SANTA CLARA — Jim Harbaugh put on his best face for the media. But his occasional smile, his facade of contentment, made the reality of the 49ers’ current state only that much more dissatisfying.
“Well, we have a lot to play for,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Playing for a winning season, playing for each other … playing for the team, playing for the honor of the game.”
That’s what the 49ers are reduced to, leaning on glass-half-full platitudes because it’s the only thing left. It’s how we got here that is cause for an eye roll.
CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke couldn’t stomach Harbaugh, and they’re always going to win the power struggle. So just when the 49ers faithful got accustomed to being a contender, the future of the franchise has been thrown into the sea of uncertainty.
A down year is digestible. An implosion because of Bravo channel-worthy drama is not.
What a shame they couldn’t figure this out. How disappointing it is to watch an era of success, a level of winning this NFL market had missed, come crumbling to an end because of feelings.
It doesn’t bode well for the leadership prospects of the 49ers that they couldn’t salvage this. They didn’t have the wherewithal, the self-sacrifice, to keep a good thing going.
It takes a certain level of audacity to carry out a season-long campaign to oust the popular coach. It takes a significant amount of confidence to think Harbaugh can be replaced and the team will be fine. Why wasn’t all that harnessed into improving the relationship with Harbaugh, into keeping a good thing going?
No, we don’t know the whole story. We don’t know what it feels like clashing with the intensity of Harbaugh regularly. We don’t know how hard his relentless personality jabs at the ego.
But there are a few things we do know.
Production matters more than personality when you haven’t won a Super Bowl since the 1994 season.
Good leaders manage all the personalities types around them, not just the amenable ones — especially in a sport that requires some rough edges, like football.
And we definitely know this: The 49ers brain trust had better bat .900 on these next series of decisions.
They have to nail the next coach. And Baalke, whom York is betting on as the real wizard of it all, has left himself little room for error as he seeks to retool the 49ers.
Running back Frank Gore will be a free agent. So will wide receiver Michael Crabtree and left guard Mike Iupati. And cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox.
Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks and tight end Vernon Davis are expected to be salary-cap casualties. Defensive line stalwart Justin Smith might retire.
That’s eight key spots that might need replenishing. Some of them have replacements already, such as Carlos Hyde at running back, Stevie Johnson at possession receiver and Aaron Lynch as a pass-rushing outside linebacker. But even if those are all hits, Baalke still has other obvious holes to fill, revealed in this struggle of a season.
The 49ers still also need a receiver to stretch the field. They need a tight end upon whom quarterback Colin Kaepernick can rely. They need to bolster the offensive line. They need a backup who can challenge Kaepernick.
More holes to fill means more chances for the 49ers to miss — except they can’t afford to.
Certainly it’s possible they can pull this off. One of the best things for the 49ers was the Warriors’ successful orchestration of a similar move. They snubbed their nose at 51 wins and back-to-back playoff appearances and fired Mark Jackson, believing a new coach could lead to better. And it is working to the tune of 21-2.
So even the most frustrated of the fan base — who are resigned to losing Harbaugh — have to temper the outrage just a bit. Even though the Warriors’ situation was different, as their coach hadn’t led the team as far as Harbaugh led the 49ers, it is possible a harmonious relationship between the coach and front office could reap benefits.
But if it doesn’t, if it leads to rebuilding and a couple of down years, there will be no scapegoats. All of the blame will be on the management that squandered a good thing because of a personality clash.
Read Marcus Thompson II’s blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/thompson. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ThompsonScribe.
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G.M. Trent Baalke says he and coach Jim Harbaugh discuss Harbaugh’s future. PAGE 3
49ers beat writer Cam Inman will host an online chat Tuesday at noon. Go to