Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck of Stanford share a smile after winning the Orange Bowl as the speculation over both their futures swirls.
As if the hollow victory of thumping the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17 were not difficult enough to swallow for a San Francisco 49ers team fresh off the dismissal of another failed experiment at head coach, circumstances grew more grim for the 49ers on the first day of their 2011 offseason.
On the surface it might not seem like much, but three coincidental happenings conspired on Monday that could well complicate matters for the red and gold moving forward.
First came the news that Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert has decided to declare for the 2011 NFL Draft. Gabbert is the second-rated quarterback behind Stanford's Andrew Luck according to most experts including Mel Kiper, Jr. and Scouts Inc.’s Todd McShay.
The draft will happen regardless of the labor situation for the league, and with the 49ers set to pick seventh, this gives four to five potential top-notch QB prospects, virtually assuring one or more will be available for the 49ers at No. 7.
The other two circumstances both dealt with the outcome of the first Discover Orange Bowl on Monday night—namely Stanford soundly beating Virginia Tech 40-12 and Andrew Luck earning MVP honors for his four touchdown performance. These results could—and many experts surmise will—serve as final validation of the Stanford chapter of both Luck and head coach Jim Harbaugh's Stanford careers.
Though Monday marked just the first bowl win for Harbaugh, there is much reason to assume it could be his last. It capped a dramatic and rapid turnaround from 4-8 in 2007 to a school record 11-1 and No. 4 ranking in 2010. Unless Harbaugh is highly motivated to win a national title with the Cardinal, now would be the time to walk away.
Luck's performance should serve as similar motivation for him to forego his final two years of NCAA eligibility and declare for the draft. After winning Orange Bowl MVP honors, there are few collegiate goals left for Luck to pursue. True, he lost out on the Heisman to Cam Newton and has yet to play for a BCS Championship, but more important than those is what he has done.
Luck has elevated himself to the very top of each and every NFL scout list and mock draft and is virtually guaranteed a No. 1 overall selection if he declares today. Luck may need look no further than the precedent set by Matt Leinart in 2005 to help finalize his decision. After choosing to return to USC—Leinart's stock fell precipitously, and he spent last season filling space on the bench in Houston, after being cut by Arizona.
So Luck has incentive to declare for the draft, Harbaugh can walk away from Stanford at the top of his game, and Gabbert increases the chances of the 49ers landing a top QB. How is this bad?
After all, according to several reports, the 49ers have made Harbaugh their primary focus in their search to replace the deposed Mike Singletary. It may be too much to give up to trade up for Luck, but if both he and Gabbert are in play on draft day, the 49ers could still land a quality prospect at No. 7. Wins all around, right?
Not so much.
As I described in a previous piece, Harbaugh may not be the slam dunk many assume he is. He has done a fantastic job transforming a once dismal Cardinal team, but past performance is no guarantee of future success, and college heroics for coaches have trouble translating to the NFL as much they do for players. Just ask Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban.
Much of Harbaugh's appeal lies in the parallels between his story and that of Bill Walsh—who are among a group of only four coaches to lead Stanford to 10 or more wins on a season. History repeats itself, but that could be pushing it.
With the near certainty of both Luck and Gabbert joining Jake Locker, Ryan Mallett, and possibly Cam Newton in New York City this April, the 49ers will be able to get a top prospect at QB without having to move up. But is that what they really ought to do?
The 49ers largely ignored their defensive woes (particularly in the secondary) in last year's draft, with predictable results in the 2010 season. Furthermore, despite some notable recent exceptions, a first round selection combined with rookie-year reps has not historically been a recipe for QB stardom.
One could well argue that the 49ers would be best served in the 2011 draft by targeting the likes of Nebraska's Prince Amukamara at No. 7, and picking up a longer-term QB prospect like Greg McElroy or Pat Devlin in a later round. This would give the 49ers an immediate play maker on defense while allowing them to develop their potential franchise QB according to more classical methods.
The seemingly imminent declaration of Andrew Luck combined with the news from Gabbert on Monday will now cloud that plan and put heavy pressure on the 49ers to take a first-round QB.
The much-discussed package deal of a trade-up to acquire Andrew Luck combined with the signing of Harbaugh is intriguing as well at first. But upon further review, it reeks of the remnant stench of Steve Spurrier's Redskins days—wherein he recruited multiple University of Florida alumni, only to discover that the famous "Fun and Gun" was little more than smoke and mirrors in the NFL.
Can the 49ers muster the wherewithal to defy the critics and "experts" and overcome the wave of pressure to pursue these purported slam dunks? Can the yet-to-be-named team brain trust rise above the looming fog and determine the best option for the team based on logic, not hype? Will my younger readers get this soap reference? Will my older readers get that Family Guy reference?
Time will tell.
Keep the Faith