The winter of the Niners’ discontent

Jim Harbaugh in his Stanford days.   Is the coach college-bound once again?

Jim Harbaugh in his Stanford days. Is the coach college-bound once again?

It’s with a heavy heart that I speculate about the future of my San Francisco 49ers.

How is it that a team that was so strong could become so lackluster with virtually the same personnel that went to the Super Bowl in 2013 and lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs this year – a game that many considered the real Super Bowl given how badly the Denver Broncos would play against the Seahawks in the actual Super Bowl?

But that was yesterday, and that is sport, as Novak Djokovic likes to say. In life, you’re only as good as your present success, and that’s never truer than in sport where teams mystifyingly rise and fall, sometimes within a season.

What role has Coach Jim Harbaugh played in all this – he of the dad corduroys and the heart-on-his-sleeve temperament? The seeds of his exit may have been sown in 2012 when he sought to get rid of quarterback Alex Smith – at first surreptitiously and then overtly after Smith suffered a concussion and was replaced by Colin Kaepernick, who took the team all the way to the Super Bowl.

Oh, the ironies: The Niners originally chose Smith over his high school rival Aaron Rodgers, who, miffed, went off to the Green Bay Packers – and legend.  What if they had chosen Rodgers instead? Would I even be writing this post?

Colin is a mystery even to people like me who adore him. Brilliant, beautiful and hostile to a media that alternately fawns over and taunts him, he spent the off-season giving TMZ ammunition for a false date-rape charge by the company he kept. His curt responses to the local beat reporters, who try to ingratiate themselves as their job success depends in part on the team’s good will, do him no credit and will no doubt earn him no sympathy now that his season has headed south.  

How much of the Niners’ downward spiral is Colin’s fault and how much is it a mix of other circumstances – the failure of the O-line to protect him; his transition from a running quarterback to a traditional pocket passer; the tension between Harbaugh – waith whom he seems to have a symbiotic relationship – and teammates who were incensed at the way the coach dumped Smith?

No doubt these all played their part in knocking the team out of the playoffs and signaling changes. Already defensive end Ray McDonald is gone, thanks to a sexual assault charge, although he played this season even after being arrested for abusing his pregnant fiancée. (No charges were filed.)

Harbaugh himself might wind up coaching the University of Michigan team or the Oakland Raiders, the Niners’ lowly rivals, who nonetheless managed to beat them in this the winter of the Niners’ discontent. (I jokingly told my uncle that I’d be willing to step into Harbaugh’s shoes. The first thing I’d do would be to give each player a copy of Robert Fagles’ translation of “The Iliad,” which we would read and discuss as part of an anger management course I’d institute. The second thing I’d do is hire a yoga coach, also for anger/stress management and flexibility.  No kidding.)

A new coach might want a new quarterback who wasn’t tethered to his predecessor. It’s all up in the air, and that uncertainty is as stressful as the team’s failure.

My upcoming novel, “The Penalty for Holding,” captures many of the issues raised by the Niners’ season, not the least of which is the effect that the coach-quarterback dynamic has on a team’s success. Only New York Templars’ Coach Pat Smalley, an equal opportunity hater, and backup QB-turned-starter Quinn Novak are no Harbaugh-Colin tandem. They’re antagonists.

And yet, the once hapless Temps keep winning.

Such is the magic of fiction.