Wasn’t that long ago when nothing could be finer than to be a 49er in the morning. Or in the afternoon or the evening, for that matter, especially during football season.
The Niners were a San Francisco treat, a team with a bright, maniacal head coach in Jim Harbaugh and all that young talent around him. There were flashbacks to the early days of Montana and Walsh, Dwight Clark and The Catch. The atmosphere was so positive, the head coach would shout to his players in the locker room, “Who’s got it better than we do?!”
Then ego and greed broke through the line and threatened to sack the franchise before all that potential could be realized.
Unless you’re into hand sizes and 40-yard dash times, the NFL scouting combine has produced few if any worthwhile headlines. Suddenly, that changed with a report that the Cleveland Browns had approached the 49ers about some of their assistant coaches recently. Since the Browns change personnel every couple days or so, that was no shocker. What raised eyebrows was that, according to Pro Football Talk, Harbaugh’s name had been mentioned in the conversation. Then Browns operations chief Mike Lombardi was a friend of Harbaugh’s, and his son Mick served as 49ers assistant coach and Harbaugh’s right-hand man. Connect the dots.
This is where the story gets a bit foggy. OK, a lot foggy.
Pro Football Talk: “Per multiple league sources, the Cleveland Browns nearly pulled off a trade with the 49ers for the rights to coach Jim Harbaugh. A deal that would have sent multiple draft picks to San Francisco was in place between the teams. But Harbaugh ultimately decided not to leave the 49ers.”
Browns team owner Jimmy Haslim to USA Today: “There was an opportunity there, and it didn’t materialize.”
Forty-Niners owner Jed York to The Monday Morning Quarterback: “The Browns reached out to me, and we had no interest in pursuing it.”
Harbaugh to ESPN via text: “I echo Jed York’s comment . . . ‘isn’t true.’ I know nothing about a trade with the Cleveland Browns and us, involving me.”
What we can agree on is this: The Browns did inquire about Harbaugh at some point after last season. My best guess is, they were told he wasn’t available and the conversation ended there. Doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that, with the 2014 season less than six months away, one of the Super Bowl favorites already has a mess on their hands. Or at least a bigger one than they had already.
Seems that Harbaugh suffers from severe case of Peter Envy to me. Harbaugh and longtime rival Pete Carroll have a history that dates back to college, and the thought of Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks as reigning league champions can’t sit well with Harbaugh even a little bit, especially given that his team came thisclose to the title itself. Harbaugh also can’t be thrilled that Carroll is in line for a large bump to his five-year, $35-million deal that expires after next season. The dollar amount is considerably higher than the $5-million salary that makes Harbaugh one of the biggest bargains in the league.
Now Harbaugh wants a contract to match his updated resume, one that would make him the highest-paid coach in the league. In the last three seasons, he led the 49ers to three NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl – two if you count the squeaker against the Seahawks in last conference title game. His relationship with general manager Ted Baalke is a tenuous one – Harbaugh had lobbied on behalf of Lombardi for the position – and he wants more say in personnel matters as well. You know, like Carroll has already. Hey, when you have a career .766 win percentage in the regular season, why not go for the bundle?
The problem is, Harbaugh is under contract through the 2015 season. While the two sides have discussed a contract extension without success, team management is not required to do anything contractually at the moment. By all accounts, York believes that Harbaugh needs to take his team to the top before he reaches the pinnacle himself. I don’t disagree with him. Does Harbaugh really deserve to be paid more than Sean Payton ($8 million), who calls the plays for the New Orleans Saints and has one Super Bowl ring? If he the answer is yes, then shouldn’t New England Patriots mastermind Bill Belichick ($7.5 million, three Super Bowl rings) be paid at least twice that amount? And what about Tom Coughlin ($6.67 million), who guided the New York Giants to a pair of Super victories?
While there can be no doubt that Harbaugh has put an indelible stamp in the team, the 49ers aren’t where they are today because of him alone. Baalke made his share of mistakes in recent drafts – what GM didn’t? – but he also had a hand in the acquisitions of the 13 players who were either Pro Bowl selections or alternates last season. It was York who brought Baalke aboard. And while the son of a billionaire also hired head coach Mike Singletary, he righted the wrong when he hired Harbaugh despite no previous NFL experience at the position.
If the two sides can hammer out an agreement this off-season, most of the craziness will be forgotten. If Harbaugh’s wife really does have her heart in San Francisco, then maybe that’s more likely to happen than it appears to be now. Until then, a generous one-year extension might be the best solution for the short term. That would allow York more time to re-align his head coach and general manager, a challenge easier said than done. Both are Type A personalities who thrive in their own worlds — Harbaugh as an impulsive spit-disturber, Baalke as a low-profile neat freak – so good luck with that. Then again, is it imperative that the head coach and GM be on the same sentence as long as they read from the same book? Let’s not forget that these guys have won a lot of games together already.
Did I mention that Harbaugh and Baalke have the same agent? Don’t you just love it!
If’s true that the Harbaugh-Baalke relationship is past the point of no return, then we’re likely to see a high-stakes game of Dare not unlike the one played two years ago by quarterback Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens, who happened to be coached by Harbaugh’s older brother. Even if the 49ers were to hoist the Lombardi Trophy next winter, those who know him wouldn’t put it past their head coach to take his ball and whistle and storm off elsewhere.
My advice is, both sides should proceed with caution here. Don’t hope what you wish for, as they say, because you just may get it.
Already there is speculation that Harbaugh could swim with the Dolphins in Miami before long. General manager Jeff Ireland and team owner Stephen Ross sought him out two years ago, only to botch the process and get stuck with a lame-duck head coach instead. A planned do-over could explain why head man Joe Philbin was retained in wake of the bullying scandal last season. But would Harbaugh be any happier in South Beach than he was in the Bay Area? Maybe for a while, but history says not for long. He has never stayed at a paid position for more than four seasons at any level.
In Miami or anywhere else, Harbaugh could be held hostage by his own price tag. The 49ers almost certainly would hold out for an exorbitant trade package similar to the one that the Oakland Raiders received for Jon Gruden before the 2002 season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneeers shelled out two first-round draft picks, a pair of second-rounders and $8 million cash in return for Gruden, who had guided the Raiders to the AFC Championship Game only four months earlier. While competitive, the Dolphins look to be a year or two away from contender status. Give up a slew of high draft picks, and the master plan could be pushed back further, by which time Harbaugh might be ready to pack again.
Harbaugh also would have Belichick and the Patriots to contend with in the division. Quarterback Tom Brady may be on his last legs, but if Belichick can get to the playoffs with Matt Cassel at the controls, then I don’t doubt that he can win without Brady again. Don’t think for a second that the Hoodie wouldn’t become even more motivated to put the highest-paid head coach in the league in his place, either. He keeps track of those things, you know.
Team management should tread lightly as well. York and company reportedly are convinced that Harbaugh isn’t the only head coach for the team, and in one respect, they’re right to think that no one is irreplaceable. After all, even the Green Bay Packers won a league championship after the Vince Lombardi years. At the same time, proven winners are few and far between let alone available. There’s also a lot to be said for stability in this league. Harbaugh knows the the players, the system and the organization, and they know him. To hand the reins to someone else could delay the process at a time when the team is ripe for success. From a public relations standpoint, York had better get this one right either way, as the team is set to move to a ritzy new stadium next season.
When the marriage does come to an end as it will eventually, who will have it better than Harbaugh and the 49ers then?
Maybe just about evvvvv-eryyy-body.