Contract extensions, economic intricacies and political machinations are so detestable—so un-football—that such off-the-field dynamics are considered distractions of the worst kind among a particular few.
Said personnel includes a coach who fancies himself as half-player (Harbaugh) and a general manager who exhibits tendencies of a traveling road scout, in the 49ers’ Trent Baalke.
How often do you see other head coaches lobbing perfect spirals in practice and franchise-leading executives who still scout unknown prospects in faraway Division II colleges in person?
Baalke and Harbaugh are uncompromising gridiron grinders that very much prefer evaluating the game, the players and the X’s and O’s—amongst themselves.
That doesn’t include the media, in case you were wondering.
Contractual negotiations forced into the public sphere—and therefore subject to endless interpretations laced with unfounded gossip of internal strife and front-office infighting—are the bane of their unique, yet shared football existence.
“Why can’t we be left alone and allowed to do our job—to put the right players in the best position to help our team win on Sundays?” the hypothetical inner monologue of Baalke and Harbaugh might reveal.
Oh, but if it only could be so easy, gentlemen.
The purpose of all this ostensible digression is to convey a significant underlying aspect of this ongoing contract saga between Harbaugh and the 49ers.
Neither side presumably wants any part of it.
Owner and CEO Jed York strives to honor the franchise that helped raise him by giving it a sixth Lombardi Trophy. And he, like anyone in his position, would love nothing more than fulfilling that honorable endeavor without any undue scandal.
As for the everyday field general, Harbaugh’s focus resides solely on game-planning toward the attainment of that Super Bowl title.
And Baalke just doesn’t want to find himself stuck perilously in the middle.
Let him scout the prospects, sign free agents and assemble a sustainable winner.
These interrelated wants and desires mentioned above are all reasonable inferences. They’ll remain as such for the time being.
Yet, this present conjecture ultimately hinges on whether the 49ers—i.e. CEO York—can quell this problematic situation by raising both the salary and length of Harbaugh’s deal.
So first of all, is Harbaugh even deserving of an extension?
Secondly, what is the veracity of these supposed team-detracting issues? Is there validity to the allegations of overarching tension between the coach, GM, owner and even players (more on this later)?
And lastly, if said problems exist, will they disappear simply by giving Harbaugh a new contract?
In other words, will a fiscal win for Harbaugh mitigate the unrest that reportedly plagues this organization (again, more to come) and translate into continued wins on the field for the 49ers?
Let’s start by answering that first all-important question.
Yes, Harbaugh is a Top-5 Head Coach
We figured we’d get straight to it and illuminate that essential tenet.
Harbaugh is no run-of-the-mill success story in the regular season who falls on his face in the postseason. He’s better than Mike Smith (the Atlanta Falcons’ 4-12 campaign last season notwithstanding).
Harbaugh is also superior to former Lombardi Trophy winners who now belong to the realm of overrated and overpaid has-beens (see: Mike Shanahan’s $7 million circa 2013).
Though he’s not yet qualified for Sean Payton status ($8 million), he’s fast approaching.
The 49ers are currently paying Harbaugh $5 million as part of a five-year, $25 million deal he signed back in 2011, according to team insider Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
So, is the fourth-year NFL head coach worth more than that? Absolutely.
San Francisco’s operational leader has fundamentally transformed the culture of the 49ers in just three short seasons.
He assumed the reigns during a lockout-shortened offseason, one that should have crippled him during his first year on the job.
Instead, he maximized the potential of an all-but-disgraced quarterback, Alex Smith, and turned a dysfunctional 6-10 team into an NFC West champion and playoff winner.
After more than doubling the 49ers’ win total in Year One, Harbaugh executed a bold, but purely visionary move by benching Smith midseason in 2012.
He courageously placed the keys to the organization in the hands of one Colin Kaepernick—an unproven prospect with the higher upside.
Suffice it to say, he enabled his handpicked second-round draft selection in 2011 in ways that guided the Red and Gold to Super Bowl XLVII.
After falling just one play short of realizing pro football’s highest accolade, Harbaugh led his men to a third consecutive appearance in the conference championship last season.
The 49ers were again only one play removed from returning to the Super Bowl. It would have been an impossible achievement in the salary-cap era.
All told, Harbaugh boasts a tremendous 36-11-1 regular-season record and 5-3 mark in the playoffs.
Immediately following his arrival, he resurrected a floundering 46-82 team from the previous eight seasons He then implemented a perfect SWOT analysis—masking the deficiencies, harnessing the existing talent and creating a perennial contender.
The Red and Gold now exist as a hard-hitting, high-IQ, blue-collar group that all other 31 teams fear and respect.
Yes, Jed York did the transformative hiring, while Trent Baalke managed most of the personnel turnaround.
But it was Harbaugh who converted theoretical potential into actual positive change on the field.
He turned gold-star prospects into bona fide gridiron producers—ones who dominate year in and year out.
Missing Super Bowl title or not, the 49ers are a one-and-done, if not playoff-deficient squad, sans Jim Harbaugh.
Pay the man his rightful due—he remains the most qualified coach for reining in this franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Harbaugh Values the Organization, Success; Not Dollar Signs, Power
When the face of an historical NFL entity is the focal point of internal discord when viewed from an outsider’s perspective, chaos generally ensues.
It’s just the expected volatile character of football politics at the highest level when the public becomes involved.
But it’s also antithetical to Harbaugh’s no-nonsense nature, despite the seeming contradiction related to the way he protects his players.
Let us explain.
On the one hand, Harbaugh goes to bat for every one of his guys. He never railroads them through the media, even when they struggle considerably.
When the 49ers dropped to 6-4 in mid-November after losing two straight, Kaepernick was obviously off his game. His completion rate was a mere 56.2 percent, and he was not producing late in contests.
Yet, Harbaugh remained incredulous and steadfastly defended his quarterback.
“He’s doing a heck of a job,” Harbaugh said to Steve Corkran of the Bay Area News Group via Mercurynews.com.
“I would be puzzled why people would think that. What’s more important is what we see.”
This is a quintessential example of football politics, albeit the good kind. This is the type that Harbaugh practices.
Even though his statements aren’t wholly truthful, they are devoid of any negative ulterior motives. They originate from an affirmative source filled with good intentions.
The same idea applies to any ongoing contract demands.
Harbaugh merely desires pay that is commensurate with his on-field success. He does not covet unrivaled salary figures or more authoritative power within the 49ers organization.
He might feel a bit differently deep down, but that would come at the expense of the cultural livelihood and success of the team. He ultimately wants what’s best for his players, fellow coaches and squad as a whole.
Michael Rosenberg, the veteran scribe of Sports Illustrated—and a journalist who Harbaugh knows well—interviewed the 49ers head coach on Monday.
Here is where Harbaugh waxed positive: "I see all these reports about how I want to be the highest-paid coach in football. ... I have never said to anybody that I want to be the highest-paid coach in football. I have never said that to...my wife, my brother, my dad. I make plenty of money."
He continued in a manner that was genuinely free of any agitation or deep-seated anger, according to Rosenberg.
"The other one is that I want more power. I have never said that, nor do I want any more power than I have. I coach the team. I've told my owner I don't want any more power. I want to coach the team. And I've never told anybody else otherwise."
And what about the pervasive reports of debilitating organizational tension?
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Ann Killion reported last weekend that the “friction has gotten worse.”
"[T]here's no pretending that everything is fine. ... from what I've been told, the tension isn't just upstairs in the building. One source with inside knowledge of the team says that Harbaugh's act has worn thin in the locker room, particularly among some key ‘face of the 49ers’ type players."
Harbaugh calmly refuted those articles detailing his supposedly untenable relationship with Baalke.
In addition to informing Rosenberg that he and Baalke “talk daily, hourly,” the football lifer offered up this reasonable explanation, per Rosenberg:
We're both demanding and we want to be accountable for ourselves, for each other. If you haven't had a brother, you probably don't understand the relationship between the GM and the head coach. We're partners on the same team. I have great respect for him. He works extremely hard at it and is very good at it. We are all part of a team.
Put more succinctly, Harbaugh said: “I believe in the structure we have. I don't want to change anything that we do... We have a great organization.”
As for the alleged dissonance with high-standing veterans, we’ll just defer to the recently re-signed Anquan Boldin.
Per Cam Inman of The Bay Area News Group:
I don’t think there’s any rift between players and coaches, particularly coach Harbaugh. He has good rapport with all the guys I know of. There’s no gripes in the locker room when it comes to Coach Harbaugh. He wants to win and everybody...wants to do the same. We’re usually on same page and if not, we have it where we can talk to him and he can talk to us.
Boldin even went as far as to say that he “kind of laughed” at the publicized reports and denied their validity outright.
Said the 49ers’ leading wideout in 2013: “Football season is not here so they’ll take whatever they can...a lot of it is far fetched, has nothing to do with football and the team.”
At the end of the day, all of the disseminated conflict involving the 49ers is not some figment of a media-contrived imagination. Some does indeed exist.
But in this case, it’s the stuff of creative difference that works only in support of a football franchise’s long-term strategic goals.
Which leaves us with…
Harbaugh Just Wants to Win; Leave Him to It
Just because the 49ers have a rare and valuable asset at their disposal, doesn’t mean they should actually dispose of it.
Deeply grating personality or not, Harbaugh is unequivocally the best out there.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch, another man at the top of his craft, insightfully notes that Harbaugh is the “only coach since 1970 to lead his team to a conference championship game in each of his first three seasons.”
Good luck replacing that, Jed.
In all seriousness, there isn’t any real animosity between the two, and Harbaugh likely isn’t going anywhere for the next two years.
Per Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated, Harbaugh stated: "What I do know is this: I make plenty of money. ... Jed York has always been square dealing with me. ... There was never any opportunity to leave...I am too fond of my team, the players, the coaches. I really feel like we have one of the best, if not the best organizations in football."
And if Harbaugh is “guilty” of anything, blame him for wanting to “have the highest-paid assistant coaches” in the NFL.
Well, it seems almost too diplomatic for his own good, but can you blame him?
What’s ultimately apparent is that an otherwise normal contractual situation between a front office and head coach predictably mushroomed into an ever-expanding cacophony of unsubstantiated noise.
Put another way: Don’t take everything at face value.
Various proportions of truth and falsities emanated from both sides.
Not all of the reports were entirely accurate, and neither was every word uttered from Harbaugh’s mouth.
That’s just the way it is when it comes to the high-profile inner workings of the National Football League.
Again, in a perfect world, “you never negotiate contracts in the press," because, "it doesn’t benefit anybody to do it publicly.”
Sustaining the insatiable human appetite for unfettered gossip notwithstanding, Harbaugh was spot on in that above remark to Rosenberg.
But since the 49ers’ contract-laden dirty laundry has already been broadcasted to the public, let this similarly “provocative” statement be known:
Pay Jim Harbaugh, and don’t hesitate when the time comes.
Because second-guessing an extension could very well negate a second chance at securing a Super Bowl championship, and the first at Levi’s Stadium.
Then again, Harbaugh might just go out and win Super Bowl XLIX and sign a new deal shortly afterward, thus rendering this investigation entirely mute.
But then again, the latter could never be; hypothetical sports debate reigns free in our world of unencumbered speculation.
It’s what we do—writers, Harbaugh and 49ers’ contract artists included.
Note: All player and team statistics come courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16