For most of the season, the San Francisco 49ers looked like they would run away with the NFC West.
That isn't happening now, though, not with a one-and-a-half game lead over the Seahawks with four games left and a trip to Seattle looming ahead.
All year, head coach Jim Harbaugh kept reminding everyone that, at some point, Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James and A.J. Jenkins would be needed later in the season and would be ready when called upon.
Now their time has come, and while they may be up to the task, the fact remains that a good part of the season's success now rests on the shoulders of three previously non-existent players.
Jim Harbaugh can be a polarizing coach at times, to say the least. But one of the things that has endeared him to most fans, love or hate him, is his unflinching loyalty to his players.
In light of the whole Alex Smith vs. Colin Kaepernick dilemma, it is fair to call some of that loyalty into question at this point.
Now, Harbaugh has much of the season riding on three players he let go unused in order to keep them fresh for the very situation they're in now, as well as a quarterback he moved up in the draft to acquire and has staked the team's future to.
So what happens if it all blows up in Harbaugh's face down the stretch? What if the 49ers somehow manage to blow the division entirely? What happens if they miss the playoffs altogether or get bounced out in their first game?
And what if one of the above scenarios unfolds because Jacobs, James and Jenkins all prove ineffective at best and Kaepernick's play remains about where it is now, which is dynamic at times and susceptible to rookie-like mistakes at others?
Jim Harbaugh isn't getting fired anytime soon, barring some crazed outburst toward a member of the media resulting in him dragging an unconscious Ray Ratto out of the room by his sternocleidomastoid.
That being said, the 49ers are suddenly in a position where Harbaugh's gambles very well may be a determining factor in the success of this season. And for this team, success is defined as a trip to the Super Bowl, at the very least.
At the beginning of the year, this certainly did not look like a team that needed to take these sorts of gambles to get to the Promised Land.
If Harbaugh's decisions backfire and something drastic happens, he is going to be under a lot of fire. The kind that a lesser coach in a very tenuous position may not survive.
The loonies are going to come out of the woodwork and have a field day with him if this season ends disastrously. If that disaster does unfold, it very well may unfold because the quarterback is playing poorly or there is no running game outside of Gore and the receiving corps is suddenly barely deeper than it was this time last year.
Banking on Randy Moss was a gamble in its own right.
If any of those possibilities are a significant reason for a shocking end to the 49ers' season, especially poor play from the quarterback (regardless of who), those reasons can be traced back to Jim Harbaugh in some direct way.
Harbaugh has sat down at the poker table and told everyone to relax because he knows how to play pot-limit Omaha hi/lo split.
Well, sit down at the table with that attitude and then walk away a few hours later with no shirt on your back and people are going to let you know about it on the way out.
The other players are also going to all gang up on you any chance they get. The only way to shut them up is to come back and take all the money the next time.
It is amazing to think that Jim Harbaugh could very easily go from being the proverbial Man of the Year in the Bay Area, a man who seemed infallible at times, to a coach under immense duress and pressure from the fans, media and front office alike, due in part to his own hubris.
That hubris could be very telling of how the rest of Harbaugh's tenure will play out as head coach of the 49ers.
As a player, he was known for playing with a chip on his shoulder. Even if it meant provoking people into putting the chip on his shoulder in the first place, as if he couldn't function without some sort of conflict or someone to prove wrong or to prove his own ability to.
We may be seeing the same phenomenon play out with him as a coach. Harbaugh, along with offensive coordinator Greg Roman, have shown a tendency at times to almost out-think themselves with their play calling and game plans.
Could it go further? Or maybe it already has:
-Is Kaepernick the starter because Harbaugh wants to prove his doubters wrong, to prove his own genius for having moved up to draft him or because he really believes he is the best option available?
-Were James and Jenkins drafted because Harbaugh saw good players there or because he could look like a genius if he molded them into good players?
-Was Jacobs kept out of uniform because they really didn't need him or because Harbaugh was determined to prove that he could insert any runner into his offense under any circumstances and they would succeed?
-If someone told Harbaugh that the sky was blue, would he argue that it was more of a cerulean color?
Of course, if the 49ers win the Super Bowl, the whole point is moot.
Likewise, if the 49ers suffer some sort of catastrophic injury somewhere and they fail to go far as a result, Harbaugh will probably be absolved.
Regardless, this looks to be the first of many years to come in which Harbaugh does something unorthodox or outlandish in order to create an enemy or a doubter for him to focus his competitive drive on.
Let's just hope he wins all his bets because he's using the team as collateral.
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