Though it may seem like an eternity now, just two years ago Jim Harbaugh walked off of a field swarmed with reporters and players alike after a 23-17 loss to the rival Seahawks stopped his 49ers a game away from a trip back to the Super Bowl.
A year earlier, his season had ended in heartbreak after a nail-biting loss to his brother, John. As he escaped to the tunnels of Centurylink Field, Pam Oliver caught him for a brief interview after the loss. Harbaugh, always aloof and philosophical, quoted Hemingway, saying that, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” As much as this loss might sting, it would be fine eventually. These were the two best teams in the best conference in the NFL. It was well understood that whoever won this game would be favorites against Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos. Each of them boasted rosters loaded with young playmakers, topped off by the two most exciting young quarterbacks in the league. They would be battling for NFC titles for years against Seattle. They would be back.
Just a month earlier, a so-called genius from Oregon by the name of Chip Kelly had been thraughted by Sean Payton, Drew Brees, and a still relevant Saints team. What the man had pulled off that year was nothing short of a miracle. Going into the year, this was a dumpster fire team coming off of a 4-12 season that even Andy Reid couldn’t save. They didn’t have a quarterback, a defense, or any hope of a title that season. The season started off as advertised: a 1-3 start and a quarterback controversy with fans already calling for the head of the revolutionary college coach hired to band-aid this once great team. Then, the Chip Kelly effect took hold. Surrounded by superstars like Desean Jackson and LeSean McCoy, Kelly turned some kid named Nick Foles into a household name. As we all know, the quarterback posted a magical statistical season, with 26 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. Though the limitations of his quarterback were apparent to anyone who watched game film, it didn’t matter, as Kelly’s quick-tempo offense was seemingly quarterback-proof and had defenses gasping for air as receivers ran wide open down the field. The miracle ride was stopped short in January, but the belief in Philly was riding high again. They would be back.
That sure looked to be the case the next season, as the Eagles sprinted off to a 9-3 start, complete with a blowout of their most hated Cowboys for all to see on Thanksgiving night. The team had struggled with health throughout the year, as their once dominant offensive line was kept apart by injuries before Foles was sidelined midway through the year. Even with the national joke called Mark Sanchez as his quarterback, Kelly pushed on towards the playoffs without a hitch. He had ditched his primadonna, electric receiver Desean Jackson the offseason before after reports of a locker room riff, with the second option Jeremy Maclin seamlessly sliding into his role and posting nearly identically gaudy numbers. It didn’t matter who was playing, because it was apparent that Kelly could manufacture offense even without the luxury of quality personnel.
Then the wheels fell off of the Chip Kelly train. The team stumbled to a 1-3 record in December after they couldn’t overcome the turnover woes of Marc Sanchez, or their porous secondary for that matter. They would have to watch from home as their most hated rival, the Cowboys, would make a deep playoff run. Kelly’s honeymoon period may have run out, but expectations for 2015 were high. They would be back.
Things didn’t go much better in San Fransisco, either. With key injuries to stars like Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, the team stumbled to a 7-9 finish and fell short of the playoffs. Disappointed, Jed York fired Harbaugh. It was a bold statement; their success was a result of the excellent talent acquisition of Trent Balke rather than the coaching prowess of Harbaugh. Meanwhile, their rival from up north was making a run at a potential dynasty with another trip to the Super Bowl. It might have been a rough year, but they would be back.
Then the 2015 offseason happened, cursing the fortunes and reputations of Kelly and the 49ers.
"It's very difficult to get from good to great. It's a gamble to go from good to great because you could go from good to mediocre with changes,” said Eagles Owner Jeff Lurie. “Chip had a vision of how we could get from good to great."
Kelly’s gamble during the 2015 offseason was indeed a bold one. After a mysterious coup resulting in the former Oregon coach having full control over the personnel, he transformed the Eagles roster. Gone were the names that Philly fans had come to love; former rushing champion Lesean McCoy was jettisoned to Buffalo, apparent franchise quarterback Nick Foles was traded, and Jeremy Maclin was let walk in free agency. Two key pieces of their once dominant offensive line, Todd Herremans and Evan Mathis, were unceremoniously dumped. Set to replace them were overpaid Legion of Boom defector Byron Maxwell, former number one pick Sam Bradford, and last year's rushing leader in DeMarco Murray. This wasn’t the Eagles that fans had come to know and love, but in Kelly’s eyes it was the one that could get them over their title drought.
It may be hard to remember a year later, but these moves made sense at the time. McCoy was overpaid and had shown signs of declining. In signing Murray, Kelly found a better fit for his offense with a more downhill runner and weakened their primary rival in Dallas. The team had the worst secondary in the NFL the year before, so inking free agencies most highly touted cornerback was a logical addition. Nick Foles wasn’t the team's franchise quarterback so Kelly needed to find one elsewhere. With all of the talent a coach could ask for, Sam Bradford was the best option in a limited crop of passers available. The roster was better on paper than a year before, leading many analysts to believe that this was a contender.
With each offseason move, whispers grew about Kelly. A budding storyline of the offseason developed regarding Kelly’s failure to connect and communicate with his players. With each player he shipped off, another headline came out about him not being able to understand the players he coached.
“The truth is Chip is uncomfortable around grown men of our culture,” said cornerback Brandon Boykin after he was traded to Pittsburgh. “He can't relate, and that makes him uncomfortable, he likes to be in total control of everything. Players can excel when you naturally let them be who they are and in my experience that hasn't been important to him.”
Hype didn’t do the 49ers the same justice that it did the Eagles. A sea of retirements hit the team hard that year. Within the span of a few short months, the core of their once bright collection of talent was out the door. Future Hall of Famer Patrick Willis retired at just thirty years old. Their most promising draft selection from a year before, Chris Borland, retired after just one year in the league, citing concerns about the potential brain damage of playing football. Stevie Johnson, Jonathan Martin, and Justin Smith were all gone by the time the team had a chance to replace them in the draft. Releasing Aldon Smith in August was just the icing on the cake to what could only be considered the most disastrous offseason in recent memory.
The matter of Harbaugh’s replacement only made matters worse. The team promoted an in-house option in former defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. Fears about the future of the team under Tomsula were only worsened by what could only be described as a disastrous introductory press conference.
When the actual 2015 season came, things got bad in a hurry. The Eagles dropped three of their first four games and looked out of sync from their first snap. Despite Kelly’s offseason moves, his once high-flying offense looked stagnant and uninspiring. Sam Bradford looked like a guy who had sat out the past two years and a bad fit in the offense. DeMarco Murray may have been one of the worst running backs in the league. The team's receivers struggled with drops all year long. The offensive line was a mess. It became apparent quickly that the team struggled with a lack of playmakers on offense and that the blame was sat squarely on Kelly’s shoulders. Talking heads were calling for his head by the time that the Redskins quietly began to make a run at the division title.
In San Francisco, matters were even worse. Once one of the most exciting young quarterbacks in the league, Colin Kaepernick was wildly inaccurate and unreliable. Despite all of his natural gifts, he was not ready to be a viable starting quarterback in the league. Benching him for first round bust Blaine Gabbert felt like a midseason hail mary to save this lost team. When your leading rusher and receiver are Carlos Hyde and the washed up version of Anquan Boldin, your team is in trouble. Guys like DuJuan Harris and Quinton Patton were playing significant snaps on offense. The team ranked last in DVOA and was lucky to win five games. What was once of the brightest young rosters in the league had become a barren wasteland in just two years.
By the end of the season, both organizations had had enough. Kelly was fired after the Eagles were mathematically eliminated, citing the same locker room problems that had popped up earlier in the offseason. Just hours after their last game, the 49ers dumped Tomsula after what could only be described as a lost season.
It seems only fitting that Kelly and the 49ers found each other this offseason. Perhaps it was because neither of them had any better options, but each of them needs each other to revive what were once inspiring career trajectories. The NFL is a “what have you done for me lately” industry; we so easily forget where people have come from in favor of the thrill of the moment. Just two years ago, Kelly was tearing apart the league with what looked like a revolutionary new offense. The 49ers looked poised to battle with the Seahawks for NFC supremacy for years to come. Fortune hasn’t favored either in the past two years. Analysts slam Kelly for the simplicity of his schemes and laugh at the talent-barren roster Balke has put together. Both of these once proud parties need each other to revive their lost careers.