Shortly after the 49ers’ season ended Jan. 19, the Browns inquired about assistant coaches Greg Roman and Jim Tomsula, according to a source with knowledge of the conversation. It was during subsequent conversions that Jim Harbaugh’s name came up, and then-Browns CEO Joe Banner listed the compensation Cleveland was willing to offer for the 49ers’ head coach.
The source said the offer was rebuffed and Harbaugh’s name didn’t come up again.
That scenario helps explain the widely differing reactions by the 49ers and Browns to Friday’s report by Pro Football Talk that the teams were close to pulling off a deal that would have sent Harbaugh to Cleveland for multiple draft picks.
“There was an opportunity there, and it didn’t materialize,” Browns owner Jimmy Haslam told USA Today on Sunday. Haslam did not elaborate on why the deal fell through.
On Friday, Jed York, Haslam’s counterpart with the 49ers, Tweeted “report isn’t true.” Harbaugh said the same thing to several reporters and called it “ridiculous” in a brief interview with CSN Bay Area. While the Browns issued a media release that did not deny the original report, the 49ers have not had an official statement.
Why would the Browns have asked about Harbaugh in January? A month earlier, a report by the San Jose Mercury News detailed friction between Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke. Harbaugh and the 49ers also began talking about a contract extension during the summer, but it was tabled when the two sides realized how far apart they were. Talks are expected to resume this offseason.
The Browns’ general manager at the time, Mike Lombardi, is a friend of Harbaugh’s from their time with the Raiders. And Harbaugh hired Lombardi’s son, Mick, as an assistant last year. The Browns may have thought that working alongside Lombardi would appeal to Harbaugh.
Banner and Lombardi were fired earlier this month, and just days after they called the 49ers, the Browns hired Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as their head coach.