Opinion: How the Jim Harbaugh-49ers relationship soured
Santa Clara, Calif. -- So, with the reality striking, a lot of people are asking a fair question, as the season comes to a close and nobody in the organization comes close to denying that Jim Harbaugh is destined to be the ex-coach of the 49ers very rapidly:
Why did this happen to a coach who revitalized the franchise immediately after his arrival and then brought them to three straight NFC championship games and one Super Bowl?
If Harbaugh is about to become one of the most sought-after coaches in football once the 49ers move on from him, why would the 49ers, you know, actually move on from him?
This is a good time to go back over the root causes and fundamental disconnecting issues between Harbaugh, owner Jed York and GM Trent Baalke, and believe me, those are the three people who matter in this drama.
Team president Paraag Marathe and true owner Denise DeBartolo York could have roles, but it's beyond doubt that Jed York and Baalke are the main players here.
And they both decided long ago that the only way they'd keep Harbaugh as their coach into 2015 is if he won the Super Bowl this season -- which was a situation that Harbaugh tacitly understood and didn't mind.
Everybody in 49ers HQ was willing to bet the future of this franchise on the outcome of 2014. Now look at what happened ...
OK, let's backtrack a bit.
Way back in February, I went over the issues that opened the Harbaugh-49ers schism, which had just been exposed for public view after it was revealed that the 49ers had at least brief conversations with the Browns to trade Harbaugh.
That was about as clear a signal as you could get: The 49ers were willing to talk about trading the coach who had just led them within a play of beating Seattle in the NFC title game and the tepid denials of this story only made it clearer.
York and Baalke were getting tired of Harbaugh and he was also just a bit itchy to try somewhere else with an owner and GM who weren't so tired of him.
Nine months later, it has all played out just about as you could've expected from that storyline. But let's try to simplify and clarify for the here and now ...
How did it come to this?
1. For the last two offseasons, York and Harbaugh held brief discussions about a contract extension beyond the 2015 season, but nothing has ever come close to a deal.
The closer a big-name coach comes to the end of his deal, the more pressure builds about his future. And with Harbaugh -- the face of the franchise -- that turned 2014 into a virtual lame-duck year.
Even though he's signed for another year, just getting close to that final year turned up the heat on all sides to get it done before it ever got close to 2015 ... or else it'd be a sign that Harbaugh wasn't making it to 2015.
2. Harbaugh can be a bumpy, erratic personality and York had reasons to wonder if he wanted Harbaugh around for much longer than four years, anyway.
Some players might've started to think that, too.
3. Baalke can be a bumpy, uncompromising personality, too.
Neither man is in this to make friends -- but Baalke is a much smoother political player than you'd expect and he has moved into total control of the 49ers operation as Harbaugh's relationship with York faltered.
So Baalke and Harbaugh have had many tussles and Baalke and York have gotten weary of the tussling.
4. There is nobody in the front office capable of buffering the two men, especially after the departure of former player personnel director Tom Gamble.
That could've been York's role but he chose Baalke very clearly as his long-term guy. (Baalke was given an extension in February 2012 that took his deal through 2016, very pointedly one year longer than Harbaugh's deal.)
5. Baalke and York decided they couldn't meet Harbaugh's price for an extension until and unless he won a Super Bowl.
They believed Harbaugh did a lot of very good things for the franchise and remains a very good coach, but the probable thinking was: Why give Harbaugh a five-year extension at $8-10M a year when he was burning through his relationships and they might want to fire him almost immediately anyway?
But they also knew Harbaugh would never take less than top money.
Harbaugh knew he'd never take less, especially with that $1.3B stadium rising next door to the team HQ and the gushers of cash flowing into the Yorks' coffers because of it.
6. When talks broke off last offseason, in many ways, both sides knew that might be the last time they ever talked about a new deal
7. Last offseason, York and Baalke seriously and realistically began to plot a future without Harbaugh -- and that plotting started to leak out.
That's why Cleveland GM Mike Lombardi and president Joe Banner -- both since dismissed -- thought they might have a chance at trading for Harbaugh and by the way Lombardi is a friend of Harbaugh's and Lombardi's son works as a 49ers coaching assistant.
And when Cleveland called, York was willing to go down that road until Harbaugh told him not to.
During the 2013 season, York asked Harbaugh if he wanted to go to Texas or USC and Harbaugh said he wanted to stay.
So this has clearly been on York's mind for a while. He didn't envision Harbaugh coaching this team for much longer and once the owner starts thinking like that, every new personal grievance just goes onto the list of "reasons he'll be gone soon."
8. Once the Cleveland trade conversation was reported, York and Baalke tried to pretend everything would be fine for 2014, but it wasn't.
Harbaugh knew his bosses were thinking about a future without him, probably with defensive line coach Jim Tomsula as the new coach.
York and Baalke knew the clock was running down on Harbaugh's tenure, unless he won a Super Bowl this season.
And everything about the team and the locker room started to feel unstable.
9. While York and Baalke settled in to start the 2014 season, one or both of them (or another front office member) couldn't help but try to justify their feelings about Harbaugh to national media members.
That happened regularly throughout the season and triggered more distrust between all parties, stirred up more pent-up resentment, and completely unraveled the chemistry of the season.
The season might've turned out this way no matter what -- all the top-level injuries, the Colin Kaepernick struggles -- but it wouldn't have had this weight to it from the outset if hadn't been destabilized by the constant chatter.
10. When the season started to sputter, there was nowhere else to go. Harbaugh couldn't bond with Baalke, because that relationship is toast. York couldn't mediate the two sides, because his relationship with Harbaugh is even worse.
The 2014 season certainly hasn't been Harbaugh's best coaching performance -- the offense has taken a large step backward.
Many of Baalke's recent personnel decisions have been questionable -- some of the key veterans declined rapidly this season or were lost to injury and the young guys weren't quite ready to take up the entire slack.
York has been a cipher, not a leader.
All of this started almost a year ago. Somebody could've stopped it. Nobody did. This is actually how all three principals set it up, intentionally or not.
And here they all are. Ready for the end.