This season has been full of ups and downs, with the 49ers showing great promise in some moments but then looking listless in others. Over the past four years, in the Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick era, the 49ers have had great success, except for this year. They went to three straight NFC Championship games, and even made the Super Bowl two years ago. However, this year all of the success that they had built up fizzled, going from a Super Bowl contender to mediocrity. Coming into today’s matchup against their division rival Arizona Cardinals, the 49ers were 7-8. They managed a 20-17 win today, ending their season at an even 8-8, maintaining Jim Harbaugh’s streak of no losing seasons.
The 49ers 2014 season looked promising as the preseason ended, and they continued to look extremely good, starting the season with a resounding win over the Cowboys. However, the 49ers’ hot start quickly ended, losing two games straight for the first time in Harbaugh’s NFL coaching career to the Bears and the Cardinals. Fortunately, they came back after this with strength, as they took their 1-2 record, and then won three straight games against the Eagles, the Chiefs, and the Rams. However, this 4-2 surge was stopped by back-to-back losses to the Broncos and the Rams, bringing the 49ers record to an even 4-4. The 49ers were then able to bear down and battle hard for three straight wins: an overtime win over the Saints, a defensive win over the Giants, and an Anquan Boldin led win over Washington, giving them a 7-4 record and putting them in a tie with the Seattle Seahawks, in the chase for the NFC Wild Card spot. However, the 49ers’ playoff hopes were quickly yet painfully stripped away, as the 49ers lost four straight games, including a blowout by the division rival Seahawks, a stinging loss to the awful Raiders, another bad loss to the Seahawks, and an overtime loss to the Chargers, forming the 49ers’ longest losing streak in the Jim Harbaugh era. With a 7-8 record, the 49ers tip-toed into today’s matchup, and were luckily able to grab a win, to give them a somewhat acceptable record of 8-8.
On Sunday, the volatile 49ers were on one of their good days. Frank Gore rushed for a season high 144 yards on 25 carries, continuing to add onto his franchise leading rushing totals. Some believe that free-agent-to-be Gore will retire after his tenth year in the league. However, Gore prides himself on his determination and resiliency, making it unlikely that he would leave after a subpar season like this one. Furthermore, he has indicated that he would like to continue his career with the 49ers, the only team he has ever known. Whether or not he plays next season, it is highly unlikely that he will remain with San Francisco due to the fact that they have been grooming rookie Carlos Hyde to be his successor. Furthermore, they simply do not have the money to pay him, even though he is still a very reliable running back at age 31.
Even so, in today’s game he set a couple milestones in what may be his last game in Levi’s Stadium. He recorded his eighth season gaining 1000
In the passing game, Colin Kaepernick threw for 204 yards on 15 of 26 attempts and two touchdowns, including a 76 yard catch and run to Anquan Boldin. The touchdown catch came early in the first quarter, just after the Cardinals had executed a flawless drive to take an early 7-0 lead. This score tied up the game for the 49ers, shifting the momentum back in their favor. It also gave receiver Anquan Boldin a 1000 yard receiving season for the second year in a row, making him the first 49ers’ receiver to achieve this feat in franchise history. Here’s a link to that play, that capitalized on a breakdown in the Cardinals’ secondary:
Anquan Boldin’s 76-yard touchdown catch and run
The 49ers had a field day on defense, coming up with three interceptions off of Arizona’s backup quarterback Ryan Lindley, all of which extremely important in stopping Cardinals’ drives. The first came courtesy of linebacker Michael Wilhoite, who snagged a third down pass and prevented the Cardinals from taking a field goal attempt that could have changed the result of the game. Cornerback Chris Culliver snagged the next interception early in the third quarter on what looked to be a promising Cardinals’ drive, both ending their drive and giving the 49ers great field position for their own, one that ended in their second touchdown. This touchdown came on a play action drag route by the fullback Bruce Miller, for a three yard score. The third and final interception came in the fourth quarter from linebacker Craig Dahl right after a sack that followed the 49ers punting the ball at the two minute warning. This interception sealed the game as it took away the Cardinals’ final chance to come back in the game, and allowed the 49ers to kneel the ball three times for the win.
Today’s win was great, and it served as a reminder that the 49ers are an extremely talented and capable team that had the potential for much better results this season than they ended up with. The 49ers executed very well today, and they showed that they should return to their successful ways next year. However, it is now guaranteed that they will have to do so without the coach that brought them success after an extremely long drought: Jim Harbaugh.
Ever since the 49ers started losing, and especially since they fell out of playoff contention, the narrative of this season has been about Harbaugh leaving. People have been predicting whether or not he would leave, who would replace him if he did (we discussed some options here), and where he will go next. Jim Harbaugh is unquestionably a very talented coach, and even when there were allegations that he had lost respect in the locker room, his players were always proactive in stepping up and denying these rumors, speaking about how they like Jim Harbaugh as a coach and have the utmost respect for him. After today’s game, when speaking about Harbaugh’s departure, quarterback Colin Kaepernick said:
((HT: CSN Bay Area))
Out of the three questions that people have been asking for this season, one has been definitively answered, one has a very strong possibility, and one has yet to be answered.
The first and most pressing question was answered after today’s win: Jim Harbaugh is leaving the 49ers. Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers announced that they have mutually agreed to part ways, and he will either leave the NFL or be traded away to fulfill the remaining one year on his five year, 25 million dollar contract. After the game, Jim Harbaugh said:
“I’m forever proud to have been a part of this. It’s been a tremendous four years, it’s been a pleasure to work and serve for this organization…You work at the pleasure of the organization, that’s what we all do.”
Quote courtesy of ESPN
The second question about his replacement is the one that has yet to be answered. The 49ers organization will have to come up with a decision quickly. However, they would want to give their new coach as much time as possible with the team, especially if they look outside the organization. As it currently stands, there are only a few probable options for the coaching position next year, due to the fact that the 49ers need some resemblance of continuity. In addition, Trent Baalke will want a coach who he can control, unlike the abrasive Harbaugh. Also, the 49ers need a coach who can help Kaepernick develop. Currently, he is the only viable starting quarterback in the system, and he has shown signs that he can succeed at the NFL level, although he still needs guidance from a good coach. The three main options in no particular order are Vic Fangio if the 49ers look inward, and Adam Gase or Mike Shanahan if they look outwards.
Vic Fangio would provide the most continuity, as he has been the 49ers’ defensive coordinator for the past four years, joining with Jim Harbaugh from Stanford, and he has 15 years of NFL defensive coordinator experience. Throughout the past four years, Harbaugh has steered clear of the defense, knowing that Vic Fangio is fully capable of running that aspect of the team. If he is promoted to head coach, he would continue to run the defense, and he would give wide berth to current offensive coordinator Greg Roman to run the offense, and essentially the two would work in tandem. Also, he would nestle in nicely with Trent Baalke, and he is a much calmer presence that would not ruffle the management’s feathers.
Adam Gase would be another intriguing option, the hot name on the market this year after transforming Denver’s offense into a well-oiled machine as their offensive coordinator. Of course he would not have the same offensive tools in San Francisco, especially at quarterback and receiver. Hopefully he would be able to help Kaepernick grow, while also providing a valuable boost to the offense, leaving Vic Fangio to handle the defensive side of the game, as Harbaugh has done for the last four years. Experience coaching Peyton Manning give Gase valuable knowledge about the quarterback position, learning from an all-time great.
Mike Shanahan may be too old for the job at 62, but he has experience with the 49ers as their offensive coordinator from 1992 to 1994, and he also has 20 years of NFL head coaching experience. However, his last season as head coach was with the Redskins in 2013, guiding them to a woeful 3-13 campaign. Shanahan would have been a great option for the 49ers a few years ago, but now he is more of a fringe candidate, due to both his age and lack of recent success. Even so, he would probably provide the largest offensive boost of these three candidates, as he led the Broncos to win the 1997 and 1998 Super Bowls as their offensive coordinator.
Whether the 49ers end up with one of these three candidates or another candidate not listed will be mainly based on how much money they want to spend on a coach and how much control Trent Baalke wants to exert. Each of these coaches comes with a different price tag, with Vic Fangio being the cheapest and Adam Gase the most expensive. The 49ers should probably announce a coaching decision within a few weeks, and they will probably target somebody outside the organization first, and if that falls through, they will be safe with Vic Fangio as a very solid in-house option.
The third question is the one that has not yet been definitively answered, although Jim Harbaugh may have already internally answered the question. He received a quite lucrative offer to go back to the college level as a head coach for his alma mater Michigan, which is looking for a coach with his ability to take a team from rags to riches. He has proven himself extremely capable of raising programs from nothing to instant contenders, first at Stanford and then with the 49ers. However, he has been noncommittal when asked about Michigan, saying that “announcements will be made” about where he will go next year. Unquestionably, Jim Harbaugh is out of the picture for the 49ers, but his next location is still technically up in the air, although Michigan looks to be the destination. From the 49ers’ perspective, it would be better for Harbaugh to stay in the NFL so that the 49ers could trade him either for cash compensation or possibly even players. Either way, Harbaugh should have great success wherever he goes, while simultaneously earning a lofty paycheck.
The 49ers 2014 season is now over, and although it was subpar, the organization still has a bright future. It will be led by breakout rookies like Carlos Hyde and Chris Borland and young veterans Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid. The 49ers have a lot of talent on their team, and they are still very capable of contending next year, especially if they find a coach who can bring out the best in Kaepernick, so that he can finally get the Super Bowl ring that he so badly desires.