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The Rapidly Sinking San Francisco 49ers

The release of standout Aldon Smith is just the latest blow for a once-mighty franchise that’s fallen hard. Is it over in San Fran?

colin kaepernick

49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick during a practice session at in Santa Clara, California.

Lachlan Cunningham/Getty

For a brief shining moment in early 2010s, the NFL’s greatest rivalry migrated from the media markets on the East Coast and the tundras of the Midwest to the shores of the Pacific, where two coaches who had been fueled by a genuine dislike since their days in Pac-12 engaged in an escalating arms race that seemed as if it might sustain itself for decades.

If that paragraph sounds like the opening to a future NFL Films documentary, well, why the hell shouldn’t it be? Start gathering the B-roll now, because this is all past tense, a brief and fascinating chapter in the league’s storied history: 49ers-Seahawks is no more.

Instead, the Niners are a mere divisional speed bump that shouldn’t deter Seattle’s attempts to play in its third straight Super Bowl, and their decline was as rapid as it was shocking. In December, a couple of months before Pete Carroll’s Seahawks came one play away from a second consecutive Super Bowl victory, Jim Harbaugh was essentially driven out (reportedly by team CEO Jed York) as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and ever since then things have gotten worse and worse for a franchise that was once on the verge of winning a Super Bowl itself.

It would be difficult for a master of the black arts to conjure a year more wracked with turmoil than the raging trainwreck the 49ers have been through. It began with Harbaugh slowly getting forced out, and then bolting for his alma mater, the University of Michigan; it continued with a number of off-field incidents and the retirement of several key players on defense, including Justin Smith and Patrick Willis (a pair of borderline Hall of Famers), along with 24-year-old Chris Borland, who decided that the risk to his brain was not worth the reward. And then on Friday, defensive lineman Aldon Smith, the most promising remaining player on a decimated unit, was released after being arrested for the fifth time in three years, including for several alcohol-related offenses.

There is, of course, an overarching sadness to Smith’s story: I saw it firsthand, having sat down with him earlier this summer to report a San Francisco magazine story on his attempts at redemption. I thought maybe he’d turned the corner; many of the people who knew him thought the same thing. In the wake of Smith’s release, the 49ers’ new coach, Jim Tomsula, issued a passionate statement insisting that he and the team would continue to support Smith’s attempts to recover from his problems with substance abuse. It was the right thing to say, and it humanized Tomsula after the stammering press-conference disaster that had marked the early days of his tenure, but none of that bodes well for a 49ers franchise that appears lost and directionless.

I mean, does anyone still believe that Colin Kaepernick is a comparable quarterback to Russell Wilson? Does anyone believe that a rookie head coach like Tomsula will somehow be able to compete with Carroll’s Seahawks, who got even better this offseason with the addition of tight end Jimmy Graham? If things go sour early on for the Niners, a fanbase that has already been relegated to one of the most boring and inconveniently situated new stadiums in professional football will no doubt turn on both its wavering quarterback, and on the owner who chose to pull the plug on a head coach in Harbaugh who was no doubt inexorably difficult, but who was also incredibly successful.

For the first time in several years in the Bay Area, there’s a sense that the Oakland Raiders – that silver-and-black powder keg of dysfunction and misbehavior – may actually be the more promising franchise to follow. And this is a team that may soon wind up in Los Angeles, which would promise the 49ers the entire Bay Area media market to themselves. A few years ago, that might have seemed like a boon; but given the rapid downward spiral of a franchise that once appeared to be larded with promise, it might just serve to remind people that those years of promise are now long gone.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb

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