By Sam McPherson
As the 2015 San Francisco 49ers prepare to host the St. Louis Rams at Levi’s Stadium this Sunday, it’s still disappointing to think the National Football League’s big Super Bowl 50 celebration will take place on the same field in February. The 49ers had such high hopes for being a part of this game when the site was announced back in May 2013.
The San Francisco franchise was coming off a sixth Super Bowl appearance, and it looked like more could be on the way. The 49ers wanted to be the first team to play the big game on their home field, of course. However, almost everything has gone downhill for the organization since that comeback attempt against the Baltimore Ravens in the New Orleans Superdome came up just short.
The Emergence Of The Seahawks
The 2013 season started with a thud as the Seattle Seahawks dealt the 49ers an ugly 29-3 loss in Week 2. Combined with a 29-point defeat to Seattle toward the end of the 2012 season, it was clear that a good defense could limit the S.F. offense led by then-quarterback and alleged rising star Colin Kaepernick.
By the end of the 2013 season, the Seahawks had replaced the 49ers atop the NFC West Division. In fact, when Kaepernick turned the ball over three times in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game that year, the torch officially was passed to Seattle. The Seahawks went on to win the Super Bowl that postseason in dominant fashion, and the S.F. “mystique” would never be the same.
The Myth Of Jim Harbaugh
The reality of the coaching situation for the 49ers is this: Jim Harbaugh’s first season was his best one, and the team went downhill from there as draft picks floundered and players left the team. Yes, San Francisco made the Super Bowl in Harbaugh’s second season, but the 2011 team was a better squad that would have made the title game if not for one bad special teams effort in the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park.
The 2011 team had the best defense of any Harbaugh squad and let the NFL in turnover margin. By the time Harbaugh coached his final season in San Francisco, the team had fallen to 8-8 and missed the playoffs. In truth, the Myth of Harbaugh was the result of excellent personnel decisions made prior to Harbaugh’s hiring, and when Scot McCloughan left the organization and went to Seattle, the end had already begun even if no one knew it yet.
The Fall Of The 49ers Defense
San Francisco put Top 3 defenses on the field in 2011, 2012, and 2013 in terms of points allowed. However, when the 49ers lost that playoff game to the Seahawks in 2013, they also lost linebacker NaVorro Bowman to a horrible injury. He missed the entire 2014 season, and the San Francisco defense fell to 10th in the NFL.
By the time this season began, the 49ers had lost three starters to retirement—including longtime stalwart Patrick Willis. San Francisco just has been unable to replace the talent the franchise lost via injuries and retirement this year, and the defense is 18th this year in point allowed (and 28th in yards given up).
Kaepernick’s Inability To Develop Into An NFL QB
Perhaps no player on the 49ers roster represents the demise of the team more than Colin Kaepernick. What can you say about a player when his effectiveness declines three seasons in a row? Kaepernick peaked in 2012 with a 98.3 QB rating, and in the following three seasons—including this one—that number declined each year: 91.6 in 2013, 86.4 in 2014 and 78.5 in 2015.
QB rating isn’t everything, of course; however, combined with the decline of the defense, Kaepernick suddenly had no room for error. He never developed and grew into a proper NFL starting QB, even with Harbaugh around to coach him. Kaepernick’s errors became more magnified as the defense struggled to cover for his mistakes. He may yet develop into the QB people once thought he could be, but chances are it won’t be with the 49ers organization come 2016.
2015 Has Been A Lost Season
Thus, the San Francisco franchise has arrived at a key place as this season winds down on Sunday against the Rams at Levi’s. There will be no Super Bowl homecoming for the 49ers, and the future doesn’t look very good. San Francisco is on the edge of dropping into the NFL abyss that cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Oakland, and Tennessee have occupied for years now.
What the 49ers do between the end of this season and the start of 2016 will define the organization for the next decade or so. Hopefully, the next time the NFL comes calling and wants Levi’s Stadium to host the Super Bowl, the San Francisco franchise will be ready to take advantage of the opportunity.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.