The 49ers’ Domino Effect

Betray us once — shame on you. Betray us twice — we all leave your team.

In the past few months, the 49ers experienced the largest exodus of players and coaches that the league has seen in over a decade. In what has been a hurricane of an offseason, the 49ers have lost an elite coach, a hall of fame linebacker, and the franchises’ leading rusher. Here’s a quick recap of what’s gone down:

The Good

  • Greg Roman — and his uninspired play design — getting shipped to Buffalo
  • Michael Crabtree, who hasn’t been the same since tearing his Achilles (and in all honesty, he wasn’t even all that great before), being allowed to test free agency; failing.
  • Domestic Violence offender Ray McDonald being released.
  • Trying to create a dynamic offense by signing Reggie Bush and Torrey Smith.

The Bad

  • Jim Harbaugh returning home to Ann Arbor as Michigan’s next head coach.
  • The “other” Jim — former D-line coach Jim Tomsula getting promoted to head coach.
  • Vic Fangio heading to Chicago.
  • Frank Gore signing with the Colts
  • Patrick Willis’ sudden retirement.
  • Rookie Chris Borland’s even more sudden retirement.
  • Cutting Stevie Johnson.
  • The possibility of Justin Smith’s retirement.
  • Allowing Mike Iupati to join the Cardinals.
  • Inexplicably signing Jerome Simpson.

If you were counting, that’s FIVE playmakers who are no longer on the roster. Considering the value of Gore and Willis as locker room leaders and huge marketing assets, this has become a team without an identity overnight.

When the Collapse Began

It’d be easy to say that all of the latter events are just a result of bad luck, but I think that there is a single event that this chain reaction can be traced to:

The year was 2012, and the 49ers were fresh off their first NFC Championship appearance in over ten years. #1 overall pick Alex Smith had experienced a career revival under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. The Niners had just completed one of the most dominant defensive campaigns in years, but the offense had a noticeable flaw in the passing game.

However, things were looking up to start the 2012 season. Halfway through the season, Alex Smith was the third rated quarterback in the league, had the highest completion percentage in the league, and the 49ers were 6–2.

Then, the St. Louis game happened. Smith was concussed in the second quarter, a relative unknown named Colin Kaepernick took over and the 2ndyear QB would lead the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance against the Ravens.

Now, here’s the important part: The way that the front office handled the quarterback controversy was the beginning of the end for the 49ers.

An unwritten rule of sports is that no player should lose his starting spot because of an injury. The way that the 49ers dumped Smith for Kap (after previously trying to dump him for Peyton Manning) and traded him to Kansas City before he could even try to win his job back revealed one of the major themes of the modern 49ers: When it comes to the front office having things their way, there is no honor.

Sure, the NFL is a business, but don’t you think that Frank Gore or Justin Smith were at least a little troubled by how cold Jed Yorke and Trent Baalke were to Alex Smith?

This was a man who — like Gore and Smith — stuck with the 49ers through some dark, losing seasons. With this in mind from the perspective of veterans, it’s very understandable how the locker room could have been a bit edgy from that point onwards.

Here’s what former UCLA Basketball coach Ben Howland told me: “The hardest thing to get back from a person once you’ve lost it is their trust”.

From the attempted courting of Peyton Manning, to Smith being sent to the Chiefs, the players no longer trusted Jim Harbaugh or the Niners front office.

The lack of trust started to show during the 2014 season. The NFL soon caught up to the read-option trend, and revealed Kap’s shortcomings as a passer. The 49ers were struggling as a team, which dissolved the all-curing effects of winning and revealed some ugly tensions. Reports were sprouting up that Harbaugh was losing the locker room, which players and coaches alike transparently and half-heartedly debunked.

As we all know, the reality TV show stars known as the 49ers would go on to miss the playoffs for the first time in three years.

What was Jed York and company’s solution to this losing season?

Finally giving Jim Harbaugh control of player personnel, like Pete Carroll has in Seattle?


Hiring a new offensive coordinator?


Re-tooling the offense by signing a receiver who isn’t over the age of 27?


Sending Alex Smith a dozen flowers that spell out the words “I’m Sorry”?

Yeah right.

Then what?

Firing one of the best coaches in football.

Firing Jim Harbaugh officially let the floodgates open. The saying is that “winning cures all”. Allowing a coach who almost single-handedly revived your franchise to return to college was the final nail in the coffin. The message from Jed York was clear: My way, or the highway.

This explains why several players chose the latter. Many knew that the writing was on the wall, and decided to leave on their own terms rather than suffer a fate similar to Alex Smith’s. What’s the point in Patrick Willis or Justin Smith continuing to abuse their bodies in search of a championship if the front office clearly doesn’t have the same intentions? If they did, Harbaugh would still be in town, Mike Iupati would be paid, and Tomsula would have remained where he belongs — as a position coach.

However, all is not lost (yet)

I think that Chris Borland’s retirement was the straw that broke the camel’s back in regards to the 49ers’ chances next season. He was a great talent with a lot of potential, but you can’t blame the guy for considering his long-term health.

However, believe it or not, there is still some hope in San Francisco…or Santa Clara.

The 49ers still (somehow) have one of the best linebacker corps in the league with Navorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, Michael Wilhoite, Aldon Smith, and second-year player Aaron Lynch. Eric Reid is one of the more talented younger safeties in the league, and Antoine Bethea filled in great opposite of Reid.

Jimmie Ward….er, actually, I’ll get back to you on that one.

Glenn Dorsey is returning, and Darnell Docket was signed from the Cardinals.

In terms of the offense, signing Reggie Bush could be a low-cost-astronomically-high-reward move. Carlos Hyde was clearly a more explosive runner than Frank Gore last season, but Gore’s pass-blocking is going to be tough to replace. Slasher Kendall Hunter is also returning.

Signing Torrey Smith could give Kap the deep threat that he’s always lacked, and — more importantly — allow Vernon Davis to become relevant again.

One thing that Baalke and York can get credit for is the way they draft. Hopefully, the duo can finally draft a game-changing receiver like Dorial Green-Beckham (please, PLEASE) to help out an offense that has sputtered the past two years.

The pieces are in place for an interesting 2015 campaign. I can’t say for sure whether it’ll be good or bad, so I’ll settle on that: It’s going to be interesting.

It all comes down to who’s calling the shots now, and filling in the shoes of a man who pulled off three-straight NFC championship appearances.

No pressure, Tomsula.

Thanks for reading!



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Originally published at on April 7, 2015.