IPPOLITO: 49ers’ Dread Forced Out Harbaugh
The Water Cooler

The race to absurdity that is the 2016 presidential election has produced many memorable quotes with bold assertions and sparse facts that consistently raise eyebrows. In the sports world, we call these types of declarations hot takes.

The boldest assertion this fall may have been made this week not by Hillary Clinton on the stump or on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, but by Aaron Lynch, a linebacker for the one-win San Francisco 49ers. When pressed on the team’s one win and their 30th ranked defense, Lynch opined, “We possibly have one of the best teams in the NFL, easily. Hands down.”

There is a laundry list of reasons why Lynch is wrong, but those are largely out of his control—the problem is with management. The 49ers committed themselves to failure when they made the massive mistake of choosing to part with former Head Coach Jim Harbaugh and retain general manager Trent Baalke. When in conflict, a team should choose to keep a coach over an executive.

Four seasons ago, the 49ers competed in the Super Bowl and were just a few plays away from winning the franchise’s sixth title. Now, San Francisco is a basement dweller in the standings and, were it not for the Browns or Bears, a laughingstock in the NFL. There is little doubt that Harbaugh was a big part of San Francisco’s success . Harbaugh had previously turned Stanford from a college football punching bag into Orange Bowl champions and legitimate contenders in what was then the Pac-10 Conference.

Harbaugh is currently leading a renaissance at Michigan, his alma mater, and has guided the Wolverines to second in the Associated Press poll behind Alabama. Harbaugh also turned around the 49ers. Before his arrival in 2011, it had been eight seasons since the team had last had a winning record and made the playoffs—Harbaugh never finished with a losing record in his four seasons. There is little dispute that regardless of the level of competition, Harbaugh is a proven winner with techniques that teach losers how to win.

Obviously, Harbaugh does not deserve all of the credit for turning around San Francisco. Talent evaluation, personnel development, and inheritance all played a role in making the 49ers the contenders again. In the early stages of his tenure, GM Trent Baalke was relatively decent as his job. He led the 49ers draft process in 2010 and drafted standout players NaVorro Bowman and offensive lineman Mike Iupati, who have both made multiple Pro-Bowls and at least one AP First Team All-Pro selections. Baalke also drafted Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback during San Francisco’s Super bowl run. Outside of those picks, however, high-quality talent has been scarce in San Francisco.

In free agency, Baalke has failed to lure in top-quality talent and the 49ers suffered a unique retirement problem before the 2015 season when four relatively high-profile players announced they were hanging up their cleats. Budding star offensive tackle Anthony Davis joined All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis calling it quits and Justin Smith, a five-time Pro-Bowl defensive end also retired leaving gaping voids that Baalke didn’t fill then and hasn’t filled now.

Baalke’s replacements for Harbaugh have been abysmal. Last year, Jim Tomsula guided the club to a 5-11 record and averaged fewer than 15 points per game. As a replacement, Baalke brought in Chip Kelly after being fired by the Eagles and the results haven’t been much different; though the offense is better, the defense can’t stop anyone and the 49ers are racking up losses. Maybe Willis, Smith and Davis were onto something. In short, the writing is on the wall that Baalke, whose contract ends after this season, should not return to San Francisco, as he took a situation with one of the best coaches in all of football with Kaepernick, a quarterback full of potential, and pile drove it into the ground.

It may be extremely difficult to find quality talent evaluators in the NFL—even though there are 32 teams there certainly are not 32 quality general managers. It is even harder, however, to find coaches who can take the personnel they are given and maximize results. General managers are also not unique in the sense that they are not the only evaluators of talent, but coaches are the play callers and strategy architects.

A good general manager and coach will both be committed to winning—Baalke was committed to Baalke or, at least, winning the Baalke way. Harbaugh’s career illustrates that he can win wherever he coaches and that his system works. Baalke had no such previous success and much less football credibility than Harbaugh, even before the super bowl season.

It is puzzling then, that ownership would side with and continue to back a general manager who has proven to be ineffective even after he got his wish of removing Harbaugh. The only one left is Baalke and in a sport where you are what your record says you are, he and the 49ers are just bad.

In a way, I feel bad for Aaron Lynch because like so many 49ers’ fans, he has been deceived into thinking that the 49ers were built to contend. If San Francisco cared about winning, Jim Harbaugh never would have been forced to leave.

Michael Ippolito is a senior in the College. The Water Cooler appears every Friday. 

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