It doesn’t matter how much they loathe him, how much enmity Jim Harbaugh left in the hallways last year. Jed York and the 49ers have no right to mock him today, given their own sorry condition. At the worst possible moment Saturday, after looking like America’s finest football coach for five games and 59 minutes and 50 seconds of a sixth, Harbaugh was haunted by an all-time, final-play, too-surreal gaffe that raised questions after Michigan’s devastating 27-23 loss to Michigan State.
Such as: Did Coach Khaki make the right call?
With 10 seconds remaining in the Big House, Michigan led 23-21. Looking at 4th-and-2 at the Michigan State 47, with the Spartans out of timeouts, Harbaugh faced a decision: Try to make the first down via a run, try to throw downfield and run time off the clock … or punt.
What followed was another coaching nightmare for Harbaugh, perhaps as excruciating as losing the Super Bowl to his brother in the final seconds. The snap was low, and punter Blake O’Neill bobbled the ball. Rather than fall on it, which should have been emphasized during a timeout that set up the punt play, O’Neill tried to kick it. He was tackled first, and you probably know the rest: He fumbled into the hands of Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson, who rumbled through traffic, broke tackles, avoided stepping out of bounds and scored on a 38-yard return in one of the unfathomable endings ever — made crazier when the hero suffered a possible broken hip during the celebration.
“You saw it,” Harbaugh said.
What did he see? “He said after he bobbled it, he still thought he could get the ball kicked,” Harbaugh said of O’Neill. “That was a mistake. Once he bobbled it, he should have just fallen on it. Mistakes were made. Very unfortunate.”
Did he consider not punting on a windy, blustery day? “The options were to go for it, but you might leave a Hail Mary opportunity. You could protect up and throw a long pass. We ran through those scenarios and thought the best decision was to punt,” Harbaugh said. “We told them to catch it and punt it. [Michigan State] didn’t have a return man back. It was just a matter of catching it and punting it.”
In hindsight, rather than risk a poor snap or a blocked kick, Harbaugh should have minimized the peril by running up the gut — isn’t power football his trademark? — and forcing Michigan State to convert the Hail Mary pass if necessary. That said, the man has had a fabulous coaching career, mastering Michigan’s turnaround as impressively as he mastered U-turns in Jedville and Palo Alto, and anyone who knocks him in Santa Clara has an agenda.
Besides, aren’t the 49ers “cowardly”? That is the latest charge leveled against them. It apparently isn’t enough to be merely dysfunctional and incompetent, to be the team that traded in Harbaugh for Jim Tomsula, to be the team whose owner is mocked by fans on his Twitter feed, to be the team that didn’t consider heat exposure and agronomy when constructing its $1.3-billion stadium, to be the team so lacking of confidence that Ronnie Lott tries to motivate players on self-produced videos, to be the team whose quarterback is so erratic that Joe Montana has launched a media blitz to save him.
Now, they’re also dirty and cowardly.
Remember how we tried to see a slight silver living last Sunday night, when the 49ers actually didn’t embarrass themselves and remained competitive in front of Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and 25 million viewers? Even that improvement turned dark when left guard Alex Boone, the same dude who said Harbaugh “might be clinically insane,” was accused of intentionally and illegally pushing New York Giants linebacker Jon Beason in the back during a play in which Beason suffered a concussion.
“I can honestly say that if I hadn’t gotten pushed in the back, I wouldn’t have been concussed. It’s unfortunate when another player — Alex Boone, to be exact —can reach out, grab you from behind and then deliberately push you in the back,” Beason said angrily. “It’s hard enough to stay healthy in this league. I think it was a coward move. Doesn’t show any sportsmanship, no regard for another player, their career. It could have been a lot worse.”
So woebegone are the 49ers, the Boone-Beason episode actually cost them money — specifically, the $23,152 fine issued by the NFL office to running back Carlos Hyde. When Beason went sprawling and collided headfirst with Hyde, who was carrying the football, he was hit in the head by the crown of Hyde’s lowered helmet. In a league that is trying to protect brains, the fine is mandatory. “I never saw Hyde, because I was too busy trying to keep my balance from being pushed from behind,” said Beason, who added in reference to Boone, “So I wanted to get that out there. I hope it gets back to [Boone].”
Oh, it did.
“I’m sorry that he feels that way. I’ve never intentionally ever tried to go out and hurt anybody,” Boone said. “I respect this game more than anybody in this league. I respect everybody in it. If that’s how he feels, then good for him.”
Then Boone lashed out at Beason for not contacting him privately — in essence, also calling him a coward. “If you’re frustrated, just call me. I read the article and he said he’s not going to reach out to me. That’s a shame,” Boone said. “If I had a grievance with somebody, I’m sure I’d call them and tell them, but everybody’s different.”
Said Beason: “I have been tackling people for a long time. I have had several hundred tackles and never had a recorded concussion. I have never been delusional or whatnot, and I didn’t know what happened. Once you watch the play, it’s clear there is intent there. Not necessarily to harm, but you have to have some regard for other players in terms of the rules. There is no reason to push anyone in the back in football. Like I said, I think it’s a coward move.”
Typically, an overmatched Tomsula seemed clueless when asked about the sequence. Here is the direct transcription of his response: “I didn’t … I don’t know what you’re talking … I mean, I don’t know whose hard feelings … I mean, nobody wanted Beason to get hurt. I don’t know where you’re going.”
As for Hyde, a rare semi-productive weapon amid a dismal 1-4 start, his availability isn’t certain today at Levi’s Stadium against Baltimore — one of the 49ers’ few winnable games this season. He’s nursing a foot injury of some sort. “I don’t even know the name of it. His foot’s hurt,” Tomsula said. “They put an orthotic in there, and I know you’ve got to get used to wearing the orthotic. So, they are doing that. Fully expect him to play and those things, but I know we have to manage it.”
How did he hurt it? “Yeah, he dinged his foot, or I’m not sure if he was planting or somebody stepped on it or what happened there,’’ Dr. Tomsula said.
And if Hyde is limited or his orthotic is bothersome? And Reggie Bush remains limited or out with his never-ending calf problem? Does it really and truly mean that the most fearsome Aussie since Crocodile Dundee, Sir Jarryd Hayne, becomes the featured running back of the San Francisco 49ers? Should we summon Iggy Azalea and Keith Urban to do a rap/country Australian national anthem before the game?
Or do we go to Vegas and lay down a prop bet on the number of Hayne fumbles?
“Jarryd’s improving daily.,” Tomsula said. “Again, we keep going back to it. I mean, it’s a guy that’s never played football. So, he’s improving daily. He keeps improving.”
Did he mention that Jarryd is improving?
At some point, the pity we feel for Tomsula, who inherited hellish circumstances that included the mass exodus of key players, will turn to annoyance and then exasperation. He is only the third-best head football coach in the Bay Area, trailing Stanford’s David Shaw and Cal’s Sonny Dykes, and I completely mean that. Montana, appearing with Colin Cowherd on Fox Sports Radio, was asked if owner York made a historic blunder in not attempting to manage the ornery coaching personality of Harbaugh
“Well, I think so,” Montana said. “I mean, honestly, here’s a guy that’s been very successful for you quickly. He put a good team together, and now he’s out of there. Now they’re struggling, players are leaving. Is that Harbaugh’s fault? I don’t think so, he’s not there anymore. Where those troubles begin and why those guys left? Even, I think, people close to the team really don’t know.”
You’d think Colin Kaepernick, by now, might have sought the advice of the Greatest Quarterback Ever. While No. 7 played well against the Giants as he battles for his NFL future, No. 16 knows what advice he would issue. “Beg the coaches and the offense to go back to letting him play the game that he knows,” Montana said. “He’s big, he’s strong, as long as he’s protecting himself, let him get out of there [the pocket]. Because in the pocket, decisions have to be made quicker. Anticipation, that’s not where he made his living for the longest time.”
If the 49ers lose today, York should start looking ahead to a 2016 season that almost assuredly won’t include Kaepernick. Just because Jed has his new facility doesn’t mean fans, already trying to unload seat licenses, won’t turn the place into a big red elephant beside an amusement park. York and his franchise have been described with almost every insult imaginable this year.
Imagine how many more could be uttered between now and Jan. 3.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.