Why in the World Did the 49ers Let Jim Harbaugh Leave?

Jim Harbaugh made miracles out of mud in San Francisco. Were they right to let him go?

The NFL can be absolutely thankless sometimes.

You have playoff droughts lasting decades, draft busts after draft busts, resilient teams that fight all year just to lose on a trick play, a lucky bounce, or one unfortunate injury at the wrong time. Sometimes, you have a situation where, as one wise man said, “You do your best and if your best isn’t appreciated, you do your best anyways.” The NFL is just about business, I know, and after an 8-8 season, something had to change, but I firmly believe the San Francisco 49ers made a fatal mistake by allowing Jim Harbaugh to leave.

We’d all heard the rumors for at least a month before Week 17 that, due to friction with the team, Harbaugh was not expecting to return to the 49ers in 2015, but I am actually floored that it happened. We know that wins and losses are not the only measure of success, but for a coach who took his team to a 44-19-1 record, two NFC Championships, and a Super Bowl in his tenure, I’d expect a bit more leeway after one 8-8 season.

Still, we can dream about what might have been had Harbaugh’s khakis stayed in the Bay Area. Did his track record deserve more trust from ownership and respect from the players? Or was it only a matter of time before the bubble burst on this fiery leader’s style?

My Way or the Highway

The arrangement of power in San Francisco was an odd one, to be fair. Jim Harbaugh -- who came to the team after seven years as the head coach of the University of San Diego and Stanford University -- was not in charge of final personnel decisions or the draft; this was general manager Trent Baalke’s purview. One can imagine that a college head coach used to running the entirety of his program would have expected a bit more leeway to work with (and certainly Harbaugh will have this environment back at Michigan University now), and that demand must have grated on Baalke.

Simultaneously, with no control over personnel decisions, Harbaugh must have been frustrated by the lackluster talent arriving on his roster through the last few drafts, subpar talent that was handcuffing his ability to do his best for the team. How bad had it gotten for Harbaugh, though? We can look at the quality of talent he had to work with through the scope of our signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a measure of how much a player advances his team’s chances at scoring on any particular drive. This helps to assess not just the box score production by that player but a more full view of how he contributes value to his team.

By looking at the NEP production of the most recent draft classes given to Jim Harbaugh to work with (2011-2014), we can see just how much in terms of player talent he was really given to work with. Unfortunately, there is no NEP score for individual defensive players, but we’ll get into that in just a little bit. First, how did his offensive pieces perform in his time?

The table below shows their 2014 NEP data and their ranking among their position based on this data. The idea behind this is that, even if we don’t factor in the full breadth of the career of a player drafted prior to this year’s class, there should at least be a few that have developed within four years to usable starter-level. What do we find?

YearRoundPlayerPositionTotal NEPPos. Rank
20142ndCarlos HydeRB-7.9488th
20144thBruce EllingtonWR11.62114th
20147thTrey MillardFBN/AN/A
20132ndVance McDonaldTE-2.70107th
20144thMarcus LattimoreRBRetiredRetired
20134thQuinton PattonWR0.06170th
20137thB.J. DanielsQBN/A N/A
20121stA.J. JenkinsWR3.37157th
20122ndLaMichael JamesRB-1.52123rd
20112ndColin KaepernickQB34.2323rd
20114thKendall HunterRBN/AN/A
20115thRonald JohnsonWRN/AN/A
20117thBruce MillerFB9.0037th

While this chart doesn’t take into account defensive selections in the draft or offensive linemen, this is pretty damning for a team that will go into the 2015 offseason potentially losing wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Brandon Lloyd, running back Frank Gore, and tight end Garrett Celek. This is especially atrocious to see how little they’ve hit on offense in four years when their best current receiving option is receiver Anquan Boldin, who will be 35 in the next NFL season. Even tight end Vernon Davis had an atrocious year in 2014, and the 49ers cupboard doesn’t just look bare -- it looks positively arid.

It’s a huge shame that in four years of drafting offensive pieces, the only two starters they’ve gained out of these selections are quarterback Colin Kaepernick and fullback Bruce Miller. Running back Carlos Hyde and receiver Bruce Ellington look like they will at least be contributors in the future, but it’s much too soon to tell. The other huge red flag? Only thirteen selections for offensive skill players out of a possible forty in those years? That is mismanagement of draft assets by Baalke in the purest sense.

Righteous Fury

It’s clear to see that Harbaugh was justified if he believed he’d been given very little to work with in creating the offensive machine he’d envisioned after coming from Stanford. Remember, Harbaugh was a quarterback in the NFL and worked as a quarterbacks coach before his promotion to head coach at University of San Diego; he is an intelligent coach who is often able to achieve great balance, but his venue is the offensive side of the ball.

Still, there are some coaches who are able to make a lot out of not much. Bill Belichick for years has taken undervalued parts and turned them into stars, sustaining his Patriots’ juggernaut on both sides of the ball. After seeing what he had to work worth, is there any way that Jim Harbaugh’s teams could possibly be as good in the NEP scores as they were in the win-loss columns?

The table below shows the average league NEP ranks for Harbaugh’s offenses and defenses by Adjusted NEP (adjusted for strength of opponent), compared to the ranks of the 49ers for the five years prior to the Harbaugh regime. What will we find?

TenureAdj. NEPAdj. Pass NEPAdj. Rush NEPAdj. Def. NEPAdj. Def. Pass NEPAdj. Def. Rush NEP

There’s no disputing that Harbaugh made huge strides with really lackluster pieces. Almost every single facet of his teams rose by 10 ranks in the league during his tenure, and we’ve already seen how poorly the offense had been assembled. Even on the defensive side in the past few classes, the only full-time starter drafted by the team is current free safety Eric Reid. Other than that, there has been a gross lack of team building. The progress Harbaugh made in spite of this is actually quite exemplary.

Harbaugh was absolutely justified in his frustration with the 49ers’s front office, and I genuinely believe the 49ers were completely wrong to allow him to walk away. This team did wonders with Harbaugh at the helm, and while I’m no personal fan of his, I’m in awe of what he did with subpar talent at his disposal. Now, we will see if he can become the Nick Saban of the north, as the Michigan Wolverines have their head coach of the future, but I will continue to imagine what might have been had he been retained and given more control of the roster in order to shape his vision for the 49ers properly.