What Exactly Is Going On Within the San Francisco 49ers Front Office?
There’s been a lot of white noise surrounding the San Francisco 49ers, particularly the club’s savior of a head coach, Jim Harbaugh, and what his future holds. Rumors have been picking up over the last six months or so and the latest from Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk really started a fire.
But there is reason to believe that it is just the lead-up to something bigger, whatever it may be.
The half-truths and sensationalism in the most heavily trafficked reports have mostly served to set the stage for a drama, rather than work to find the truth. Now that a week has gone by since the original release, the Bay Area media has been able catch up and provide their individual takes on the organization over the last three years.
There has been plenty of information that has helped to paint a picture of how their hierarchy is built and the personalities that function within it.
The purpose of this article and how it will differentiate itself from the others you've read this week is that it will outline the delivery of these rumors, while using clues and logic to come to an sensible conclusion of some sort. Most importantly, it is to present all the facts and let readers decide for themselves what is going on in Santa Clara.
So without further ado, we pull the curtain up on the Jim Harbaugh drama at 4949 Centennial and explore what it might really mean.
Thanks to Steph McCarroll of Niners Nation for direct quotes. Article bits and information courtesy of Tim Kawakami (The San Jose Mercury News), Eric Branch (The San Francisco Chronicle), Matt Barrows (The Sacramento Bee) and Matt Maiocco (CSN Bay Area).
Conjecture, Speculation and Hearsay: Part I
No. 1: Baseless Chatter
To this point, no sources by reporting parties have been named. 49ers owner Jed York and Browns owner Jimmy Haslam have both spoken out publicly and then to a few individual reporters, reiterating their stance, but there are several key players that remain unidentified.
The weight of this became evident when NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport and Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio had a colorful back-and-forth on Twitter with contradictory reports from different sources:
Here is the Jed York-Rap Sheet-PFT back and forth on possible Harbaugh trade to Cleveland and denial "on record" pic.twitter.com/lh2ztfLQGZ— John Lund (@JohnLundRadio) February 21, 2014
Many may have found it whimsical that Florio asked Rapoport to divulge his source, yet PFT hadn’t named one of its own.
While it’s commonplace to protect one's sources by keeping them anonymous, so as to not compromise the relationship for the future, the point here is nobody has a leg to stand on. There’s no official word one way or the other.
But how often do you have two majors arguing to this degree?
Pro Football Talk and NFL Network couldn’t be farther apart here, which may cause some to believe there is foul play afoot. One or both are being fed false info—or simply nuggets of truth. We’ll get into that later.
Rapoport has since named one of his two sources, but it didn’t make waves since it was York, who vehemently denied the rumors on Twitter. York has also since told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King that the Browns “did reach out” and the team had “no interest in pursuing it.”
But if you look at which high-ranking sources are yet to make any official statement on behalf of PFT, one could boldly assume where Florio’s sources are coming from (ex-Browns GM Mike Lombardi, David Dunn of Athletes First).
Nothing official has been released from the PR departments as of yet nor any statements from any agents potentially involved. And if this deal got as far as some suggest it did, there would be suits with some knowledge on the matter. Clearly there are missing pieces that continue to cloud the situation.
It’s important to understand that this is a tug-of-war that can completely shift in any direction at any time because there’s nothing credible to go off of. Anyone’s story can be picked at and discredited. This leaves people trying to piece together the facts for themselves to imagine a scenario.
Conjecture, Speculation and Hearsay: Part II
No. 2: Selective Reporting
One microscopic detail in a swamp of tweets from Ian Rapoport that went overlooked was when he said the Browns released an official statement saying the team conducted an “extensive” search that included “several options.”
Let’s be honest, those “several options,” outside the ones that directly interviewed, hadn’t been named simply because they’re not as polarizing as Jim Harbaugh.
The 49ers’ head coach has been singled out in a group of lord knows how many candidates the Browns had on that list. It might’ve ranged from Mike Pettine to Jim Harbaugh to Elvis Presley.
Over the past week, details have been conveniently passed over for more stimulating possibilities that are less realistic. It has been one perpetual game of high-stakes “telephone,” where facts are being diluted down through multiple channels before making headlines.
Conjecture, Speculation and Hearsay: Part III
No. 3: Perception is Everything
Jed York denies the report; he’s accused of being a liar.
Jimmy Haslam says they reached out to the 49ers about Harbaugh, and it's received as if he’s confirming the initial report as fact.
Even then, there wasn’t an assertion to read into the language of his statement. Haslam said, “There was an opportunity there, and it didn’t materialize,” via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. Well, an opportunity can mean anything. Just because they made a run doesn’t mean it was considered. It’s a very vague statement.
It could’ve been an open-and-shut case—an opportunity that lasted a nanosecond.
But it’s been clear since the get-go, whatever the Browns say is fact and whatever the 49ers say is false. Maybe it’s because San Francisco has created a lot of enemies on the field and in the media since 2011. Success has that affect. Unfortunately, the 49ers have not gotten a lot of fair treatment in this process because of it.
And the funny thing is, if you’re going to play that game where it’s one owner’s word versus another’s, why doesn’t credibility come into play?
Haslam is currently the chief subject in a major FBI investigation, while York is a second-generation owner that is in the midst of coming into his own and restoring this franchise back to its glory days. It seems most people are giving the wrong person the benefit of the doubt.
Judging Another's Relationship from Afar
The most perplexing thing in all this is that reporters, national writers and other media professionals have presumed to know the inner workings of someone else’s working relationship. That’s quite stunning.
Human interaction is complex enough to figure out when the two people involved know every single second of every single interaction they’ve had. How on earth does someone 3,000 miles away, relying on unnamed sources, have the slightest clue as to what is going on in their office behind closed doors?
Many of which are the same outlets that have the 49ers prioritizing defensive tackle as the No. 1 need in the 2014 draft.
And unfortunately, despite the local media's tremendous efforts to keep fans up to date with what’s going on and provide their best interpretation of the situation, the national outlets are reading it and re-reporting these theories as fact, which they are not.
It seems people’s account of what they saw or how they perceive it translate into actual “incidents” people think Harbaugh and Baalke are having an abundance of—and there’s a disconnect.
Moreover, another point to be drawn from Eric Branch’s article in the San Francisco Chronicle recounting a dialogue with Jed York about the working relationship of Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke is that people are focusing on a small percent of the so-called dysfunction.
Here is a tidbit from Branch’s article detailing their unique rapport:
At the time, York said Harbaugh and Baalke saw eye-to-eye on personnel decisions “95 percent of the time.” The other five percent? York, chuckling, said those were not the warmest-and-fuzziest of discussions.
“That’s always very entertaining to see those conversations,” York said. “But they fight with each other and they push each other because they both want to win.”
One of the important things is why they’d be argumentative at times, and that’s because they’re two alphas that share a common goal.
Branch mentions the great respect the two have for one another, which is something he gained in hearing from York. And it’s also why anyone engages in an argument in the first place. There’s a willingness to hear each other out and work toward a solution for the sake of something greater than the individuals involved.
Folks want to fester over the selection of wide receiver A.J. Jenkins at No. 30 overall in 2012, and that's no surprise. There’s been talk of possible friction that could’ve been caused by Trent Baalke passing on Stanford fullback Owen Marecic in 2011 and selecting tailback Kendall Hunter and fullback Bruce Miller instead.
But in hindsight, why would Harbaugh harbor negative feelings over that?
Baalke decimated the 2011 and 2013 drafts. We're still yet to see it unfold. And as for Marecic, the team has a starting-caliber backup in Hunter and an All-Pro-type blocker and receiving back in Miller. Added to which, Marecic is AWOL from the league at the age of 25. So how much did “the perfect football player” really love the game?
In the grand scheme of things, these are trivial.
This is a ballclub that has led in Pro Bowl voting since 2011, sending roughly eight starters per year.
People conveniently forget to mention Trent Baalke’s successful trade up for LSU safety Eric Reid, who was Harbaugh’s handpicked safety he recruited to Stanford.
Trading up for Colin Kaepernick in Round 2 in 2011 was no easy task either. But Baalke accomplished what was arguably his most important charge by beating out the Oakland Raiders, who were on hot on the trail for the dual-threat from Nevada, and obtaining Harbaugh’s quarterback of the future, via Peter King of Sports Illustrated.
That was the most important thing Baalke could’ve done in his entire tenure, past, present and probably future.
And for Harbaugh, who was going to tie his NFL coaching career to a quarterback, he should never forget that Baalke pulled that off. They could’ve wound up with Ryan Mallett if Baalke fell asleep at the wheel. But instead, many find it easier to nitpick the misses than it is to appreciate the sensational roster they’ve assembled together.
Seeking Logic: Part I
Steph McCarroll of Niners Nation, an attorney with extensive experience representing injured NFL players, posted one of the few truth-seeking and common-sensical articles about these rumors.
In her attempt to bring rationale to a capricious situation, McCarroll specified how the Browns are merely a pawn in what is really the beginning of a very lucrative contract negotiation with Jim Harbaugh. The dispute, reported by Matt Maiocco, makes this a viable option.
“Usually whenever you have a dispute or conflict in facts between parties, you have to look at all the parties involved and who has the most to gain,” said McCarroll. “And the quietest person is usually the one that is the instigator.”
Expanding upon that, McCarroll added, “The 49ers have issued [a statement], Harbaugh has issued it, the Browns have issued it, but we haven’t heard from [ex-Browns GM] Mike Lombardi or David Dunn.”
This is turning out to be one of the most logical arguments for this recent media flare up. While Mike Lombardi may be the one that leaked the Browns information to Florio, the key player in all of this might be David Dunn.
For those that are unaware, Dunn of Athletes First is one of the NFL’s super agents like Bus Cook or Drew Rosenhaus, and he happens to represent the 49ers head coach. While Harbaugh sent out a text, Dunn hasn’t said a word.
This is also a man with a reputation.
He’s been with Harbaugh for quite some time and they’ve climbed the ranks together quite successfully. The coach has always landed good deals at places he’s wanted to be by putting the pressure on. That seems to be the M.O. of his agent or one heck of a coincidence spanning the better part of a decade.
Let’s take a look:
- University of San Diego (2006)—connections to Iowa State, North Texas and Tulane to leverage Stanford, per the San Francisco Chronicle.
- Stanford University (2009)—connections to Michigan and a meeting with the New York Jets (when he signed an extension with Stanford).
- 49ers (2011)—connections to Michigan and visited with the Miami Dolphins after he didn’t like the deal offered by San Francisco, per NY Times. The 49ers increased the rate and added a year upon his return and he agreed.
- 49ers (2013)—turned down offer from USC, via NFL.com.
- 49ers (2013-14)—connections to the University of Texas, Miami Dolphins and the Cleveland Browns.
Surprisingly enough, it appears Harbaugh is coming up on contract season again and that peculiar pattern has begun to emerge. Multiple teams are interested in Harbaugh again. But now it’s happening on a much larger scale. This is the big leagues and the coach has established himself as one of the best in the game.
That’s why there is such a stir. It is a big deal.
But respect the game that Dunn plays and what the job of an agent really is, which is raising the value of the client by any means necessary. And if that means massaging the media a bit and pulling at the heartstrings of helpless teams in need of the Jim Harbaugh treatment, so be it.
This is the sports industry.
As David Fucillo of Niners Nation astutely reminded us all of, Dunn also reps ESPN insider Chris Mortensen, who conveniently sided with Mike Florio’s initial report:
Browns did indeed make a run at Jim Harbaugh that reached a serious stage, sources confirm substance of @ProFootballTalk report.— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) February 22, 2014
Wonder where his information is coming from?
Dunn is one of the few directly involved that has not spoken up.
As Rapoport said on NFL Network, “the Browns did make a run at Jim Harbaugh, as did the University of Texas. They reached out to Dave Dunn, his agent. They said, ‘would he be interested?’ He considered very briefly and said ‘no.’ No trade talks. It didn’t really go any further than that, according to two 49ers officials including owner Jed York.”
Rapoport cited York and one other anonymous, while Mort’s remains unknown.
Is Dunn behind the scenes? He would’ve had an opportunity. Rapoport did say the Browns called him and there was reported interest in the 49ers coaches. That being said, the call he originally received from Cleveland might’ve actually come in regard to offensive coordinator Greg Roman, whom Dunn also reps.
He could've planted the seed then and there.
In his write-up, 49ers local beat writer Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee believes this to be a credible reason behind all of this, saying, “the winners are Harbaugh and his agent.”
Seeking Logic: Part II
Harbaugh is not a 35-year-old center. He is not an overrated safety. Coaches of his level are once in a decade and he deserves to be paid like it. His five-year, $25 million contract is well below his value and is nearing the end. 2014 is the second-to-last year it’s clear he’s outperformed it.
Former agent Joel Corry of CBS Sports and the National Football Post corroborated Harbaugh being underpaid, via PFC. He cited coach Pete Carroll’s near-$7 million per year deal, juxtaposed to Harbaugh’s, who took $2 million less and was a much hotter commodity when he made the jump from the NCAA.
(That also says Harbaugh wanted the 49ers job).
Corry also mentioned Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh’s contract as a potential “measuring stick,” which is also at $7-million-per-year rate, according to Pro Football Talk. It’s possible the 49ers coach requests a rate that is north of this figure, in the $8-10 million range.
That’s carries the potential for a 100 percent pay increase. You can imagine how the penny-saving front office may have difficulty swallowing this and therein lies the true problem. The Niners had to anticipate this and they're likely prepared to pay Harbaugh, but there is a great deal of space between them right now.
They'll really have to work to come to an agreement.
The Bottom Line
Looking at the entire situation, piecing everything together and deciding what makes the most sense, it becomes clear that there is a mole.
There’s been a lot of smoke and mirrors in what may turn out to be just be the beginning of one of the most lucrative contracts an NFL head coach has ever commanded. And it’s not like Jim Harbaugh doesn't deserve it. And it's not like he and his agent don’t understand the nature of this front office, which does not pay more than market value.
They’re butting heads because the he wants to be paid as a Super Bowl-winning head coach and the organization believes he needs to have a ring in order to get paid as such, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. It’s as easy as that. And this is why three years into a five-year deal makes this the perfect time for rumors to circulate.
Dunn is aggressively, yet secretively, creating a demand for his client, as is his style.
Adding more logic to the situation, Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News said, “Harbaugh probably was never that interested in bolting to Cleveland, anyway. He wants to win a Super Bowl. He is burning to win a Super Bowl.” And that really is the bottom line.
It’s not impossible that he leaves at some point but he has business to finish.
He craves a Lombardi Trophy—to possess one like his older brother, John Harbaugh, and his arch nemesis and current division rival Pete Carroll. And going 36-11-1 in the regular season from 2011-2013 with three consecutive NFC Championship games and a near-miss in Super Bowl XLVII, Harbaugh knows where his best chance to accomplish that is.
It’s certainly not in Cleveland or Miami. It seems unlikely Harbaugh takes on another rebuilding project before his achieves that.
Moreover, as Kawakami stated in his rundown, the 49ers head coach is not after control. He doesn’t want to be a GM, too, but he would like to continue hand-selecting particular players on occasion. And it’s not as if he isn’t qualified to give his opinion on personnel matters.
He has a pretty good track record in that department, having recruited wide receiver Doug Baldwin, quarterback Andrew Luck, quarterback Robert Griffin III, cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Eric Reid and linebacker Luke Kuechly to Stanford, just to name a few.
So this takes away from the conjecture about a power struggle. And again, refer back to the “five percent” theory noted by Eric Branch earlier.
And even in that doomsday scenario where Jim Harbaugh is unhappy, and were to leave down the road, the 49ers have a supped up roster, a whiz of a GM and a brand spanking new stadium, which would theoretically make this job the most appealing—not just in the National Football League—but in maybe all of sports.
This is a team with history and promise, and these rumors don't change that.