The San Francisco 49ers did an awful lot of winning under Jim Harbaugh, which made every loss they faced seem so much more insurmountable. Harbaugh’s team took a couple very rough beats between 2011 and 2014, but one of them now stands out as the defining loss to which you could trace every fallen domino involved in the “mutual parting of ways” with Harbaugh.
Four losses are fairly obvious for the sake of this discussion — each from a different year of Harbaugh’s tenure — and most people will readily point to the Thanksgiving night loss to the Seahawks as the straw that broke the camel’s back. They may be right about it being the last straw, but then it couldn’t have been the first thread to get loose and unravel.
Nor could the 2011 NFC Championship loss to the Giants be the beginning of the end. The 49ers bounced back in 2012 impressively, returning to the NFC Championship for a second-straight year and advancing to the Super Bowl, which they would obviously lose.
But I don’t think that Super Bowl loss was the defining moment either. Sure, reports of Harbaugh wanting to be paid like a Super Bowl-winning coach without actually winning one surfaced following this loss, but his departure was apparently about philosophical differences, not financial ones.
And again, the 49ers bounced back. They were a resilient bunch for every round of Harbaugh’s prize fight … except for the fourth one.
It was the Seahawks who delivered the knockout punch in the 2013 NFC Championship Game. I’ve described it as the apocalypse for 49ers fans: they got beaten by their most hated rivals, in their house, one step from a shot at a championship and on a play made by their most hated player. Then said hated rival went on to destroy the AFC’s representative and host a championship parade.
Even given the 49ers’ head start towards relevancy in 2011, the Seahawks rallied past them and took the race, while the 49ers tripped on their own shoelace and fell flat on their face.
Adding injury to insult was the loss of NaVorro Bowman in that game and for every subsequent game of the 2014 season. It was like an injured reserve appetizer for what was to come for the 49ers this past season. Who knows how much differently things could have gone for this team if Bowman was healthy; it wouldn’t have solved the offense’s problems, but then again, the offense wasn’t Oregon in 2011 or 2012 either.
And finally, all the fun with Harbaugh really began in the offseason following the NFC Championship debacle in Seattle. The Browns report, the whispers of discontent, the rumors of inevitable firings: it all showed up last spring.
I could be mistaking a temporal sequence for a cause here, and again, it’s just an opinion. I’m not arguing that Harbaugh was as good as done in Jed York’s eyes following that game, because if he was, he would have been fired then. But my earlier analogy illustrates what happened that night in January well: a thread came loose on the 49ers, and that thread would end up pulling the entire Harbaugh tenure apart.