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Originally published December 14, 2014 at 8:21 PM | Page modified December 14, 2014 at 10:29 PM

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For Jim Harbaugh and 49ers, a bitter end

This was not defiant Jim Harbaugh, or testy Harbaugh, or even combative Harbaugh. After a loss Sunday that knocked the 49ers out of the playoffs and added more force to Harbaugh’s inevitable shove out the door in San Francisco, the coach exuded mostly acquiescence.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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This was not defiant Jim Harbaugh, or testy Harbaugh, or even combative Harbaugh.

After a loss Sunday that knocked the 49ers out of the playoffs and added more force to Harbaugh’s inevitable shove out the door in San Francisco, the coach exuded mostly acquiescence.

Well, awkwardness, too, but that’s part of Harbaugh’s DNA, a trait as ever-present as his trademark khakis, even in the best of times. And for Harbaugh and the 49ers, these are far from that.

Harbaugh’s tepid assessment of another bitter loss to Seattle (“The effort was plus-plus; they fought like champs”) was a mere precursor to the questions about his future with the 49ers.

That’s really what we want to know, right? Just what is Harbaugh’s exit strategy? Because Harbaugh is destined to be the Billy Martin of his day, without the personal demons that always caused Billy to self-destruct.

Harbaugh’s particular calling card, in addition to an innate brilliance in strategic and motivational acumen — at least in the short term — is rubbing people the wrong way. And there is a mountain load of circumstantial evidence his welcome has been officially worn out in Santa Clara — without on-field success to bail him out, as in the past. It’s a truism of sport: A difficult personality with a .500 record is much harder to tolerate.

So the question came, after the 49ers fell to 7-7: Does he expect to sit down with CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke to discuss his future?

“I’m always available to sit down with the owner or general manager, absolutely,’’ Harbaugh replied.

Does he expect to have a conversation about coming back next year?

“Yes, at some point (long pause) I expect that.”

But after a year of off-field turmoil in San Francisco, matched by on-field disappointment, it’s hard to imagine any scenario by which Harbaugh returns to the 49ers. His only hope was to engineer a furious playoff run, and the Seahawks took care of that, once and for all, with a second-half surge to the 17-7 victory.

All you have to do, to get a flavor of the unhealthy atmosphere in San Francisco, is choose your favorite portrayal of dissension by an ex-49er. It could be Steve Young saying the players looked “broken” after a loss to the Rams. Or Deion Sanders saying of Harbaugh that the players “want him out.” Or Trent Dilfer describing the mood around the 49ers as “almost toxic.”

Actually, Harbaugh was right — the 49ers fought hard Sunday, and for a while seemed primed for an upset. This was a game they desperately needed, an urgency that was reflected even in the press box. A 49ers executive could be heard loudly pounding the table after a controversial roughing-the-passer call went against them, and once earlier at a tense juncture in the game.

But a rivalry that was at its greatest when the teams fought on roughly even ground has now become one-sided. The Seahawks have won three in a row over San Francisco, and it has never been clearer that just one of these teams remains elite.

What has happened to the 49ers, leading to their downfall from the heady days of a near Super Bowl victory and three consecutive appearances in the NFC title game? It is a complicated question, replete with personality conflicts and ego clashes among the brain trust, to go along with a perfect storm of personal foibles by numerous players.

“I don’t have answers for you,” offensive lineman Joe Staley said. “We do, but we’re not going to spill all them out there for you guys to write stories about them. It’s not fun. This is my life.”

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, to whom Harbaugh is inextricably linked, had even fewer answers. Once regarded as a prototype of the quarterback of the future — big and strong and mobile — Kaepernick has regressed alarmingly this season.

Though he showed flashes of the danger in his legs Sunday, he threw for just 141 yards. Kaepernick still has not thrown for a fourth-quarter touchdown this season, and his future is in limbo along with Harbaugh’s.

“It’s not something I can fully wrap my mind around why that would be the situation,’’ Kaepernick said of Harbaugh’s tenuous hold on the 49ers’ job. “But he has my full support no matter if he is here or somewhere else. I hope he is back here, and I think he is a great coach.”

Kaepernick, who has become known for his recalcitrant behavior with reporters, was low-key but responsive after the game.

“I think that everyone had high expectations, especially ourselves, and to not have this season go as we planned is tough for us,” Kaepernick said.

With all that intrigue bubbling under the surface, the game Sunday had an undeniable end-of-an-era feel to it. It is notable that Pete Carroll has heaped praise upon Harbaugh this week, even calling him a “stud” in a conference call with Bay Area reporters.

For all the talk about the friction between the two, I sense Carroll will genuinely miss these matchups and the realization he had to coax the best out of his team to come out on top. It’s the sort of challenge Carroll legitimately loves.

It appeared the two shared a warm moment after the game, old adversaries for whom even their occasional disputes were built around mutual respect.

As a Seahawks foil, Harbaugh has been a great one. I have a feeling we’re going to miss him when he’s gone — khakis, awkwardness and all.

Offensive struggles carry over
The 49ers have been struggling on offense, a trend that continued Sunday. Here’s how they fared on 49 drives in their previous five games, compared to Sunday’s game against Seattle:
CategorySF drives entering Sundayvs. Seahawks on Sunday
Punts255
Turnovers90
Field goals90
Touchdowns41
Turn over on downs12
Missed field goals10


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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives his take on the local and national sports scene.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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