San Francisco 49ers

On 49ers: Why it all fell apart

A season that began with Super Bowl expectations will end with Jim Harbaugh being let go.
A season that began with Super Bowl expectations will end with Jim Harbaugh being let go. The Bee

Cardboard boxes are scattered everywhere. Ripped up sections of wrapping paper litter the living room floor. There's an annoying strand of tinsel caught between your toes.

The end-of-year blahs are setting in, and if you're a 49ers fan, you didn't even get what you wanted. Your team is not heading to the playoffs, and what's worse many of the most prominent faces -- beginning with the head coach -- won't be around next season.

How did everything fall apart, and in such spectacular fashion? Here's a break down of the breakdowns:

1. The weight. If there's a theme to the 49ers' 2014 season, it's that the team finally buckled.

Part of it was a physical collapse associated with going deep into the playoffs three straight seasons. The 49ers played eight extra games from 2011-'13, which at 60 or so snaps -- intense, physical, for-all-the-marbles snaps -- per game starts to take its toll. The 49ers will end the year with at least 16 players on injured reserve --- more could be added today -- five of whom were starters when they were hurt. By contrast, four 49ers total ended 2013 on injured reserve.

There also was a mental toll. Walk into the 49ers locker room, and you'll see a banner that reads: 'You are getting better or you are getting worse. You never stay the same.' Jim Harbaugh never turns off. He is constantly pushing everyone around him to, in his words, get 1 mph faster every day. It's what makes him a great head coach, especially for a franchise or a program that is stuck in a rut.

The question is whether ceaseless pressure is sustainable. Instead of getting faster this season, the 49ers' lug nuts started to come off and the radiator began to overheat.

Harbaugh and the 49ers' front office even managed to ratchet the pressure a few extra notches by tying his contract extension, which they failed to hammer out the previous two offseasons, to a Super Bowl title. ‘Hoist the Lombardi Trophy and you'll get paid; fail and you'll be gone.’ It was an all-or-nothing proposition in which the 49ers and their fans have ended up with nothing.

2. Identity crisis. The 49ers' instinct this offseason was a sound one. The coaches figured that without linebackers Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman for a big chunk of the season, the offense -- which had merely been safe and steady the previous three years -- would need to pick up the slack.

The 49ers added more wide receivers to the roster, added more spread formations to the playbook and put more burden on quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Again, there is no critique of that impulse.

The criticism comes from the failure to recognize that the approach wasn't working, and more than that, wasn't needed. The defense wasn't as weak as many expected. In fact, it heads into Sunday's finale ranked fifth in the NFL.

Instead of recalibrating early on or even at the bye week, the offensive coaches continued to push forward with the original model, one in which spotty successes in the passing game were vastly overshadowed by mistakes. No quarterback this year has been sacked more times -- 51 -- than Kaepernick.

3. Check the collar. The 49ers pride themselves on being a blue-collar squad. But the collar may not be quite as blue as general manager Trent Baalke thought it was.

At no time was that more evident than when San Francisco faced the Seahawks. When tight end Vernon Davis -- a genuine tough guy when he entered the league in 2006 -- was blasted out of bounds and out of the game by safety Kam Chancellor in 2012, it set a tone for the series that the 49ers have been unable to change.

They frankly have been outmuscled and roughed up by Seattle in nearly every meeting since, including the most recent one in which five players, including their top two running backs, were knocked out of the contest.

The best way to beat a bully is to strike him in the mouth. The 49ers are too busy covering up to throw any punches.

It may be tinsel-thin, but the silver lining to San Francisco's early exit is this: They have time to rest and heal. They have a chance to revamp the offense. And they have an opportunity to figure out who is tough enough to dethrone the Seahawks and who isn't.

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