The 49ers are still paying the price for ejecting Jim Harbaugh after the 2014 season. The question now is, how many years will they have to continue paying it?
When push came to shove in 2014 in a battle between the head coach and general manager Trent Baalke, 49ers CEO Jed York sided with Baalke. Now, two seasons after, Baalke is gone, too, having been fired along with head coach Chip Kelly at the tail end of a 2-14 season.
There are the pre-Harbaugh 49ers and the post-Harbaugh 49ers, and both have been ugly. The Harbaugh era, however, stands like a beacon. Consider:
In the eight seasons before Harbaugh arrived in 2011, the 49ers hadn’t had a single winning season and were a cumulative 46-82. In the two seasons since he was let go, the 49ers are 7-25. In the four seasons Harbaugh was on the job in San Francisco, the 49ers were 44-19, went to three straight NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl and never had a losing season.
Even at the time Harbaugh was losing the internal power struggle, it seemed obvious to many that the franchise was backing the wrong person in Baalke over Harbaugh. Successful and dynamic head coaches don’t come along all the time – as Jim Tomsula and Kelly have shown.
As Tony Manfred of Business Insider wrote in December of 2014, the 49ers were taking an enormous gamble by allowing Harbaugh – who’s won at every stop of his coaching career -- to leave because he had a fractious relationship with Baalke and York. The smart move would have been to bring in a different GM and work on relationship building. After all, it’s not like NFL history wasn’t telling that story loud and clear. Teams such as the Cowboys (Jimmy Johnson), Chargers (Bobby Ross and Marty Schottenheimer), Bears (Lovie Smith) and Raiders (Jon Gruden) have gotten rid of successful coaches because of front-office friction and paid the price for a long while.
“The 49ers are taking a gigantic risk here,” wrote Manfred. “Harbaugh has set an impossible standard for his successor – even his worst season (8-8 in 2014) wasn’t that bad. If the team doesn’t get back to the top of the NFC quickly, all anyone is going to remember is that the 49ers let Jim Harbaugh leave for no reason.”
Of course, Harbaugh’s successors, Tomsula and Kelly, didn’t have the talent on their rosters that Harbaugh did, because Baalke has whiffed on so many recent drafts. Bad drafts, retirements, injuries and free-agent defections have left the roster thin of impact talent.
But it’s also possible Harbaugh may have been able to overcome some of those issues. And, if Baalke had been let go instead of Harbaugh after the 2014 season, this team may have had a much better group of players in 2015 and 2016 because of better draft and free-agent decisions.
Of course, that’s all conjecture.
What isn’t conjecture is that Harbaugh is the one head coach who brought success and order to this franchise since Steve Mariucci was shown the door after the 2002 season. The 49ers – who now must find a new GM, head coach and coaching staff – are now one of the NFL’s worst teams because York made the wrong decision after the 2014 season.