It’s a simple question that sports fans always find themselves asking. What if Steve Bartman got stuck in traffic on his way to Wrigley Field in 2003? What if the Portland Trail Blazers picked Michael Jordan over Sam Bowie? It’s always fun to fantasize with friends and fans what could have been in the world of sports. But for the San Francisco 49ers, the question is a bit more serious.
What if the 49ers held on to defeat the Seattle Seahawks this past January?
They would have a second straight appearance in the Super Bowl. They may have finally completed their quest for a sixth Lombardi Trophy. That shiny, new trophy would give general manager Trent Baalke and the rest of the 49ers front office reason enough to hand coach Jim Harbaugh a fat contract extension.
Players like Colin Kaepernick and Vernon Davis would make appearances on almost every talk show and become the toast of the NFL. And to top it all off, the 49ers could have opened up Levi’s Stadium in style, unveiling their sixth Super Bowl banner to start the season on national television. Things could have been pretty sweet for the red and gold, but instead they face a reality that is harsher than anything they could have possibly imagined.
In a traditional offseason, most NFL pundits would probably agree that the 49ers have been successful in 2014. They filled the void left by Donte Whitner by adding safety Antoine Bethea, found a new slot receiver after trading for Stevie Johnson, they re-signed wide receiver Anquan Boldin and had one of the best drafts in NFL.
Yet the San Francisco 49ers’ offseason still feels like a letdown to many fans thanks to off the field controversy. What was once a franchise regarded as one of the classiest and strongest in football now finds itself being compared to teams like the Cincinnati Bengals thanks to the legal troubles some players have faced during the course of the offseason. It’s not just the players that have been a source controversy, even coach Jim Harbaugh has found himself in the middle of trade rumors thanks to some alleged unrest between himself and Trent Baalke. It’s safe to say that this is not the way the 49ers wanted to begin their new era in Santa Clara.
Coach Harbaugh seemed to reach a breaking point during the team’s mandatory mini camp earlier this month thanks to two of the team’s best players, tight end Vernon Davis and guard Alex Boone, holding out for more favorable contracts. According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, Harbaugh called their decision to sit out “not the decision I envision being the 49er way.”
For Harbaugh not to have team leaders like Davis and Boone at mini camp with rookies and new teammates is understandably frustrating. What’s curious then is in one of the most turbulent offseasons the team has ever experienced, why are these cases being singled out as not being “the 49er way”? Where was this discussion of “the 49er way” during the two month police investigation involving franchise quarterback Colin Kaepernick? While nothing came of the possible sexual assault allegations, it’s hard to believe that handing Kaepernick a sizeable contract extension in the middle of such an investigation isn’t a good representation of “the 49er way”.
Or what about Aldon Smith’s continuous bad behavior off the field? And what of the supposedly strained relationship between Harbaugh and Baalke? While there has not been any damning evidence to prove their relationship is on the rocks, where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. Whatever “the 49er way” is, the message doesn’t seem to be very consistent.
This coming season was supposed to be the beginning of a new era for 49ers football, but it may very well be the end of one if things don’t work out. Whether it’s Trent Baalke or Jim Harbaugh, there’s a chance that no matter what happens this season that the current GM/head coach relationship for the 49ers will split, reasons for which were laid out very nicely by Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News.
If the 49ers want to cap off the Baalke/Harbaugh era, which has been one of the most successful even in their storied franchise’s history, with a Super Bowl victory, there may never be a better time than the present. While the current roster assembled is as good as any the team has seen in the Harbaugh era, competition from division rivals like the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, the surprisingly good Arizona Cardinals and the suddenly solid St. Louis Rams makes the San Francisco 49ers next quest for six, let alone a quest for a playoff berth, more difficult than ever.
For the 49ers to find success in 2014, it is going to take more than a healthy NaVorro Bowman or an improved offensive air attack. For the 49ers to stay competitive in 2014 their actions must match their words, and “the 49er way”, whatever that way may be, must stay consistent throughout the organization.
Jim Harbaugh had some stern words for his players in a team meeting at the end of their June mini-camp according to Bill Williamson of ESPN.com, saying “Beware with whom you associate…Friend or foe? There always seem to be a foe. Get in football position. See around corners, under doors, and anticipate. But mainly surround yourselves around good people.”
Harbaugh’s message is a big step in the right direction, but as this offseason has shown time and time again, actions always speak louder than words. If Jim Harbaugh and the rest of the San Francisco 49ers’ actions produce winning football come September though, fans won’t really care about any of the negative words said throughout this tumultuous offseason.