The stunning demise of the 49ers’ should’ve-been dynasty

With the dynamic Colin Kaepernick operating the offense and fiery Jim Harbaugh running the show, the 49ers were a dynasty in the making.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

By Ken Pomponio

This summer, The Sports Post is highlighting and breaking down some of the key storylines and trending topics in each of the NFL’s eight divisions. The series began with a look at the AFC East, and we now move out west.

In the span of the modern-day team sports spectrum, you have your league champions — and then there’s everyone else.

You have your cellar dwellers, lovable losers, perennial pushovers, also-rans, models of mediocrity, Cinderella stories, feisty overachievers, and the close-but-no-cigars.

And then you get into the true rarified air of runners-up: The would’ve-been, could’ve-been, should’ve-been dynasties who never quite were. How else, really, to label what’s become of the San Francisco 49ers?

After all, this was a franchise which, over a span of three seasons from 2011–13:

  • Tied for a league-best 41 wins — regular and postseason combined — while compiling a .741 win percentage which trailed only the New England Patriots’ .745 mark during the span. The 41 wins were two more than San Francisco had over the previous seven seasons —combined.
  • Won a playoff game in each of the three seasons — winning an NFL-best five during the period — played in three straight NFC Championship Games and represented the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII.
  • Compiled a sterling 15–6 mark (.714) against the rest of the 10 best teams from the same time period, including four wins in four meetings with the Packers and a 4–3 mark against the archrival Seahawks.
  • Surrendered the fewest points (16.1) and rushing yards (89.1) in the league per regular-season game while finishing second in point differential (+8.5) and rushing yards (140.3) per contest.
  • Had 15 different players make the Pro Bowl — eight with multiple selections — and had an NFL-most eight players garner first-team Associated Press All-Pro recognition.

Yet, a Lombardi Trophy, a ticker-tape parade through the streets of San Francisco, and a sixth Super Bowl title to add to the franchise’s golden legacy were nowhere to be found for coach Jim Harbaugh’s talented crew.

The greatness of players such as NaVorro Bowman, Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Mike Iupati, Justin Smith, and Andy Lee is unquestioned, but the overall question will linger long past the 8–8 disappointment of the 2014 season: What derailed this woulda-, coulda-, shoulda-been dynasty?

The quick and easy answer lies in the narrow, excruciating, gut-wrenching defeats that culminated each of the franchise’s three seasons during the span. Niners Nation, you’re strongly advised to avert your gaze from the next few paragraphs.

In the 2011 NFC Championship Game, the 49ers and visiting New York Giants were deadlocked in a back-and-forth battle, and the game went to overtime tied at 17. But three possessions into the extra session, San Fran punt returner Kyle Williams lost his grip and the Giants pounced on the prize at the 49ers’ 24-yard line, setting up Lawrence Tynes’ game-winning 31-yard field goal five plays later for the eventual Super Bowl champs.

A year later, despite a mid-season quarterback change, the Niners won the NFC West, trampled the Packers, and win at Atlanta in playoffs to advance to their first Super Bowl in 18 years. After falling behind the Ravens 28–6 early in the third quarter, San Fran closed to within 31–29 and trailed by five with 1:50 remaining when Colin Kaepernick’s fourth-down pass intended for Michael Crabtree fell incomplete in the Baltimore end zone, sealing the Ravens’ 34–31 Super Bowl XLVII win.

Then in 2013 with the hated Seahawks winning the West, the Niners were forced to take the wild-card route in the NFC playoffs, where they proceeded to upend the host Packers and Panthers to set up a rubber match in Seattle. The visitors jumped ahead 10–0 only to see the Seahawks storm back to take a 23–17 lead late in the fourth. Kaepernick, though, marched San Fran 60 yards to the Seattle 18 but his end-zone pass (again) intended for Crabtree is tipped and intercepted with 22 seconds remaining, launching the loud-mouth legend known as Richard Sherman and clinching the NFC crown for the eventual Super Bowl champion Seahawks.

So three double-digit win seasons, five postseason victories and three losses to the eventual Super Bowl champs — that looks to be the legacy of Harbaugh and the 2011–13 San Francisco 49ers.

Still, despite rumors of a growing rift between Harbaugh and the franchise’s front office, the 2014 Niners looked as if they were on their way to a fourth straight postseason berth after starting 7–4. But an ugly 19–3 loss to the visiting Seahawks was served up Thanksgiving night, beginning a four-game losing streak that culminated in an 8–8 finish and the unofficial end of the franchise’s run.

Harbaugh’s impending exit quickly went from rumor to reality before the season concluded, and soon after, he found a natural fit returning to the college ranks to fill the vacancy at his alma mater Michigan.

The trickle of personnel departures that began in the 2014 offseason became a full-fledged flood following the departure of Harbaugh and his coaching staff, save for defensive-line coach Jim Tomsula, who earned the surprise promotion to the head job, and quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst, who has assumed the offensive-coordinator reins.

Gore (Colts), Iupati (Cardinals), Crabtree (Raiders), and starting cornerbacks Chris Culliver (Redskins) and Perrish Cox (Titans) were among the major free-agency departures, and Lee, the team’s three-time first-team All-Pro punter, was recently traded to the Browns.

The most shocking headlines, though, have been generated by the completely unexpected offseason retirements of offensive tackle Anthony Davis and linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland — all three key starters aged 30 or younger who cited short- and long-term health concerns for leaving the game early.

Much less surprising was the retirement of 35-year-old defensive end Justin Smith, a five-time Pro Bowler who had simply had enough after 217 career starts in the trenches.

In the end, though, the 2015 Niners are but a shell of their former near-dynasty selves of only a few years ago. Here’s what the carnage has wrought:

  • 15 players who made at least one start last season are now gone, including 13 who made at least six starts.
  • The aforementioned coaching staff overhaul, including coordinators Greg Roman (offense) and Vic Fangio (defense) who were Harbaugh’s first lieutenants from 2011–14.
  • A whopping 17 of the 24 players who started for the 49ers less than three years ago in Super Bowl XLVII are now gone and only 15 players from the franchise’s entire active roster from the end of that season remain with the squad.
  • In Gore, Smith, Iupati, Willis, and Lee, the Niners are losing players who’ve combined for 23 Pro Bowl berths and 10 first-team Associated Press All-Pro selections during their careers.

The NFL world — and most definitely those wise fellas in Vegas — have taken full notice.

At Vegas Insider.com, the Niners currently are listed at 45-to-1 to win Super Bowl 50, which coincidentally will be contested at their home stadium in Santa Clara. Those odds are worse than 20 of the other 31 teams, including all three of their NFC West foes and the Buffalo Bills, who are breaking in a new coach and (likely a) new quarterback, and haven’t been to the playoffs since the last century.

In the over-under season win totals posted at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, San Fran is sitting at 7.5—again, the lowest total in NFC West and ahead of only the Vikings (7 wins), Bears (7), Redskins (6), and Bucs (6) in the entire NFC.

Meanwhile, the questions are as numerous as the holes on the depth chart.

Is Tomsula, a quirky players’ coach who cut his teeth in NFL Europe and has spent eight seasons as a defensive coach — save for a single game as the team’s interim head coach in 2010 — really the right leader to rejuvenate this franchise?

Can Kaepernick bounce back from a career-worst season (86.4 passer rating, 55.86 QBR) and take command of an offense, which ranked 14th in the NFC and 25th in the league at 19.1 points per game last season?

Speaking of commanding respect, how will the Niners replace franchise-rushing leader Gore (11,073 yards), and more importantly, his on-field leadership and toughness?

Can the offensive line, only a few years ago regarded as the league’s most-dominant front, overcome the departures of five-year starting stalwarts Iupati and Davis?

Will tight end Vernon Davis, now the franchise’s long-tenured player, rebound from the worst season (26-245-2 receiving) since his rookie year and again become a force between the numbers?

Is Bowman finally recovered from his knee injury suffered in the 2013 NFC Championship Game, and can he somehow keep a decimated defense among the league’s best without Fangio’s expert guidance?

The answers will determine whether the Niners can reverse course and regain some of their contender swagger or if it’ll just be another marked step downward in the sudden demise of a would’ve-been, could’ve-been, should’ve-been dynasty.

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