February 26, 2014 in Sports

Seattle fans loving 49ers’ winter of discontent

Dave Boling Tacoma News Tribune
 

Harbaugh
(Full-size photo)

Next to getting great news about your team, the best thing a fan can hear is bad news about a rival.

And while nothing the Seahawks could do at the recent scouting combine is of immediate effect, the story seeping out of a schism in leadership of the San Francisco 49ers bodes well for Seattle in both the short and long terms.

Management discontent and political struggles in the halls of power are common in any high-stress, big-money enterprise. More so when an NFL franchise struggles and blame is fired and dodged like a game of high-priced paintball.

But the 49ers are a team that went 12-4 and was a timely Richard Sherman play away from going to another Super Bowl.

So, where’s the controversy?

Reports hold that the Cleveland Browns initiated a conversation regarding a trade for San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh, who has led the 49ers to three consecutive NFC championship games and one Super Bowl.

The 49ers are said to have rejected the idea of a trade. And Cleveland went on to hire Mike Pettine as head coach.

Close observers of the 49ers say the roots of it lie in the relationship between Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke, a pair of strong-willed, competitive people. Sometimes that kind of pairing triggers a productive creative friction. As often, it erodes the capacity to function effectively.

A couple of reasonable speculations:

 •Cleveland would not have made an overture out of the blue without a lot of back-channel chatter feeling out Harbaugh’s willingness to move.

The Browns had to sense that he was susceptible to being uprooted and was vulnerable to an invitation to return to the state of his birth.

 •Once something like this reaches the public, there’s almost always a lot more going on beneath the surface that hasn’t come out yet. It likely will get uglier.

 •Harbaugh is still working on his NFL “rookie” contract, five years for $25 million. That puts him well behind the $7 million annual for Seattle’s Pete Carroll and St. Louis’ Jeff Fisher – just in his division.

Competitive people like to measure salaries as well as win-loss records.

 •With the Browns’ unsteady front office and ownership circumstances, a veteran coach with leverage might have seen it as a chance to push for autonomy over both the team and personnel matters.

So, yes, the twin forces of money and power are at work in the Harbaugh situation.

Compounding these factors is the increasing likelihood that the Seahawks are a constant irritant to Harbaugh and the 49ers brass. Harbaugh and Carroll have a well-established simmering rivalry of their own. And Seattle’s success this season included the unseating of the 49ers as division champs.

It’s reasonable to assume that, given the abuse the Seahawks dealt Denver in the Super Bowl, the 49ers would have walked away with the Lombardi Trophy if they’d been able to rally past Seattle in the NFC title game.

Didn’t happen, and fingers are getting pointed.

These things rarely heal, especially once made public. We’ve seen it any number of times with Seattle franchises in every sport.

Once a coach and GM get sideways, there’s too many ways for it to become petty and disruptive. The GM might acquire a player the coach doesn’t want, and the coach will respond by not playing him. And the GM might answer by cutting or trading a coach’s favorite.

And if you think that’s how seventh-graders would run a franchise, you’re right.

The 49ers, meanwhile, should still be a fiercely competitive team, just like the head coach. But they are older than the Hawks (at cutdown day in September, the Seahawks were fourth-youngest, 49ers eighth-oldest). And that makes it fair to suggest that the Hawks have a greater window of competitive opportunity.

The 49ers’ apparent discontent stands in vivid contrast to the harmonic convergence that led to the Seahawks’ Super Bowl victory.

In the run-up to Super Bowl XLVIII, Carroll reiterated that the fundamental building block of this franchise’s success is the symbiotic relationship between GM John Schneider and himself.

Here’s how it works, ideally: Schneider champions the drafting of an unconventional quarterback prospect named Russell Wilson. Rather than do a spit-take and laugh it off, Carroll gives the kid a legitimate chance to earn the job.

Two years later, they’re spraying champagne all over each other.


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