The one coaching move everybody knew was coming has been made official -- and it didn't take long. Mere minutes after his final press conference as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Jim Harbaugh was set free to pursue any coaching opportunity he wants. From the team's statement:
"The San Francisco 49ers and Jim Harbaugh have mutually agreed to part ways. The 49ers organization has begun its search for the team’s next head coach, while Harbaugh is now free to consider his next coaching opportunity without any constraints.
“'Jim and I have come to the conclusion that it is in our mutual best interest to move in different directions,' said [49ers CEO Jed] York. 'We thank Jim for bringing a tremendous competitive nature and a great passion for the game to the 49ers. He and his staff restored a winning culture that has been the standard for our franchise throughout its history. Their commitment and hard work resulted in a period of success that should be looked back on proudly by our organization and our fans. We wish Jim and his family all the best.'”
It's expected that Harbaugh will take the open head coaching position at the University of Michigan, his alma mater, and there's reportedly a six-year, $49 million offer waiting for him there.
“For the last four seasons I have had the great privilege to coach one of the storied franchises in the history of football,” Harbaugh said in the statement. “We accomplished many great things together as a team during this period, which is a tribute to the incredible efforts of some of the most dedicated players and coaches in the NFL. I will miss competing alongside this group of players and coaches, I have the utmost respect and admiration for their hard work and support. It has been my honor to share the sideline with these mighty men. I will always appreciate and remember fondly, the passion and support of our faithful fans, and want to express my particular thanks to them.”
• Tale of the tape: 8-8 in 2014, 49-22-1 overall, and 5-3 in the postseason. Harbaugh became the first NFL coach to lead his team to the conference championship in his first three seasons, and the 49ers came within a couple of plays of beating the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. He's one of the most successful coaches ever to leave his team by virtue of mutual agreement.
• What went wrong: It's long been known that Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke -- two very intense guys -- did not get along. Harbaugh inherited a roster that was more talented than the one he's leaving behind, and that team was built primarily by former team executive Scot McCloughan. Baalke's last three drafts have been iffy at best, and recent injuries and player suspensions led to a sub-par performance on the field in 2014.
Harbaugh came into the league in 2011, one year after former Pac-10 rival Pete Carroll took over the Seattle Seahawks, and the level of organizational control Carroll had from Day 1 is something that Harbaugh desires -- and something he feels he's earned. (He's probably right about that.) There's also the simple fact that Harbaugh's sometimes caustic style tends to wear out its welcome -- even more so when the team he's coaching isn't winning. Quite simply, no matter how successful Harbaugh had been, it was time for a change.
• Roster outlook: The 49ers were without inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman for the entire season, and Patrick Willis was hurt in-season. Rookie Chris Borland stepped up until he was upbraided by his own maladies, but this team should have a very formidable linebacker corps in 2015. Defensive tackle Justin Smith is likely to retire, leaving a huge hole in the front four, and Aldon Smith has been unable to shake off-field concerns. The team has an underrated group of cornerbacks, though young safeties Eric Reid and Jimmie Ward have a lot to learn about pass coverage.
On offense, quarterback Colin Kaepernick still needs a lot of development, and that was made apparent in 2014 when the offensive line and run game regressed. Frank Gore, who's been the heart of that offense for the last decade, is a free agent and may go elsewhere. The 49ers do have an estimable young back in Carlos Hyde. Among the team's receivers, only Anquan Boldin performed as expected -- tight end Vernon Davis never really seemed to find his groove, and the passing attack they envisioned when they added receivers like Stevie Johnson never seemed to come together. This is a team with a lot of talent at a lot of spots, but there is a noticeable gap between the older guys on the downside and the younger players still coming into their own. Kaepernick's development will be the key.
• Possible replacement(s): The hot name that's been bandied about for months is defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who would, we speculate, be easier for Baalke to deal with than Harbaugh was. Other possible candidates might be Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. One thing is for sure: If the 49ers let a coach this successful go for personal (as opposed to personnel) reasons, the ability to get along will be critical for the next man up -- and Baalke will have to hope that it works its way into wins.