Unless you have been hiding away in J.J. Watt’s backwoods shack, you know that the 49ers’ offseason has been a mess. No, it’s been worse than that. It has been a disaster. A media disaster, at least; we’ll have to wait for the on-field results.
The near-constant string of breakups, snubs and departures has unraveled so seamlessly that it’s tempting to lump it all together in one long chain of misery. (I believe I mixed several metaphors there; feel free to pick one.) In reality, the Niners’ Spring of Terror underwent a dramatic shift along the way.
The moment the regular season ended, the 49ers became a tragedy. Not a tragedy in the modern, watered-down way the word is used, not simply a “very bad thing.” But a classic Greek tragedy – important people cast into ruin because of their own hubris or over-striving.
Jed York decided he couldn’t work with Jim Harbaugh anymore, and “mutually parted” the coach’s contract, right down the middle. The fan base gasped, and it was like the 49ers had become pariahs. Coaches didn’t want to work for them, so they promoted from within the organization to fill their most important positions: head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator.
Athletes didn’t seem to want to come to Santa Clara, either. Time and again, the 49ers were said to be in the mix for highly pursued players. Over the past several years, the Niners tended to land those players more often than not. This year they mostly went elsewhere.
Worst of all, Frank Gore, who defined heart and class during his years in the Bay Area, who helped lead the 49ers out of the Dark Ages and into the playoffs, signed with Indianapolis.
Yes, it’s quite possible the Niners didn’t particularly want Gore back. But this was just another example of the tragedy playing out. The 49ers were making choices to “go in a different direction,” and that direction seemed all wrong. Niners haters (Seahawks and Raiders fans no doubt primary among them) cackled with glee. York, impervious to common wisdom, was leading his organization straight to a land of slate-gray sky and arid, ruined fields circled by crows.
In other words, the 49ers were getting just what they deserved, or so a lot of people figured.
And then Patrick Willis retired. And then Chris Borland retired. And the characters were recast.
Neither of these unexpected departures seemed to have anything to do with 49ers missteps. The team had always treated Willis with utmost respect, and had rewarded him handsomely. Likewise, the Niners had enough confidence in the undersized Borland to draft him in the third round, and to thrust him into the starting lineup while NaVorro Bowman recovered from a traumatic knee injury, allowing Borland to prove his worth as an NFL linebacker.
Willis’ retirement was a big surprise. Borland’s was utterly shocking. And the 49ers had little reason to see either of them coming. The Niners weren’t arrogant boobs anymore. They were victims.
This isn’t exactly good news for the 49ers. When they were bringing about the changes, good or bad or we’ll-see, at least they could evince an us-against-the-world attitude. Maybe they would fail. Or maybe they would triumph again and prove that York and Trent Baalke are just smarter than everyone else.
Now, it’s hard not feel sorry for the Niners. And that’s somewhere no NFL team wants to go.