Here is a link to my Monday column about Jim Harbaugh making his exit stage left. The full text runs below:
Jed York and Jim Harbaugh talked at midfield Sunday before the 49ers defeated the Arizona Cardinals 20-17 in the final game of the season, a game that didn’t matter for the home team, the home team already eliminated from the playoffs. York and Harbaugh talked for everyone to see. You would have thought they were friends.
It was a theatrical moment, both playing a part — that they were two men with a common purpose and a common vision. They seemed to like each other. Forget that York appeared to undermine his coach all season. On the field, they moved toward each other and exchanged a manly hug, and then they walked away from each other dripping sweetness.
A few hours later, the 49ers issued a news release: They and Harbaugh had “mutually agreed to part ways.” Harbaugh won’t serve the final year of his contract and, according to the release, “Harbaugh is now free to consider his next coaching opportunity without any constraints.”
That implies he can pursue jobs in the NFL, although it has been widely reported he will become coach at the University of Michigan.
What are we left with?
Great memories of the Harbaugh era that, in retrospect, was a blip, over just after it began. It was hardly an era. It was an extended moment.
We are left wondering what went wrong. For four seasons — even counting this disappointing non-playoff season — Harbaugh has been a winner and a coaching superstar. His record was an astonishing 49-22-1, including playoffs. He won two NFC championships. He went to the Super Bowl. He rescued the 49ers from nothingness. And the Niners couldn’t wait to kick him out the door. The reasons are unclear, puzzling and troubling.
We are left with a sense of disillusion, of promise squandered. We are left with proof yet again that human beings can ruin a good thing.
Mostly, we are left with hopelessness.
Hopelessness is a new theme, a new way for the Harbaugh Niners to end a season. He had been the emissary of hope from the day the 49ers introduced him in an inaugural ceremony in the ballroom of a San Francisco hotel. Harbaugh was the bringer of hope. He is the man who chanted to his players, “Who has it better than us?” And the players would reply in one voice, “Nobody.”
The players and ownership and fans really believed no one had it better than they did, believed it for Harbaugh’s first three seasons. Asked now who has it better than them, the players could reply, “Almost everybody.”
Bitter disappointment has been a theme in the Harbaugh era. Harbaugh’s Niners have ended seasons almost going all the way, but not going all the way, until this season when they are going nowhere. Strangely, miraculously, the bitter disappointment contained hope. There always was a reason to believe in next time.
Harbaugh’s first season — 2011-2012 — ended with poor Kyle Williams fumbling a punt in overtime in the NFC championship game at Candlestick Park. The Giants got the ball and won the game, and went to the Super Bowl and won that, too.
The 49ers organization could tell itself — did tell itself — the Niners were one play away from going to the Super Bowl and if they had gone, they would have been champions.
Call that hope living in bitter disappointment.
The following season, the 49ers went to the Super Bowl and were driving for the win at the end. They didn’t get the win because quarterback Colin Kaepernick repeatedly missed receiver Michael Crabtree in the right corner of the end zone. Those passes have become notorious in 49ers’ lore. And again the 49ers told themselves they were one play away.
Hope in bitter disappointment.
It was more than hope. The 49ers came to training camp in 2013 as if they had won the Super Bowl, sure they were the best team in football. You would have thought they were Super Bowl champions. They were the first Super Bowl loser that actually won the Super Bowl. It was a most unusual phenomenon.
And in the 2013 NFC championship game — their third time there in three seasons under Harbaugh — the 49ers were driving for the win in Seattle when Richard Sherman knocked away yet another potentially game-winning pass to frustrated Crabtree in the end zone, knocked the ball to a teammate. And the Niners were history. Again, they were one play away.
And again hope lived in bitter disappointment, the good and the bad of life contending with each other.
Hope officially died this season. There is no wait-till-next-year optimism, no way for the 49ers to talk themselves out of an 8-8 record — so ordinary.
Next year brings a new start, but hardly a fresh start — this team is old, the rest of the division is rapidly improving around the 49ers, the offense in general and the quarterback in particular need major repair. Kaepernick was such a disappointment on and off the field, although lately his manners have improved. The team needs more speed, needs more ideas, needs to get better, needs mature leadership.
After the game, Harbaugh came to the auditorium for his final postgame news conference as coach of the 49ers. “You work at the pleasure of the organization,” he said. Clearly, he had displeased, although he was smiling and easygoing. A man rushing toward his next adventure.
“You do your best,” he said in his valedictory moment. “If your best is not appreciated, you do it, anyway.”
A few minutes earlier — just before the game ended — players Quinton Patton and Nick Moody had drenched Harbaugh with a Gatorade shower. And safety Craig Dahl, who had intercepted a pass from Cardinals’ quarterback Ryan Lindley, putting away the game, ran over to Harbaugh and presented him the ball. Those three players and all the players, including Anquan Boldin, Kaepernick and Frank Gore, were honoring Harbaugh’s tenure and paying homage.
The Gatorade stain on the field dried up in a few minutes. An era evaporated just like that.
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