Two things to keep in mind when trying to wrap your head around Friday’s bombshell report that the 49ers were close to trading Jim Harbaugh – yes, head coach Jim Harbaugh – to the Cleveland Browns:
1. Harbaugh and the 49ers began discussing a contract extension last year but talks broke off when the sides realized they were so far apart.
2. The former general manager in Cleveland, and the man who presumably was part of any effort to lure Harbaugh to the Browns at the time, is Mike Lombardi, a close friend of Harbaugh’s. In fact, Harbaugh hired Lombardi’s son, Mick, to his staff last year.
The Browns fired Mike Lombardi earlier this month.
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The report, from the online publication Pro Football Talk, cited several unnamed sources that the Browns and 49ers nearly completed a deal that would have sent “multiple draft picks” to Cleveland. It also drew a terse reply from 49ers owner Jed York, who took to Twitter to write: “Report isn’t true.”
The Browns, for their part, did not deny the report. Three days after the Seahawks ended the 49ers’ season, they hired former Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as their new coach.
“The team conducted an extensive coaching search, and explored several options,” the statement read. “That search produced an outstanding head coach in Mike Pettine, and we’re excited about his future with the club.”
There’s certainly nothing rational about Harbaugh wanting to coach in Cleveland.
Joining the Browns would have put him in the same division as his brother, John, the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. Imagine the stress an at least twice-a-year faceoff would have placed on the Harbaugh family.
Cleveland also stinks. The Browns have had two winning records since 1994 and are on their ninth coach in that span. If Harbaugh wants a Super Bowl title, the 49ers are his best bet between the two teams.
Harbaugh and his family also have been living in Northern California since 2007, rare stability for a football coach.
But level-headed behavior never has been Jim Harbaugh’s forte.
This is the man, after all, who (allegedly) once punched Jim Kelly. This is a guy who once shook his counterpart’s hand so hard in Detroit that it almost sparked a postgame melee on the field.
This is a coach who, after a year of lavishing praise on quarterback Alex Smith, secretly flew to North Carolina to look at Smith’s potential replacement, Peyton Manning ... then denied the 49ers ever had any interest in Manning.
This is also a man who has never coached in one spot for more than four years, is entering his fourth year with the 49ers and is in the midst of negotiating a contract extension.
The five-year deal Harbaugh signed in 2011 pays him $5 million a season, which puts him in the middle of the pack for NFL head coaches. In fact, it makes him the third-highest-paid coach in the NFC West, behind Pete Carroll ($7 million) of the Seahawks and Jeff Fisher ($7 million) of the Rams.
Harbaugh, who has led the 49ers to at least the NFC Championship Game in all three seasons with San Francisco, wants to be the highest-paid NFL coach. The 49ers are willing to boost his salary – he’s underpaid now, which is why they began negotiating last year – but they are reluctant to pay him more than, say, the New Orleans Saints’ Sean Payton ($8 million) or the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick ($7.5 million).
The difference: Those coaches have won a Super Bowl, as has Carroll.
But if you’re looking for rational thought and reasonable behavior from Harbaugh, you haven’t been paying attention.
After all, all is fair in love and war. And contract negotiations.