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Off-season attrition leaves 49ers at an unforeseen franchise crossroads

With Patrick Willis, Frank Gore and more out the door, the 49ers face a near-impossible task of replacing franchise cornerstones.

The San Francisco 49ers' off-season has spiraled into an existential crisis, worthy of a Matthew McConaughey voiceover in a Lincoln commercial: "Who are we? What are we going to be?"

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From 2011-13, the 49ers reached three straight NFC title games and came within one completion of winning a Super Bowl. But coach Jim Harbaugh left (and/or was pushed out, depending on whom you ask) to take the University of Michigan job at the end of the 2014 season. Running back Frank Gore exited, too, agreeing to a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati? Gone, as soon as he's allowed to sign elsewhere.

Then on Monday came perhaps the toughest news of all: Linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive end Justin Smith are both expected to announce their retirement.

San Francisco will not be shocked if Smith follows through—he will turn 36 in September and reportedly had been on the fence about his NFL future as it was. (He did, however, say Monday that he's not "100 percent" sure about his status for 2015.) The Willis news, on the other hand, was a lightning strike. A five-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler, Willis had been a heart-and-soul member of the 49ers' defense since capturing the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2007.

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Ahead of San Francisco's appearance in Super Bowl XLVII, left tackle Joe Staley discussed the team's promising core with a nod to the dynastic 1981-94 era of 49ers football that captured five Vince Lombardi trophies. "We're trying to establish our own identity," Staley said.

[]In the blink of an eye, that identity has all but vanished.

The face of the franchise left standing is quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has been hit with more than his fair share of criticism (plus a rogue trade rumor on Sunday night). Other choices include the talented-but-troubled Aldon Smith, along with linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who has not seen the field since a gruesome knee injury in the NFC Championship Game 14 months ago.

Enormous expectations will fall on them and others to replace what has departed. It may be an impossible task.

"I feel very good about the direction we're headed," general Trent Baalke said last month, in response to a question about Harbaugh's departure. "He's moved on, we've moved on and I think the important thing for us now is just to look forward, and that's what we're trying to do."

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One does not have to look back very far, however, to find a far leaner stretch of 49ers football. After former quarterback Steve Young's career wrapped in 1999, San Francisco made the playoffs in just two of the next 12 seasons, a period that contained an eight-year postseason drought (2003-10).

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It took Harbaugh and Willis and Gore and Smith, among others, to pull the franchise up by its bootstraps. The success came rather suddenly—the 49ers improved from a 6-10 record in 2010, Mike Singletary's final season as coach, to 13-3 and an NFC title game berth in 2011 under Harbaugh—but it also felt built to last, at least for a while.

However, everything unraveled again during a tumultuous, injury-filled 2014 campaign. By the end of it, Harbaugh and Baalke could no longer coexist with the 49ers, leaving Baalke's hand hovering over the reset button.

"The team dynamic is the key to me," new coach Jim Tomsula said at his introductory press conference. "It’s not a collection of talent. It’s a team sport. ... We’ve got these words: the culture, the chemistry. We’re always trying to put our hands on it."

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​Tomsula will be under the microscope as he attempts to keep this dam from collapsing. His start was, well, awkward to say the least. He was panned following a disastrous TV interview, one that he even joked about at the scouting combine.

While the 49ers' remaining players seem to respect Tomsula plenty, the loss of Gore, Willis and Smith will hurt as much in the locker room as it will on the field. The "team dynamic" that Baalke and Tomsula have espoused stems from the players willing to carry the leadership banner.

The 49ers have talent in place, with standouts like Kaepernick and Staley and Vernon Davis who have been key pieces for several years. There still can be no understating what this franchise has lost and stands to lose in the coming days. 

The 2015 version of the 49ers could look drastically different from its recent predecessors. It will take some time for Tomsula and company to figure out exactly what's left.