The current fortunes of the San Francisco 49ers could be summed up in one jarring social-media juxtaposition Friday afternoon. There was Jim Harbaugh, stripping off his Michigan blue shirt to gleefully conduct a camp topless. And there was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Gerald McCoywriting on Twitter what everybody else has been wondering: "What is going on in San Fran?"
Back in December, when the 49ers completed a messy and protracted divorce from Harbaugh and installed Jim Tomsula as the head coach, it looked to be the nadir for a franchise that had seemingly allowed high-level infighting and the desire to improve chemistry tear asunder a team and coaching staff that, less than two years earlier, was inches from winning the Super Bowl.
In hindsight, the nadir looks like nirvana.
Harbaugh was merely the first out the door, beginning a shocking exodus -- some of it planned, but stunning portions of it not -- that has led to a complete 49ers overhaul, one that threatens to plummet the team to the bottom of the NFC West. The latest setback: the departure -- maybe retirement, maybe something less permanent -- of right tackle Anthony Davis on Friday, the move that prompted McCoy's question and sealed this Niners offseason as the most perplexing and tumultuous any team has endured.
Perhaps someday a common thread will be found to explain the four retirements -- those of Davis, Chris Borland, Patrick Willis and Justin Smith -- that have helped gut the 49ers. For now, they appear to be independent events, each decision made for its own reason -- but all knotted together like ropes to help yank the entire enterprise down.
Smith spent 14 seasons in the NFL, and his retirement was not unexpected. The rest were a surprise, though, and one personnel executive from another NFL team wondered Friday night if the combination of the injuries Davis suffered last season -- everything from a hamstring strain to a concussion -- and seeing other players in his locker room retire early because of injury concerns might have led to Davis' decision.
Whatever the reasons, the toll is adding up. Including free-agent defections and releases, the 49ers have lost 12 players who started at least six games last season (plus three-time All-Pro punter Andy Lee, who was traded to Cleveland on Saturday afternoon), giving them the feel of a team in the midst of a salary-cap purge -- except there was no salary-cap bind to provoke this.
None of the wide receivers from the team that narrowly lost to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII remain, while just one defensive back, Tramaine Brock, is still there. From the dominant offensive line that powered the 49ers' running attack, just two starters -- left tackle Joe Staley and seemingly unhappy right guard Alex Boone -- are likely to be back, perhaps with Boone moving to tackle to replace Davis. Of course, that's no longer Frank Gore's problem. The longtime Niners running back is gone, too, having signed with Indianapolis.
Given the defensive fronts of San Francisco's NFC West rivals, it is difficult to imagine how Tomsula's team will mount much of a rushing attack in 2015, or how quarterback Colin Kaepernick will get any time to pass. When he does get a throw off, it won't be going to Michael Crabtree -- yes, he is gone, too, having moved across the Bay.
That Davis' decision might not have come as a complete shock to those closest to him does not soften the blow. He suffered a concussion last season, and, in thoughtful comments afterward, expressed concern over the lingering after-effects he felt. He had not been participating in OTAs. His announcement emphasized that he wanted to take time away to get his mind and body healthy again, making it conceivable that he is merely taking a sabbatical, and the 49ers will retain his rights if he returns. In the meantime, the team is now forced to contemplate putting a seventh-round draft pick (Florida offensive lineman Trenton Brown) at right tackle.
"I don't think it's a huge blow to this team," Tomsula said Friday afternoon. "I wouldn't categorize it that way. We've got some guys that are doing some really good things right now that we're really excited about going into training camp. The focus is on the guys that are here and the guys that are doing what they're doing."
Tomsula had once appeared to be the big winner in San Francisco, because he had been hand-picked by management to take over a team only a season removed from its third straight appearance in the NFC Championship Game. He is reportedly well-liked by players, some of whom had grown weary of Harbaugh's high-intensity persona.
The undercurrent of dissatisfaction in San Francisco was obvious for more than a year, ever since that first fissure appeared when the Cleveland Brownsmade an aborted run at trading for Harbaugh. Harbaugh was undoubtedly a grating personality even as he pushed the 49ers to a level of success they had not seen in more than a decade. Team brass surely thought it could get over the top and win a Super Bowl with less abrasiveness and more cohesion between the front office and the head coach's office -- that was a bet on general manager Trent Baalke's eye for talent over Harbaugh's ability to lead it. But owner Jed York's contention in March that the talent was better than the results it yielded would almost certainly never be repeated now, not even by York.
Tomsula will still enjoy the support of York and Baalke. But he is a first-time head coach with the thankless task of taking over a shell of a team, one that has a dwindling amount of proven talent, one that is now -- despite Baalke's insistence to the contrary -- undoubtedly fully rebuilding. It seemed fitting that Lee, the longest-tenured 49er after 11 years, was traded in favor of a punter (Bradley Pinion) drafted in the fifth round this spring.
That decision might turn out to be the right one for the 49ers, as might all of them, if the team is very lucky. But was Harbaugh's personality any more grating than a lot of losing in the meantime would be? As much faith as York and Baalke have in themselves, can they really quickly fix a roster that, through design and happenstance, is now deeply flawed? Can nine months of unending tumult possibly produce precise execution come September?