In February of 2016, the Lombardi Trophy will be making its long awaited return to San Francisco. It will be raised victoriously at midfield, in the former home of Jerry Rice and Joe Montana, except it won’t be raised by the home team. The once great, and quite recently great, San Francisco 49ers will likely be competing for a high draft pick rather than a high place in the standings. Over the course of the last five years, San Fran had nearly ascended to the peak of the NFL mountain, but is currently reporting live from the gutter.
In January of 2011, Jim Harbaugh was hired as the head coach of the long-time basement dwelling 49ers. Harbaugh’s move from Stanford to the pros left some skeptical, but he proved his worth in under a year. The former NFL quarterback led San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game in his first season. Quarterback Alex Smith, who was widely considered a bust, led the team to within a quarter of the Super Bowl. If not for a litany of special teams gaffes, they very well might have represented the NFC at and won Super Bowl 46. Instead, the New York Giants pulled off the upset and proceeded to take down the New England Patriots for the second time in five seasons.
The success continued in 2012 when Harbaugh and his team, now led by second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick and their talented defense, made it to the Super Bowl. There they lost another heartbreaker 34-31 to Harbaugh’s brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens. Next season’s 49ers were not victims of the “Super Bowl hangover.” In fact, they went 12-4 and made it to the NFC Championship Game again. The game ended in spectacular fashion, sadly for the team from the bay, with Richard Sherman deflecting a pass that was then intercepted. They appeared to be so close to taking home the NFL’s ultimate prize, but continued to fall just short.
The 49ers’ 2014 campaign was in turmoil from the start. General Manager Trent Baalke, along with the team’s ownership, had a fairly public power struggle with Coach Harbaugh. Reports also circulated that the successful coach was beginning to “lose the locker room”. These were amid the team beginning to underperform and the apparent regression of Kaepernick. The snowballing of those issues led to a team which began 7-4 and ended at a disappointing 8-8.
Evidently Harbaugh’s tenure did not entitle him to one subpar season, so in the offseason he was fired by the 49ers. Initial reports said that the break was mutual, which made sense since the toxic relationship between him and upper management did not bode well for the team’s future. Alas, these reports have since been refuted by the exiled head coach himself. Harbaugh said openly, “I was told I wouldn’t be the coach anymore. And then…you can call it ‘mutual,’ I mean, I wasn’t going to put the 49ers in the position to have a coach that they didn’t want anymore.”
Harbaugh, who was not largely beloved by people outside the 49ers fandom, has garnered some level of sympathy as a cast asunder former hero. He built the franchise back up from the cellar with his own brand of grit and determination, only to be blamed and discarded by upper management. Harbaugh landed at the University of Michigan almost immediately and has since made them back into a formidable college football team, while the 49er freefall has continued after his departure.
In the offseason following Harbaugh’s firing, there were a number of departures and retirements from 49ers who thrived under him. The regression of Harbaugh’s personal pet project, Kaepernick, has not slowed or reversed in 2015, and the 49ers have become a softer bunch without their, in many ways, mad general. Harbaugh is poised to thrive for many years to come, while the 49ers are slipping back into mediocrity, not so slowly.
The team which took the NFL by storm, with the coach who either infuriated or delighted everyone, is gone. Their identity, as well as his identity, has faded from San Francisco, and the red and gold have returned to their position from five years prior. They’re a middle-of-the-pack team with a quarterback who has all the potential in the world, but is slowly losing support and a fan base that’s still dreaming of the next ring that won’t come anytime soon. The powerhouse 49ers, like Candlestick Park, have been demolished by upper management.