Parting ways with a coach with a .716 winning percentage and one year left on his contract always was going to be a tough sell for Jed York and the 49ers.
Jim Harbaugh is making it easier.
The issue between Harbaugh and the 49ers’ front office has long been viewed – from the outside, at least – as a clash of personalities, which to fans is a flimsy reason for getting rid of a successful head coach. Now the front office can point to a practical and unassailable Harbaugh shortcoming if he’s let go: He’s in charge of the 49ers’ offense and the offense stinks.
Sure, firing offensive coordinator Greg Roman would be an easy option and would satisfy the blood-lust of the fan base. And it might even appear effective with the one-win Raiders next on the schedule.
But it’s hard to see how dumping Roman with four games remaining would make any meaningful difference. Roman certainly is the most prominent piece of the offensive staff and deserves blame for the team’s recent struggles on offense, but he’s just a piece. Receivers coach John Morton has a loud voice when it comes to the 49ers’ passing attack; offensive-line coach Mike Solari holds big sway in the running game.
Roman calls the plays from the coaching booth, but they go through Harbaugh on the sideline. (Theoretically, he has the ability to change plays he doesn’t like, but it’s unclear how often that happens.)
In the end, Harbaugh built the system, assembled the coaching pieces, picked the quarterback and trained the quarterback. Roman is a convenient fall guy. But the ultimate responsibility lies with Harbaugh.
The offensive staff also includes – but is in no way limited to – quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst, running backs coach Tom Rathman and tight ends coach Eric Mangini, a two-time former head coach with a defensive background who was brought in to add his two cents to the offense.
The 49ers have a huge and expensive offensive staff. Including Harbaugh and entry-level assistants, they have 12 coaches on offense, which currently ranks 23rd in the NFL in yards per game but is sure to slip in that category after this week’s slate of games. By contrast, they have six coaches on their No. 3-ranked defense with coordinator Vic Fangio doubling as the outside linebackers coach.
The problem is that the sprawling offensive staff has created a complex and byzantine offensive system. The 49ers are bad on offense not because of one individual but because so many different individuals have a say. It’s like asking a dozen people to make one omelet. Too many cooks spoil the dish and too many assistants stop the offense.
The 49ers’ system has an abundance of moving parts and no real identity. They began the recent Seahawks contest in a typical fashion. On first down, two tight ends, including blocker Garrett Celek, were in the game, and Frank Gore gained 7 yards on the ground. On the next play, Celek ran off the field, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd entered and the 49ers lined up three wideouts to one side of the formation.
All the substitutions and personnel packages are designed to keep defenses off-balance. But too often it has that very effect on the 49ers’ offense, which has had trouble finding – and moreover, sustaining – anything resembling a rhythm this season.
The 49ers struggle with sacks (they trail only Jacksonville in sacks allowed), penalties and clock-management issues. They confuse themselves, which should not be happening after nearly four years in the same offense.
Harbaugh and his staff don’t need to work harder to get their offensive system on track, they need to do less. They should aspire to simpler, more cohesive concepts. That will lead to flow, which leads to momentum
And they need to do it quickly. Reaching the playoffs for a fourth straight season probably requires a sweep – including something that today seems impossible: beating the Seahawks in Seattle – over the last four games.
If not, it’s doubtful Harbaugh gets another chance with the 49ers. And it won’t be as tough to sell as everyone predicted.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.