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The 49ers of 2014: What Happens Now?

With reports of Jim Harbaugh leaving after a disappointing season, questions of the franchise linger

I’ve been meaning to vent about the San Francisco 49ers for awhile, now.

I didn’t do it when they were embarrassed at home on Thanksgiving against their bitter rivals in the Seattle Seahawks. I didn’t do it when they were humiliated against the Oakland Raiders the very next week. I didn’t do it when the Seahawks proceeded to eliminate them from playoff contention in Week 15.

Gotdangit, Colin.

Gotdangit, Colin.

But, then, the 49ers looked to put everything behind them and “play spoiler” to the San Diego Chargers on Saturday, holding a 21-point lead at halftime. And they proceeded to get outscored 31-7 in the second half and overtime, to lose a game in which the team rushed for 355 yards (third-highest total in franchise history).

Gotdangit, Quinton.

Gotdangit, Quinton.

You throw recent reports that the organization is ready to let go of head coach Jim Harbaugh soon after their final regular season game against Arizona on top of this relative dumpster fire of a 2014 season, and there isn’t much to be happy about in and around Santa Clara, as far as the 49ers are concerned.

Now, I have to say something.

To say that this has been the most frustrating season of football for any 49ers fan to endure since 2010 would be an understatement. My brother – an ardent San Francisco fan – cannot bear to hear any more news on his beloved Niners for the remainder of the NFL season. I have gotten so angry with this team and its unpredictably bad offense that when they collapsed against the Chargers two nights ago, I wasn’t even mad. I expected it. All I could do was laugh.

In the spectre of a lost 2014 season, all you can do is laugh to keep from crying.

Now, with the fan base turning on franchise QB Colin Kaepernick (despite a 90-yard TD run and a 97.7 QBR on Saturday) and preparing for what many in the media deem as Harbaugh’s inevitable departure, so many questions are up in the air. So, why don’t we address a couple of them now?

1) What happens in the event that Jim Harbaugh is fired? I’ve already voiced my displeasure at the news that the 49ers will let go of their best head coach since Steve Mariucci (he took the Niners to multiple playoff berths and an NFC Title game, once upon a time). In any case, San Francisco will likely look all over the place for a viable replacement, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that candidate was offensive-minded.

ESPN’s Chris Mortensen has targeted Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase and New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to possibly take over. They are relatively young men with extensive backgrounds in innovative offenses – though, having two of the best QBs of the last decade doesn’t hurt, either. Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News has a list of potential replacements that include names like Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, Stanford’s David Shaw and, maybe most intriguing, New Orleans’ Sean Payton – if they can pry him away from the Saints.

... Yay ... ?

… Yay … ?

Though, an odds-on favorite – at least, organizationally speaking – would likely be current defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. He is 1-0 as interim head coach after replacing Mike Singletary in 2010 (which, by the way, was another name that came up in coaching search speculation), and has a good relationship with the players and the front office. At this point, depending on who helms the offense – because don’t expect it to be current OC Greg Roman after this season – Tomsula might represent the 49ers’ “best-case scenario” moving forward.

2) Where will Harbaugh go in the event that he is fired? The most obvious choice would be his alma mater, Michigan. They recently fired head coach Brady Hoke, and will want to make a splash for the program moving forward. What better splash than a proven winning coach in both the college and pro ranks, who also happens to be a beloved former QB for the school? There have been also rumors swirling about the Chicago Bears possibly making an inquiry for their former QB to right the ship in the Windy City on offense.

Though, in the event he is no longer San Francisco’s head coach, I highly doubt any 49ers fan will care.

3) What will be the fan reaction in San Francisco? Like many fan bases, the most likely general reaction will be a mixed bag. Something tells me, however, that the overwhelming majority will be along the lines of “complete and utter backlash”.

Gotdangit, Trent.

Gotdangit, Trent.

The fact is, many 49ers Faithful view this as a power play between Harbaugh, GM Trent Baalke and owner Jed York. Many on the outside looking in already see the potential move to get rid of a head coach who has gone a whopping 48-22-1 since arriving four years ago is plenty foolish – especially if the perception is a power struggle between coach and owner. After all, as Singletary so famously said, the 49er Faithful “want winners” – and Harbaugh’s numbers speak for themselves.

Now, there will be the minority that believe it may be time for a change. Some will believe Harbaugh’s “act” has gotten stale, and it has shown on the field. (Never mind that the injuries have been piling up for the team at key areas since last year’s NFC Championship game.) I’m not one of them, but some probably do.

All that said, I, for one, am angry. I’m angry that this relationship between coach and franchise fell apart, despite the almost-unprecedented on-field success. I’m angry that the major media outlets wouldn’t stop talking about it since before the season started, hovering a huge distraction over the team’s efforts to make their fourth straight postseason appearance. Admittedly, I’m angry that my efforts to counter others’ predictions that the 49ers would miss the playoffs were proven wrong, and they were proven right. Most of all, I’m angry that the 49ers of 2014 will be looked upon as an abject failure.

With that in mind, the fan reaction will not be pretty. And, especially if Harbaugh’s potential replacement has a slow start, I have no doubt that fire will rain down upon Jed York and the front office. Heaven help them if it comes to pass.

4) What will happen to QB Colin Kaepernick? Now, I may be in the small minority that believes, despite Kaepernick’s continued struggles at the position, he can still be a playoff-caliber QB moving forward. It will likely depend on the offensive philosophy of the potential incoming coaching staff, but Kaepernick still has a chance to salvage his career from the wreckage that was 2014.

Because God knows we don't want him to justify THIS.

Because God knows we don’t want him to justify THIS.

I believe that his major downfall came at the hands of an offensive scheme that was almost trying to prove that Kap’s arm and his accuracy were on par with some of the best passers in the league. That, and the pass protection was never really right all season long. While I also believe that Colin deserves a lot of scrutiny for not progressing in his passing abilities, it is difficult for a guy who has been sacked a career-high 51 times through 15 games to be successful in the passing game.

In any case, whether you believe Kaepernick is still the answer at signal-caller for the 49ers or whether you believe he is a garbage player who will never be a true winner at the position, he is the 49ers QB for the foreseeable future – he did sign that $100-million contract this past offseason, after all (albeit with a ton of escalators and a built-in escape clause for the team).

So, he will likely have at least 2015 to prove that this season was just a stroke of bad luck. And that leads me to this last question:

5) Was 2014 an indication that the 49ers’ “Super Bowl Window” has slammed shut? I would say that there will be a lot of people that would say “yes”. Their defense, especially at the secondary, isn’t up to par with the best in the league. Their offense has drastically regressed. And, if Harbaugh does indeed leave, the 49ers could easily find themselves in the gutter of the NFC West for years to come, using up some of the team’s best talent (NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Anquan Boldin and Frank Gore, to name a few).

Call me an undying optimist, but I have to say No.

Don’t get me wrong – it looks as if Justin Smith is not long for the 49ers, and franchise RB Frank Gore may not be retained by the team that drafted him and helped turned him into a Pro Bowler. But don’t discount the team’s young talent: We haven’t even seen what CB/SS Jimmie Ward is capable of in the slot, due to extensive injuries. CB Dontae Johnson has looked good as a “prototype” rookie CB that lacked the skills of a top talent when he was taken in the fourth round of last year’s draft. And I’ve already wrote a soliloquy about rookie LB Chris Borland. He and Aaron Lynch are primed to take over nicely when Willis and Bowman eventually step down as the defensive stalwarts. And those are just the rookies.

Chris Borland vs Saints OT FR

Oh. Yeah.

I have faith – however seemingly misplaced – in Colin Kaepernick to figure things out, and for him to find his true game again. He won games with his dynamic playmaking ability on his feet and through his arm. If he can find the right balance, he can become an elite signal-caller again. He already has Gore’s heir apparent – RB Carlos Hyde – in the backfield that will provide the kind of smash-mouth football that the offense will need moving forward to be competitive. If he can get on the same page with his receiving corp, maybe they can see more points on the board on a regular basis – of course, that depends on the changes in coaching staff.

As bleak as things look for the San Francisco 49ers right now – especially if Harbaugh does depart – the fan base is called the “Faithful” for a reason: they remain optimistic despite the bleakest of times. And, whomever the 49ers trot out as head coach in 2015, the fan base will – they must – have faith that this team will turn things around, make another playoff run, and maybe win a Super Bowl in their home stadium for the first time in NFL history.

Because after their faith has been tested in 2014, it’s all they have left.

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