For starters, the resume reads like that of a teenager's Madden franchise. In three short years since taking over a bottom-feeding team, Harbaugh's 49ers have finished each season with either a trip to the NFC Championship or the Super Bowl.
It started by taking a consensus bust in quarterback Alex Smith and putting him on the path to the Pro Bowl, until a concussion opened the door for Harbaugh's handpicked prodigy, Colin Kaepernick. Before eventually flipping Smith for two second-round picks, Harbaugh rode Kaepernick's hot hand within five yards of a Lombardi Trophy.
No head coach has done more with a backup quarterback since Eric Taylor in the first season of Friday Night Lights.
However, in this world outside of an NBC drama, that type of performance demands a pay evaluation, and that fact has not been lost on 49ers owner Jed York.
Per Jason Cole of the National Football Post, York offered the following about the situation in December:
I hope he [Harbaugh] has all the leverage in the world. We kind of started to talk about a new contract last offseason after the Super Bowl, but it never got to the formal stage of making an offer. I think, rightfully so, Jim believes he has outperformed the original contract.
We’ll talk about something in the offseason that will put him in better position and we’ll see what he wants to do. He does have two years left and he may decide to play it out and bet on himself. By the time the deal is done, maybe he’ll be worth $8 or $9 million a year because he has won a couple of Super Bowls. I sure hope that’s the case.
While Harbaugh's ultimate leverage of a Super Bowl victory has yet to come into play, the 49ers aren't out of the water when it comes to investing in their coach. As mentioned in Cole's report, Harbaugh's current five-year, $25 million contract puts him near the bottom of the NFC West.
There are some that will argue for Harbaugh's playoff shortcomings as a pitfall in his negotiations, such as Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News. Without a ring on his hand, Kawakami suggests that Harbaugh is unreasonable to seek the $8 million mark that hovers around the top of the NFL coaching hierarchy.
On the other hand, the overall numbers bear out a different story. As pointed out by Doug Williams of NBCBayArea.com, it was Harbaugh who led the 49ers out of one of the franchise's darkest stretches:
|By The Numbers: Recent History of the San Francisco 49ers|
|Years||Regular Season Record||Playoff Appearances||Playoff Record|
|Pro Football Reference|
Now both a known commodity and a proven winner, Harbaugh has clearly exceeded his initial contract. Williams argues that other teams would certainly be willing to bet the farm on Harbaugh, which leaves the 49ers with less leverage than they may think.
The University of Texas already came knocking for its chance. The 49ers may consider Harbaugh's contract extension as a priority of the offseason, via Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com, but they will have to open the coffers to get a deal done.
In Harbaugh's case, a $5 million annual salary has been far surpassed since he signed on with the 49ers in 2011. For example, Chris Smith of Forbes broke down some of the top NFL coaching salaries before the 2013 season:
|Top NFL Head Coaching Salaries in 2013|
|Sean Payton||New Orleans Saints||$8 million|
|Bill Belichick||New England Patriots||$7.5 million|
|Andy Reid||Kansas City Chiefs||$7.5 million|
|Pete Carrol||Seattle Seahawks||$7 million|
|Jeff Fisher||St. Louis Rams||$7 million|
|Mike Shanahan||Washington Redskins||$7 million|
|Tom Coughlin||New York Giants||$6.67 million|
|Chip Kelly||Philadelphia Eagles||$6.5 million|
While this list is littered with Super Bowl titles and years of NFL experience, the highlighted names have combined for zero championships. After arguably the best coaching start in the history of the league, hope for the future could be enough to sway almost any organization in Harbaugh's favor.
That's exactly the line of thought for Grantland's Bill Barnwell, who called Harbaugh "the NFL's Most Valuable Person" before last year's Super Bowl Run.
Considering that coaching salaries do not impact the salary cap, Barnwell concluded that the 49ers' investment in Harbaugh had been vastly underrated:
I think it’s pretty clear that Harbaugh and elite coaches of his ilk are vastly underpaid and responsible for producing huge amounts of value for their respective organizations. ... One day, an enterprising owner who’s sick of losing is going to realize that and snap up Harbaugh or Bill Belichick by promising them $15 million a year when their contract expires. Until then, Harbaugh’s going to have to ply his trade as one of the league’s most undervalued assets.
While this prediction may be a few years ahead of it's time, there is still some merit to the line of thinking.
Right now, the 49ers are enjoying their most successful stretch since the immediate aftermath of the Bill Walsh era. With over $1.3 billion invested in a new stadium, a winning team to happily fill the seats is as important now as it has ever been.
After drudging through the coaching tenures of Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, the 49ers have come to appreciate what a good coach can do. Any money invested in Harbaugh is a reflection of the product on the field, which will provide value far beyond the $7-8 million dollars he could command.
The fact of the matter is the 49ers can't afford to let another team take the gamble before they do. For the good of the franchise, it's time to pay the man.
Tom Smeaton is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and can also be found on Twitter at @smeaton49.
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