The 381 days since the 49ers perplexingly fired Jim Harbaugh have in large part been white noise. Sure, there was a ridiculous replacement, the mass exodus of elite players, the downfall of a promising quarterback and a whole lot of losing. But this darkness has existed under an even darker cloud haunting the franchise. Every step to the bottom of the NFC West has been juxtaposed to the Harbaugh Era. Everything since has been “Not Harbaugh.”
Not helping matters this past year has been the fact that Harbaugh’s brand has grown to mythical proportions. Whether hanging with Wale, Ciara or Barack Obama—not to mention revitalizing Michigan’s football team—Harbaugh is on the path toward becoming a legend. And his constant presence on social media and television serves as an endless reminder.
Meanwhile, in Santa Clara, everything has been seemingly cursed because Jed York and Trent Baalke couldn’t accept Harbaugh’s quirky, enigmatic personality. The Sliding Doors question of “What would Harbaugh do?” has lingered.
That all changed with the hiring of Chip Kelly. This move will allow San Francisco to finally move on from Harbaugh.
I have no idea whether or not Kelly will ultimately be a success in San Francisco. He’s certainly not a slam-dunk candidate like Bruce Arians was when the Cardinals job opened up or like a certain Stanford coach was six years ago. (Sorry, old habit)
But hiring Chip Kelly was a move that didn't reek of desperation—had the 49ers hired any of the other remaining coaching candidates, then it would be a different story. For good or bad, Kelly has a philosophy and a vision, and he’s a recent winner. Finishing over .500 in three seasons with a quarterback cocktail of Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, Mike Vick and Sam Bradford is quite a feat. That’s the Long Island Iced Tea of quarterbacks.
Speaking of quarterbacks, Colin Kaepernick is potentially an ideal fit for Kelly’s fast-paced, no-audible, multi-dimensional offense. As NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported, one of Kelly’s key objective in deciding on his next landing spot was working with Kaerpernick. Whether Kelly can revitalize Kaepernick’s career will be one of the more intriguing storylines next season.
When you mete out Kelly’s disastrous role as a personnel man—and reports say he agreed to cede that power to Trent Baalke— there’s a lot of promise as a coach. Heck, Kelly somehow turned Foles into a Pro Bowler.
Kelly’s offense could make use of Torrey Smith and the deep passing game that was entirely missing last year. The 49ers ranking 31st in total offense last season and 29th in passing yards per game, so bringing in a coach whose philosophy is rooted in scoring points, and quickly, seems on the surface a smart move.
Of course there are obvious pitfalls with Kelly. Some believe his offense isn’t as complex as it looks on the surface. Kelly’s no holds barred physical demands on his players can be tough to digest for some, and his alienation of certain players with the Eagles has been well-documented. Smith jokingly tweeted upon hearing the news:
Guess I might have to start running right now to get in shape— Torrey Smith (@TorreySmithWR) January 14, 2016
Besides these concerns, Kelly’s misguided power grab in Philadelphia raises questions of whether he can stay in his coach-only corner and cede all personnel decisions to Baalke. Given Baalke’s role in the Harbaugh dismissal, we can certainly expect that this is mandatory.
While that relationship shakes out, one thing is certain at the outset. Kelly stands apart from the retread head coaches and coordinators who rose through the conventional NFL pipeline. He is a visionary who changed the college game and was on his way to changing the NFL game before this disastrous season. Because Kelly is so unique and will either succeed or fail unconventionally in San Francisco, he will make his mark one way or another. And with the Kelly Era upon us, the 49ers fan base can finally move on from Jim Harbaugh.