows that even if the 49ers reward them with competitive contracts, most of these players will likely regress (see Davis, Vernon for players who wanted more money than their aging bodies could live up to). I don’t really like Crabtree after his rookie holdout and one good season. Culliver and Skuta are both solid players who will likely find better contracts elsewhere. Carlos Hyde and Kendall Hunter are ready to take over for Gore, so if he wants real money, Frank will have to move on. Wilhoite will undoubtedly land a starting job and pay after a phenomenal year filling in for Navarro Bowman. I don’t know how an exclusive rights free agent differs from a restricted free agent, but Tony Jerod-Eddie is better suited as a DT than an NT and will likely find a team where he can start. Add to the departing notable names, the solid back-ups and promising young players and you have a roster that will not be as good as it was a season ago.

As Harbaugh looked at 2015, he saw a team that would have to find new championship caliber players at too many key positions. Running back, left guard, and flanker wide receiver are not positions you just plug and go. They often take big free agent contracts or a few years of developing a draft pick. And if Harbaugh really wanted to remain in the gorgeous Bay Area (and really, who doesn’t want to find every excuse to stay in the Bay?), he may have looked past the 2015 season to find reasons only to see that the 49ers are about to become a middling franchise once again.

2016 FA: Anquan Boldin, Alex Boone, Craig Dahl, Vernon Davis, Phil Dawson, Kendall Hunter, Joe Looney, Jonathan Martin, Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Ian Williams

2016 RFA: Derrek Carrier, Marcus Cromartie

Now go back and read the list of 2016 Free Agents again. It contains our 1,000 yard receiver for the past two seasons, our “star” tight-end, our ageless kicker, the best backup running back a team could have (even if he was injured this season), a man who averages a sack a game, a player who might retire this year, our best nose tackle, and some very solid role-player/back-ups.

This is a lot of talent to let go in two seasons; most of them starters, many of them Pro-Bowl players, a handful of All-Pro players, and a few phenomenal role players that Trent Baalke and Paraag Marathe have to replace. To make matters worse, the front-offices treatment of Harbaugh and certain players during contract negotiations will make it harder for the front office to attract new players. And before they find replacement talent on the field, they have to find a head coach, who will be a key in their recruitment process. BUT WHO WOULD WANT HARBAUGH’S JOB NOW?!?!  And whoever they get to take the head coaching job likely won’t be the personality that Jim Harbaugh is. Harbaugh was an NFL quarterback whom his players appreciated and played hard for (just check out his last game as head coach). I can’t imagine anyone else coming into the head coaching position and doing a better job. In all likelihood we’re in for a hold-over coach, like Dennis Erickson was, until after the 2016 season.

I imagine that if the Baalke/Maranthe brain trust had been willing to give Harbaugh more control of the team during their contract negotiations last offseason, thus empowering Harbaugh to better guide Niners through troubled water from a talent and personnel perspective, Harbaugh would not be leaving. The acrimonious attitude of Harbaugh, Baalke, and Maranthe during this season leads me to believe that Harbaugh didn’t necessarily support the contract decisions being made this summer. Whether it was the holdouts, Kaepernick’s new contract, or off season free agent and draft decisions, Harbaugh believed he could best steer this team and was told he would absolutely not be doing so. The front office could have saved themselves by naming Harbaugh their captain to brave the stormy waters of the NFC West and the overhaul in personnel.

Here’s to 2017, Niners fans!!! Let’s hope that Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington develop into a Rice/Taylor combo, Kaepernick isn’t too injured to play after two seasons of having to do too much, and Carlos Hyde develops into an All-Pro. If not, it could be a long second half of the decade down in Santa Clara.