SANTA CLARA -- How is it possible Jim Harbaugh, after coaching the 49ers to the NFC Championship game in his first three seasons, could be out after his fourth season?
Here's a rundown of the situation surrounding a head coach who has gained immense popularity among the 49ers' fan base but has alienated a lot of people inside the organization:
What are Jim Harbaugh’s chances of returning next season?
When CEO Jed York and Harbaugh tabled contract talks in July until the end of the season, it set up a make-or-break season. And that came on the heels of the Cleveland Browns contacting the 49ers about a potential trade, and York approaching Harbaugh to gauge whether a trade was something he desired.
The long-term future of Harbaugh with the 49ers was always in question. After all, they did not agree on an extension after the Super Bowl season and, again, after Harbaugh took the 49ers to the NFC Championship game for a third consecutive season.
In speaking with numerous people close to both sides, the overwhelming sentiment is that Harbaugh will not be back with the 49ers next season. In some cases, perception becomes reality, and the endless stream of national reports of dysfunction in the locker room only builds the case for a parting of ways.
York made quite a statement when he expressed his feelings on Twitter in the closing minute of the 49ers’ loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Thanksgiving night when he proclaimed the “performance wasn’t acceptable,” followed by an apology.
On Monday, Harbaugh did not directly answer any questions about York’s public comment or his relationship with the CEO. Harbaugh chose his words very carefully and left little doubt about what he thought of York's statement: “It’s our job to move on without excuse, without apology and get it right.”
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It seems highly unlikely the sides will get together at the end of the season and hammer out a contract extension -- regardless of how this season ends. And it’s also highly unlikely the 49ers will want Harbaugh to coach the final year of his contract as a “lame duck” and open themselves up to even more chaos than they experienced this season.
What is the problem?
This is not a performance issue. After all, with a 43-16-1 record, Harbaugh ranks behind only John Madden and Vince Lombardi among modern-era coaches in winning percentage.
It’s no secret Harbaugh can be a difficult personality. One source told CSNBayArea.com that general manager Trent Baalke and Harbaugh have clashed on occasion, but it never escalated into a situation in which either man felt as if he could not work with the other. But that changed a couple weeks ago when an undisclosed incident or series of interactions occurred that irreparably tore at the trust that must exist between a coach and general manager. (The source would not disclose the specifics of the disagreement.)
While some players might have issues with Harbaugh -- as is the case with every team -- the only relationships that determine a coach’s future is how he gets along with the people upstairs.
Does Harbaugh want to be back next season?
There is no indication Harbaugh is looking to get out. It seems the person least fazed by all the chatter about Harbaugh’s future is Harbaugh. He thrives in chaos. All he wants to do is win. And remaining with the 49ers gives him the best chance to win.
Will the 49ers try to trade him?
That would make the most sense. If the 49ers are not going to keep Harbaugh, it would only be logical that they try to get something for him.
But a coach cannot be traded if he does not sign off on a deal to go to another team. Harbaugh is not the kind of person who is going to have his future dictated to him. He is more apt to decline a trade and place the onus on the 49ers to keep him in 2015 or fire him, thus allowing him to become a free agent.
Plus, there is no way Harbaugh would want the 49ers to benefit from a trade for his services while weakening the roster of his future employer.
Will Harbaugh leave to coach Michigan?
Jim Harbaugh is a competitor at the highest level. He wants to win a Lombardi Trophy. And he cannot do that in college. Also, he is all about football. He does not want to deal with college administrators and share his players with demanding professors. He wants to deal with football players whose only classroom has a board filled with X’s and O’s.
Who is most likely to coach the 49ers next season?
The defensive line coach is a high-energy motivator who is universally liked and respected as an excellent football coach by those inside the organization.
Of course, the 49ers are required to interview others and anything can happen once a candidate enters the doors and meets face-to-face with York, Baalke and team president Paraag Marathe. But the 49ers know what they would be getting with Tomsula, who took over as interim coach after Mike Singletary was fired in 2010 and won his only game.
What happens to the remainder of the coaching staff?
Who knows? Running backs coach Tom Rathman and offensive line coach Mike Solari predated Harbaugh, and they would likely be retained on the next staff, too. But there would surely be dramatic changes throughout the staff with several assistant coaches opting to follow Harbaugh to wherever he ends up.