For weeks now, much of the talk about the San Francisco 49ers has not been about the team’s performance on the field, but rather head coach Jim Harbaugh’s future—or lack thereof—with the franchise.
Questions arose about the state of the Niners’ locker room heading into the season opener against the Dallas Cowboys, with reported tension between the head coach and the team’s front office. Though they opened up with a 28-17 victory in Dallas, the 2014 NFL season quickly got off to an unconventional start for the Niners.
They suffered two consecutive losses to the Chicago Bears and division rival Arizona Cardinals. Then, a report by Hall of Fame cornerback and NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders surfaced following the 49ers’ Week 4 victory over the then-undefeated Philadelphia Eagles claiming that several players “want him out.”
Harbaugh disputed Sanders’ report the following Monday, during a press conference.
“Personally, I think that’s a bunch of a crap,” he said. “If someone has a good story to tell, they want to put their name to it. If I had a good story to tell, I’d want to put my name to it, so I don’t put a lot of credibility to the unnamed source.”
But Sanders reiterated his claims during CBS’ Thursday Night Football telecast on Oct. 2:
“I have sources. I’m not going to name my sources. I have sources that wear football uniforms, coats, suits and ties. I didn’t stutter, nor did I stammer. This is real. You’re talking about [49ers general manager] Trent Baalke, we know there’s a rift between he and Harbaugh, we all know that. That’s why the whole Cleveland thing came up last year. Who’s ever heard of thinking about trading a coach? Why would Cleveland even inquire if there was nothing there? That has trickled down into the locker room. Not only are my sources correct, I checked three insiders from different networks and it’s 100 percent. You can shoot the messenger, but the message is real.”
Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer released a report the following Sunday that supported Sanders’ story. Per Glazer, there is “no way” Harbaugh will remain the head coach in San Francisco “even if they hoist the Lombardi.”
49ers CEO Jed York fired back this week with words of contempt for the media’s reports, declaring Harbaugh as “his coach.”
Jim is my coach. We are trying to win a SB, not a personality or popularity contest. Any more questions?
— Jed York (@JedYork) October 5, 2014
Is it possible York’s response was nothing more than conjecture to quiet the hysteria? Absolutely. In fact, it’s becoming more and more apparent that’s likely all it really was. Whether Glazer and Sanders’ reports are true or not, the tea leaves are saying Harbaugh’s time in San Francisco is coming to a close.
Why else-—as Sanders’ noted on Thursday Night Football—would the 49ers have ascertained trade offers for the 50-year-old coach from the Cleveland Browns this spring? And at the low cost of just two third-round picks? For a guy who has taken his team to the NFC Championship in each of his three seasons at the helm? Perhaps York and GM Trent Baalke had forgotten the state their franchise was in before they hired Harbaugh in 2011?
The Harbaugh era has certainly featured more success than the ones that preceded.
There is a considerable risk in cutting ties with Harbaugh for the Niners. As the above infographic displays, the franchise was in disarray prior to 2011. Since his arrival, though, San Francisco has ranked among the league’s best in total defense, takeaways and rushing offense every year. They have a distinct identity.
However, there is an evident rift between Harbaugh and Baalke, and multiple reports indicate Harbaugh has lost his locker room, too. The latest comes from ESPN and reports that the team’s pursuit of Peyton Manning during the 2012 offseason is where things started to fall apart between Harbaugh and his players:
Coach Jim Harbaugh began to lose some of his San Francisco 49ers players when he was not honest with former quarterback Alex Smith about San Francisco’s pursuit of Peyton Manning in 2012, according to team sources, who expressed their belief to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
Smith, the man at the root of some of San Francisco’s issues, returns to San Francisco on Sunday with the Kansas City Chiefs for a matchup with the 49ers, who seem to be in a state of chaos just four games into this season.
Smith specifically asked Harbaugh about the 49ers’ interest in Manning and did not get an answer that matched the facts of the situation, in which Harbaugh flew to North Carolina to meet and work out Manning, the sources said.
As one team source told ESPN, “that was the first big sign to the players that they couldn’t trust Jim.”
Where there is smoke, there is fire. Right now, there’s a wildfire rapidly spreading throughout San Francisco.
But make no mistake about it: Winning cures everything. The 49ers are a talented team, but it would be a testament to Harbaugh’s leadership if he is able to keep the ship afloat and guide the Niners to their fourth consecutive playoff berth despite the dissension.
Should the Niners win the Super Bowl, it’s hard to imagine York and Baalke forcing Harbaugh out. The only way Harbaugh would leave under those circumstances is if Harbaugh decided he was leaving for a better gig.
Harbaugh’s conversation with York, which was reportedly “a real good talk” between the two, is a positive sign for the franchise going forward. But again it could simply be conjecture to draw focus away from the reality: Harbaugh’s days with the 49ers organization are numbered.
With Harbaugh’s contract expiring after the 2015 season, the 49ers’ failure to give him an extension before the season ends could be a greater indication of what direction the franchise is headed in. It’s unlikely they want to go into 2015 with Harbaugh as a “lame duck” head coach.
There is much to lose for the franchise should they decide it’s time to close the book on Harbaugh. But unless he and the 49ers can put together a storybook season with a happy ending, the fiery football coach’s seemingly tumultuous relationship with the front office and his players could see him coaching elsewhere in 2015.