When I read stories that claim Jim Harbaugh’s act is “wearing thin” in the 49ers’ locker room, I know that I could easily identify the complaining players: Those who aren’t getting much playing time.
I’ve never known a football locker room that was totally united, not even the Super Bowl champions in the 49ers’ past, because every player wants to be on the field regularly and only 11 can. Don’t forget that most of the players on an NFL roster have been starters, many of them stars, on the collegiate level. The last thing they expect is to sit on the bench for extended periods. And they don’t like that.
On winning teams, players who aren’t playing regularly just mumble quietly to themselves. On losing teams, the mumble becomes a roar. When Mike Singletary was the 49ers’ coach, writers had no trouble finding players who were unhappy — and the starters were among them.
The veteran starters, who set the tone, bought into Harbaugh’s system quickly — because the team started winning. They’ve continued to support him even when they’re not totally happy with his decisions. Most notably, offensive lineman Joe Staley was very close to Alex Smith and he didn’t like Harbaugh’s decision to go with Colin Kaepernick in 2012, but he didn’t speak publicly about it except to say “Alex knows how I feel.” His feelings didn’t affect his play.
The problem within the 49ers isn’t between Harbaugh and his players, but between Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke, who started out close but now have a wide chasm separating them.
This was probably inevitable because both men have big egos — and they have different goals.
As a coach, Harbaugh wants to win right now, and he wants his players to be rewarded.
When he spoke of kicker Phil Dawson seeking a new contract and said, “Pay the man” during a news conference, it was a direct challenge to Baalke.
Baalke is looking more at the future, attempting to keep the Niners competitive over a long period by bringing in young players, with relatively small contracts, to replace veterans with much larger contracts. That’s a sensible strategy because it keeps salary-cap issues under control and, done right, could mean a period of consistent success.
But no coach, and certainly not one with Harbaugh’s temperament, is going to accept that. He wants to win right now. His vision goes no further than the next game.
It’s up to CEO Jed York to negotiate a truce between these two to keep the 49ers on a winning path. That may be easier said than done.
Preparations for the opening of their new stadium have distracted York, who did a great job of raising money. Now, he needs to pay more attention to the Harbaugh-Baalke rift.
For openers, he should finally get the new contract for Harbaugh done. His current contract, $5 million a year, sounds like a good one — but it doesn’t even make him among the 10 highest among NFL coaches!
That’s the easy part. Then, York has to convince each man that they need to work together better. The 49ers’ future depends on it.