Monday, December 29, 2014

Seasons In The Sun

Not surprisingly, the 49ers final game of the 2014 season ended up being the swan song for the Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco. After an excruciating stretch of 4 straight losses, the 49ers were at least able to send Harbaugh off to (assumedly) Michigan with a win, closing out their season with a 20-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

The game itself seemed kind of academic on both sides. It wasn't on in New York, so I was relegated to following on the computer, but basically the 49ers were just trying to get things right after 4 weeks where everything went completely wrong, while the Cardinals, already playoff bound, I assume were just trying to not get any more key players hurt. Colin Kaepernick finished an uneven season with a reasonably solid effort, throwing a 76-yard TD pass to Anquan Boldin and another short TD pass to Bruce Miller in the 3rd Quarter that gave the 49ers the winning points. Boldin capped off another 1,000 yard season, as did Frank Gore, who finished off strong with a pair of 100+ yard efforts. A patchwork defense intercepted Arizona's 3rd string Quarterback Ryan Lindley 3 times and made a slim lead stand up.

But the story was more about Harbaugh, whose departure from the 49ers after 4 seasons surprised nobody. The fans and the team seemed to rally around him after the game, and why not; he was obviously a major reason that the 49ers had this resurgence the past few seasons after so many years of failure. Under his watch, the 49ers returned to relevance, making it to three consecutive NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl appearance. There were great plays and great moments that happened these past few seasons that brought back all the memories of the 80s and 90s when this was the NFL's flagship team. Harbaugh took over a team that had a lot of undisciplined talent and molded them into winners. He took a chance on Colin Kaepernick and Kaepernick emerged as a rising star. Other players like NaVorro Bowman, Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith grew into All-Pro caliber talent. The team went from a string of 7-9, 6-10 seasons to go 13-3 in Harbaugh's first season at the helm and for three seasons was as good as any team in the NFL. And for that, Harbaugh deserves all the credit in the world.

But for all the success the Harbaugh 49ers had, they couldn't finish off the job. Three seasons in a row, they came right to the precipice of glory only to be turned back at the last moment. And for all the victories, Harbaugh couldn't find that common ground with GM Trent Baalke and Owner Jed York. It's a shame, because clearly, Harbaugh is the kind of coach that doesn't come around very often. It's real easy to bring in a bad coach, the 49ers suffered through a few of those in their 8-year slumber. The fear is that without Harbaugh, and with the roster certain to change a bit due to salary cap concerns, the success could prove to be very fleeting and the team will rue not only their inability to find a way to work past their internal difficulties, but that they weren't able to seize the opportunities they had to win another Championship. It was a great few seasons, for sure. But you can't help but feel more than just a little unfulfilled. 

Whoever the 49ers do end up hiring to replace Harbaugh will have some pretty big shoes to fill. They'll also be taking over a roster that's going to have plenty of talent, but also a lot of questions. Not only are there some players that stand to make a good chunk of money next year that underperformed and may be cut, such as Ahmad Brooks, but there's some pretty big names that are heading into Free Agency, and who knows whether or not the 49ers may be able to resign them. Justin Smith may retire. Vernon Davis held out this year. Alex Boone held out. Players like Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Perrish Cox and Frank Gore may have all played their last games with the team. Gore, in particular, is perhaps the most poignant name on this list. The longest-tenured 49er, Gore finished up his 10th season strong, but there's a lot of miles on those legs of his. Certainly, younger guys like Kendall Hunter and Carlos Hyde are there to help spell him, but if he should return—and he's made it pretty clear that he wants to return—it would likely be in a reduced capacity. Then again, Gore has bucked the trend of the every down Running Back that wears down as the years pile on. The 49ers all-time leading rusher and a player who has gone about his business with class and efficiency, nobody on the roster seemed more aware of just how precious it was to find success as a team these past few seasons. Gore toiled away for years on those awful 49ers teams, piling up great games in mostly hopeless efforts. Nobody's embodied the spirit of the team more, so it's going to be truly sad if he moves on.

So, there's no January story for the 49ers this year. The season is done and now come the questions, many of which have been lingering throughout this frustrating season. The first order of business, obviously, is to bring in a new coach and who knows who that's going to be. Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio has been bandied about as a likely candidate, and other names such as deposed Jets Coach Rex Ryan have also been mentioned. I really don't know what to expect, other than that I know that it's hard to find the Jim Harbaughs of the Coaching world and it's not likely that the next coach is going to be as dynamic. Then come the players. In spite of the names that may not or will not be back, other players like Anquan Boldin will be here, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman will be back and the roster will have plenty of talent. But will the offense be able to rebound after a wildly uneven year? Has the rest of the NFC advanced enough to catch and pass the 49ers as a contender? The NFL season is a blur and so too is success on a continued basis. Hopefully this year isn't a sign that the team is about to go back into the tank.

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