As more non-denials come out, it appears the Browns did make some attempt to trade for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. There's enough smoke to assume that something was at least smoldering. But much more interesting than the "what" is the "why," and the growing sense that all is not well in Ninerland.
Pro Football Talk reported on Friday that Cleveland "nearly pulled off a trade" to send multiple draft picks to the Niners for Harbaugh, but that Harbaugh decided to stay. Other reporters jumped to quash the rumor, citing their sources denying it ever happened. (One of those sources was undoubtedly CEO Jed York, who tweeted the report "isn't true.")
But a funny thing happened. After Browns owner Jimmy Haslam went on the record to say "there was an opportunity there, and it didn't materialize," York walked back his denial. He told SI today that "the Browns reached out to me, and we had no interest in pursuing it."
So we must assume that something happened, and ask who stands to gain by this something reaching the media. Not the 49ers front office—just the mere whisper of Harbaugh leaving has sent fans into a panic. Perhaps the Browns, who can tell fans discontented by a long, disappointing coaching search that at least they were swinging for the fences. But no one comes out of a potential "Harbaugh leaving" story stronger than Jim Harbaugh himself.
The Mercury News' Tim Kawakami has been reporting for months on a rift in the Niners front office. There is a clash of personalities between Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke (the two, it was reported yesterday, are barely on speaking terms), and between Harbaugh and team president Paraag Marathe.
Harbaugh, who has input but not final say in personnel matters, has repeatedly clashed with Baalke on organizational moves, with some of those disputes spilling over into public statements. Kawakami cites quite a few, including Harbaugh saying the Niners would bring in former Stanford fullback Owen Marecic (they didn't) and statements that the team should give new deals to players like Donte Whitner, Phil Dawson, and Dashon Goldson. On the other side, Baalke reportedly believed Aldon Smith would see very little of the field when he returned with a DUI and substance abuse arrest hanging over his head; Harbaugh played him every snap.
This is about power, and it's about money. Harbaugh has two years left on his five-year, $25 million deal. For a coach with three straight deep postseason runs, he is underpaid. The dispute is on just how underpaid he is. Kawakami:
But there is this contract extension that Harbaugh wants, and he wants a Large One. As in: The largest one.
York, to this point, has happily paid Harbaugh $5M a year and probably would up that to $6.5M (into the top 5-10 or so), but does not want to make Harbaugh the top-paid coach in the league until he wins a Super Bowl and that has not yet happened.
Harbaugh reportedly wants a raise to $10 million. Contract talks last offseason broke off without a new deal, and there has been no progress this year.
Any flirtation with the Browns should be seen as a negotiating tactic on Harbaugh's part, an expressed openness to leaving if he doesn't get the deal he wants, and a (successful) attempt to get fans fully in the "keep him at all costs" camp. (And, of course, a trial balloon to see how much another franchise may be willing to pay him.)
The 49ers have their own leverage—they've made no secret of the fact that defensive line coach Jim Tomsula would get the head coaching gig if Harbaugh departs.
The bloom is well off the rose, and that's no surprise; The ultra-intense Harbaugh alienated many of his co-workers at Stanford in the four years he was there. But this doesn't mean he and Baalke and York can't make this work. Plenty of antagonistic front-office relationships have survived as long as the team is winning, and this particular alchemy has minted gold. But unless and until a contract extension is nailed down, Cleveland won't be the last team to make a run at Harbaugh, and he's going to listen every single time.