With the San Francisco 49ers officially eliminated from the playoffs, the question remains if head coach Jim Harbaugh will return for a fifth season. A coach that has guided the team to three consecutive NFC Championship games (including one super bowl appearance) in his first three seasons, Harbaugh oddly finds himself on the outside looking in as the 49ers may go in another direction. And while many Forever Faithful want him to return, many 49ers beat writers including myself believe that won’t be reality.
So with Harbaugh seemingly not in the team’s future plans, who should replace the 2011 AP NFL Coach of the Year? While the Niners may hire from within as defensive line coach Jim Tomsula should get the inside track, I believe they will also explore externally with two familiar faces dating back to 1990.
During that time they had two coaches, a quarterbacks coach by the name of Mike Holmgren and an offensive assistant by the name of Jon Gruden. Two coaches that would be household names, it will make the departure of Harbaugh a softer blow. Not necessarily a better one but a softer one. But why would the 49ers consider these two candidates? Because they both have championship backgrounds with the resume to push QB Colin Kaepernick to his full potential.
Some may say that Kaepernick has regressed. And while I believe it has to do more with the play-calling and scheme rather than Kaepernick’s ability, he does have to do a better job with accuracy and touch. Those are mechanics that both Holmgren and Gruden excel at.
Holmgren coached Kaepernick’s idol in former Packers QB Brett Favre, another gun-slinger who had trouble with accuracy early on in his career. In fact when Favre started his first full season in ’93 (his third in the NFL) it wasn’t without struggles as he threw for 19 touchdowns and 24 interceptions. Some would say he ‘regressed’ from his ’92 campaign in which he passed for 18 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions. Remind you of another young quarterback who so-called ‘regressed’? The point I’m trying to make is good things can happen as Holmgren has been here before. And while some people say he’s too old, I would beg the differ as Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll is only three years younger.
Not to mention, his strong ties to the Bay Area are well documented as he started out as a high school football coach at Lincoln, Sacred Heart, and Oak Grove, Holmgren is already accustomed to the Bay Area lifestyle. A winning coach as he only had three losing seasons in 17 years of coaching in the NFL, Holmgren’s track record speaks for itself which includes three NFC Championship wins and one Super Bowl title.
Then there is the coach known as ‘Chucky.’
Gruden, who worked under Holmgren in Green Bay as an offensive assistant and wide-receivers coach will surely be rumored as a coaching candidate. And while one of his ‘close friends’ said he would only come back to coach the Raiders, I believe that the 49ers job would be too good to pass up. On paper, they are still a championship caliber team. They have a top three defense only getting better next season as healthy starters like NT Glenn Dorsey, NT Ian Williams, ILB NaVorro Bowman and ILB Patrick Willis return to action. And with the 49ers also having OLB Aldon Smith for a full 16-game season that should boost the pass-rush. The offense on the other hand is another story and it all starts with Kap. Quick fix. Enter Gruden.
Gruden is known as a quarterback guru. He helped mold Oakland Raiders QB Rich Gannon into a perennial Pro Bowler while also guiding QB Brad Johnson into a Super Bowl winning quarterback in his first season in Tampa Bay. To think that Gruden does not know how to coach quarterbacks is like saying DC Vic Fangio doesn’t know how to coach defenses, the guy is an absolute stud with his signal-callers. And with Gruden being out of football for the past six years, he still dissects game-film to a science with his ESPN segment Gruden’s QB Camp.
While many Forever Faithful want Harbaugh to return for a fifth season, I just don’t see that happening. A team that looks deflated on the field while missing the playoffs will certainly not be tolerated by CEO Jed York. Does Harbaugh deserve that extension? ABSOLUTELY. He’s a winner and before him it was a coaching carousel, but it’s not up to me. I don’t make those decisions. And if Harbaugh is indeed pushed out, they will have to find a viable replacement leaving me to believe that Holmgren or Gruden may be the ‘next man-up.’