The overwhelming sentiment from the 49ers’ locker room Monday is the players would love to keep the talented, tight-knit team together and finally win a Super Bowl.
The overwhelming reality, however, is that Sunday’s bitter loss to Seattle was likely the last 49ers game for several veterans, some of whom have played in three straight NFC Championship Games. In fact, coach Jim Harbaugh touched on the subject during a brief team meeting before players began clearing out their lockers.
“He said he’s going to try and fight and keep everybody together, to try and keep this team together,” cornerback Carlos Rogers said as he was leaving the facility. “But there’s some stuff even he can’t control as much as he wants to control it.”
What Harbaugh can’t control is the salary cap, which promises to become very cramped the next two offseasons. That’s because many of the 49ers’ young, talented players – who to this point have been playing on relatively affordable rookie contracts – are now eligible for contract extensions. That group includes quarterback Colin Kaepernick and several other young, potentially pricey players such as linebacker Aldon Smith, guard Mike Iupati and wide receiver Michael Crabtree. All of those players are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents after the 2014 season.
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The situation will make it difficult for the team to re-sign all of the players in line to become free agents in March, a list that includes wide receiver Anquan Boldin, safety Donte Whitner, cornerback Tarell Brown and kicker Phil Dawson.
“I would love to come back,” said Brown, who played at the end of the season with cartilage damage to his rib cage. “Like I told my coaches, I enjoy playing with this group, the fight in these guys, the type of work we do during the week, the way guys prepare. You can see just by watching film how guys fight for each other.”
Dawson, who set a franchise record for consecutive field goals, also said he wanted to return. “I’m sure that’s coming down the chute here, but we’ll wait and see what happens,” he said.
Center Jonathan Goodwin has started every game for the 49ers since joining the team in 2011. But the 12-year veteran understands why they might want to replace him with a younger, cheaper alternative.
Asked if he wanted to continue his career, Goodwin said, “Deep down I think I’m still willing to, but what creates uncertainty is being a 35-year-old free agent, which, in this time of the NFL, can be tough.”
The 49ers asked Goodwin to take a pay decrease before the 2013 season, which he accepted. They approached Rogers, too, but he declined, wagering he was too valuable to be cut.
Rogers was right. But his salary will be high again for the 2014 season, and the 49ers likely will approach him again with a request to reduce it or else.
“Ask yourself, ‘Would you take less so that they can pay someone else a bigger contract?’ ” Rogers said. “That’s stuff I’ll sit down with my agent and talk to him about.”
Said Brown of keeping the gang together: “It’s hard. With the salary cap, and with so many free agents ... But they’re doing a great job here. They’re putting pieces in and making it work. And look where we ended up – one opportunity away from being in the Super Bowl again.”