Ian Rapoport and Deion Sanders, two employees of the NFL’s own network, say they’ve talked to people who say Jim Harbaugh is losing the locker room. Trent Dilfer, who once called Trent Baalke “the best general manager in football” and added “I don’t know if second place is very close,” expelled some hot air onto the fire with his comments on ESPN Radio.
“I do think it’s become almost toxic,” said Dilfer, who kept going.
“Offensively,” Dilfer continued, “it’s frenetic, it’s spitball, it’s ugly, it’s horrible clock management. I mean unexcusable clock management. Lack of energy by offensive players. Series ended and there was no communication, guys slouching their shoulders, just bad body language.”
He later clarified his remarks on SportsCenter and 95.7 The Game, saying he was referring to the offense as being toxic, not the locker room. So, um, nothing to see here … except Harbaugh is in charge of the offense (with all due respect to Greg Roman) and Dilfer effectively said the environment on the field was toxic — which is probably worse than a toxic locker room, right?
Dilfer still has ties to the 49ers and either has or had a good relationship with Jed York. That goodwill does not extend to Harbaugh, however. Both Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick were clearly bothered when faced with questions about Dilfer’s assessment of Kaepernick as a “remedial passer” last season.
The unknown list of replacements
We’ve heard rumblings about players getting sick of Harbaugh for a while, but there isn’t a player (or group of players) on that roster with enough sway to get him fired. Someone in the organization wants Harbaugh out, but it’s not as easy as firing him over the phone like the Raiders did with Dennis Allen last night. Allen was 8-28. Harbaugh is 43-16-1 including playoff games. Fans aren’t looking for another option. In fact, they’re living in fear of another Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan or Mike Singletary.
Jim Tomsula is well liked, and everyone loves the open collar + gold chain combo, but the 49ers have done just fine with him as a defensive line coach. Roman — whether this is fair or not — isn’t incredibly popular. Vic Fangio is highly respected, but would he want to deal with the media grind and politics? Would David Shaw want to be seen as the guy who can be counted on to clean Harbaugh’s plate after he leaves the table? Old fan favorites like Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan, men with impressive resumes who used to offensively coordinate for the 49ers, are, well, old.
That leaves retreads, no-name coordinators, a big-name college guy like Bob Stoops, and Jon Gruden. And most Raiders fans I’ve talked to would rather have Harbaugh than Gruden.
The “Faithful” believe in Harbaugh, but the jury is still out on the Yorks
Harbaugh isn’t like most employees, who’ll eventually quit if you make their lives difficult enough. BREAKING: Harbaugh is stubborn, and known to embrace chaos and conflict. He sees all these rumors as “outside” challenges, which might possibly even help in his efforts to galvanize and “unite, unite, unite” the team.
So if the decision makers in Santa Clara are sick of Harbaugh — and that seems rather obvious, with all the stories we’ve heard over the past year — they’re going to need to fire him. Here’s the problem with that (besides paying him $5 million next year to not coach the team): the vast majority of 49ers fans will absolutely lose their minds.
Case in point:
Yes, this exists. People buy and happily wear this t-shirt (available in multiple colors) depicting a man wearing a black fleece pullover tucked into khakis. People dress up as Harbaugh for Halloween — a ridiculous number of people, actually. The 49ers had a horrendous stretch of football, to the point where fans wondered if they were paying for all the Super Bowls won from 1982 to 1995. Younger fans wondered if they were born too late — if they’d ever enjoy professional football while rooting for this franchise (“Thanks a lot, mom and dad!”). The Yorks thought they could do better than Steve Mariucci and Jeff Garcia, and the opposite was true until Harbaugh left Stanford and started molding a winner during a lockout-shortened offseason, and the 2011 season saw the players and fans start to believe more and more with each game, almost in unison.
Fans who couldn’t stand Alex Smith, Vernon Davis and the Yorks for years suddenly loved everything associated with the franchise. But if Harbaugh is fired, and the reason is because feelings were hurt and the suits weren’t comfortable, get ready for backlash. Fans are Singletarys. They. Want. Winners. They also like to be entertained, and Harbaugh is without question the most fascinating figure in the region. Notice I didn’t even say “sports figure.” Name a Bay Area celebrity, athlete, coach, chef, politician or musician who triggers more conversations than Mr. Sharpie.
I can’t. However, I live in a ridiculous sports bubble — I may be the last person who should make such proclamations.
Tear down from within (and hope the fans start to sympathize)
But Jed York, John York, Denise Debartolo York, Trent Baalke and Paraag Marathe aren’t dumb. They know a Harbaugh trade to Cleveland would’ve been disastrous before the opening of Levi’s Stadium. And many believe the expedited creation of that facility was aided Harbaugh’s presence — similar to how Barry Bonds, not exactly the most agreeable person either, has been credited with helping “build” AT&T Park.
That perception, and Harbaugh’s outsized celebrity, might provide a couple more reasons why certain members of the organization would want him gone. But they have to know that most fans couldn’t care less about the egos of those who do nothing on Sunday, Monday or Thursday to affect the final score. Fans also don’t put much thought into whether players are content. This isn’t the NBA, where fans would give their own blood if it meant their favorite team had a better a shot at landing LeBron James. Fans went from loving Vernon Davis to complaining about him nonstop to loving him again over the span of one offseason. Despite Davis’ immense physical talent, he’s easier to replace than a coach like Harbaugh.
But until the 49ers become a losing team, player discontent — whether real or highly exaggerated — is the organization’s only weapon. They can pray Harbaugh gets an itch to become King of Ann Arbor. But the chances of Harbaugh leaving the NFL without reaching the pinnacle would equal him saying, “I couldn’t beat Pete Carroll or my brother.” That sounds about as likely as Harbaugh congratulating a reporter for asking how he and Roman plan to attack Seattle’s defense on Thanksgiving.
No, their only hope is that Harbaugh either loses control of things to the point where they miss the playoffs (“It became clear that we needed to make a change.”) or the team wins a Super Bowl THIS YEAR. After that, the 49ers could either …
1. Let bygones be bygones and sign him to an extension that pays him $1 more a year than Carroll.
2. Watch Harbaugh quit and become the most coveted free agent football coach ever.
If we want to get really diabolical, maybe certain sources are leaking “reports” to encourage locker room toxicity, in hopes that a still-talented roster can underperform for one season. Then the 49ers get a new coach to slide in and make everyone feel better — someone who’ll smile at Jed in the hallway, high-five Baalke after he drafts someone with a torn ACL, and let the players play poker on the team plane while listening to music at the same volume as the crowd noise on the speakers at CenturyLink Field.
Everyone would feel better! Except the fans, especially the ones who attend Levi’s. It’s an expensive place to watch a game (maybe the most expensive, depending on what kind of football experience you prefer), and those who pay for the SBLs, tickets, parking, bottled water, beer and food expect nothing short of the very best on that stretch of green grass. And they, along with all the fans who watch on TV, will compare any new hire to Erickson, Nolan and Singletary. Good luck to the 49ers’ next head coach if he ditches the sweatshirt and khakis and wears a suit and tie on the sidelines.