San Francisco 49ers: Sorting Through Jim Harbaugh and the Cleveland Browns

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San Francisco 49ers: Sorting Through Jim Harbaugh and the Cleveland Browns
Ben Margot/Associated Press

It’s been a busy week for Jim Harbaugh rumors.  Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported that the Cleveland Browns very nearly managed to pull off a trade that would have sent Harbaugh to Cleveland in exchange for multiple draft picks, citing multiple unnamed sources.  Harbaugh, who is under contract through the 2015 season, ultimately decided to nix the deal and stay with the team, he reported.

And then the rumors started flying back and forth.

Jed York, the team’s CEO, tweeted out that the report wasn’t true, as did an unnamed source talking to NFL.com's own Ian Rapoport, adding that it was “ridiculous.”  It seemed, at the time, that the rumors were just part of the NFL’s silly season—unfounded rumors based on the fact that the team and coach hadn’t yet come to a contract extension.

Then, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam got into the mix, telling USA Today's Jarrett Bell that there was, in fact, an opportunity to make a deal, and it simply ended up not materializing.  That forced York to admit—or to clarify, depending on how you want to read the situation—to Peter King of Sports Illustrated that the Browns had reached out to the team, but that they had no interest in pursuing the deal.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Did Jimmy Haslam really try to steal Harbaugh from the 49ers?

What happened here?  All involved now seem to agree that Cleveland made an offer to San Francisco, but how was the offer considered in San Francisco’s front office?  York now makes it sound like the team never seriously considered trading Harbaugh, while Haslam and PFT’s reports seem to imply that the deal was there in structure, only failing through when Harbaugh decided to stay with the club.

For his part, according to CSNBayArea.com, Harbaugh has called the reports of the trade “ridiculous,” per Matt Maiocco. He further stated, according to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, that he knew “nothing about” a potential trade.  Is this damage control and spin by the team, or did the initial PFT report overstretch its bounds, turning a molehill into a mountain?

All of this would be regarded as mere background noise had stories not also come out describing Harbaugh’s relationship with the front office as frosty. 

Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke have been reported to have something of a difficult working relationship, including this report from Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News.  Both men have very strong personalities and are usually convinced they’re right.  When it comes to personnel matters, they occasionally disagree, and sparks are bound to fly.

As to their relationship, Baalke told CSNBayArea that they “continue to work hard at it.”

What we’re trying to do is get it right for the 49ers. And the best way to get it right is for everybody to be on the same page and to work hard together and try to make the best decisions that you can for the team and the organization as a whole. We’ll continue to do that. From that standpoint, nothing’s changed.

Paul Sakuma/Associated Press
Baalke and Harbaugh, in happier times?

And you know what?  It’s alright if Harbaugh and Baalke aren’t exactly the best of friends—the results so far speak for themselves.  It’s alright if the two get into huge arguments over players and contracts as long as the team succeeds.  As long as they both can accept losing some of their battles, their relationship can be contentious and still work.

That loops us back around to the trade rumors—what really happened between the Browns and 49ers?  There are two scenarios I think are most likely.

Scenario one basically boils down to the two sides playing hardball in negotiating Harbaugh’s new contract.  While Harbaugh hasn’t spoken openly about his contract demands, the general consensus of reports seem to indicate he’s looking for something around $8 million a year, possibly with increased personnel control added in, according to Kawakami.

Perhaps the team saw the Browns’ interest as a way to basically tell Harbaugh that they’re not going to be held hostage over contract demands—that they would be willing to move on if Harbaugh’s demands got too outrageous. 

It’s not that they would have had any desire to trade Harbaugh, per se, just that they were using Cleveland’s interest as a negotiating tactic to decrease Harbaugh’s demands.  In that case, York would be telling the truth that there was no real interest on San Francisco’s side; it was just a negotiating tactic.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press
Jed York has shown he knows something about what he's doing.

Scenario two simply has the 49ers doing their due diligence, as it were.  With Harbaugh not under contract past the 2015 season, they could have used Cleveland’s interest to gauge Harbaugh’s value to other teams around the league, and used the opportunity to try to figure out which teams they could go to if talks broke down and Harbaugh needed to be replaced.

Every good team should have a contingency plan in place for key personnel—what if Harbaugh, an intense individual, suffered a heart attack like John Fox did?  Or if a big-time college program came in and offered him an insane contract, one that the team couldn’t match? 

In this scenario, it’s not that the team had a desire to get rid of Harbaugh and that desire was driving any talks; the team was simply sitting down and hashing out what to do if negotiations broke down.

In either case, York might have gone to Harbaugh and let him know that other teams were interested in his services.  Both sides then could have come to the conclusion that it would be best for both sides to continue working on a new contract extension rather than let Harbaugh go.

That means Haslam is telling the truth when he says there was a serious offer, York is telling the truth when he says the 49ers didn’t take the offer seriously and Harbaugh is telling the truth when he said he didn’t  turn down a specific trade—just perhaps some hypothetical situations.  Then, the news of these talks were leaked to the media, and we now have a whirlwind of coverage at the end of February.

Obviously, that’s all speculation—and we’ll never know, for sure, precisely how everything went down.  Kawakami lays out another possible scenario, with the Browns first asking about Greg Roman or Vic Fangio, and things spiraling out from there.  It’s a good read, and another somewhat plausible scenario.  It’s all just speculation, however.

What isn’t speculation is the fact that there isn’t a coach available, right now, who would offer the 49ers more than Harbaugh.  Similarly, there’s not a job available, right now, that would give Harbaugh a better chance to succeed than the 49ers.  It’s in the best interest of both parties to hammer out a contract extension sooner rather than later.

John Bazemore/Associated Press
Harbaugh is not exactly a soft-spoken individual.

How much should Harbaugh be making?  More than the $5 million he makes now, for sure.  Unlike players, coaches aren’t governed by a salary cap, so when you find a coach who can get so much more out of his players than his predecessors, you can—and should—offer him the moon and the stars to stay with the club.

It’s understandable that the 49ers might not want to give Harbaugh the kind of money Bill Belichick or Sean Payton is making; Harbaugh never has won a championship, after all. 

But as it stands now, Harbaugh makes less than Jeff Fisher does, not to mention Chip Kelly or Andy Reid, according to CoachesHotSeat.com. None of those gentlemen have won the Super Bowl either, and I don’t think the 49ers would swap Harbaugh for any of them.

I’d expect that the two sides will eventually announce an extension, giving Harbaugh the same money as his rival Pete Carroll in Seattle or his brother John in Baltimore, at $7 million a year.  That would put him up there with the elite of the elite in terms of compensation, a position he’s earned.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

At the same time, if the only thing holding a deal back is money, the team should bite the bullet and pay the man.  They’re opening a new stadium, they’re one of the most successful and profitable teams in the league at the moment and they’re not limited in what they can pay him in the same way as they would be a top quarterback.  A rising tide lifts all boats; pay the man.

It was Eddie DeBartolo’s philosophy that the team should spare no expense to give his team a competitive advantage.  Outside of the salary cap, that means having the best facilities and hiring the best staff, regardless of the cost.  It’s a strategy that’s worked in the past, certainly.

It’s understandable that the 49ers don’t want to get fleeced by Harbaugh or pay him too far above market value, as that could hamper their position in negotiations down the line.  However, as long as Harbaugh’s contract demands are within reasonable terms, financially—i.e., no $20 million-a-year mega-contract—they simply should not let him get away, be it to Cleveland or anywhere else.

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