San Francisco 49ers

On 49ers: In Harbaugh-to-Cleveland saga, the only winner is Harbaugh

The Jim Harbaugh-to-Cleveland story has taken on a he-said, she-said, Browns-said quality. The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle, but in this case, it seems to skew toward the 49ers’ side of the story.

Jed York, the 49ers’ CEO, acknowledged Monday an offer was made for Harbaugh and was quickly rejected. Over the weekend, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported a first-round pick was not part of the Browns’ offer, which supports York’s version.

Tampa Bay once gave up two first-round picks and two second-rounders for then-Raiders coach Jon Gruden. York should have slammed down the receiver and ripped out the phone cord even if two first-round picks weren’t included.

So why did the initial report of a trade say the deal was imminent? Why would Browns owner Jimmy Haslam confirm his team had an “opportunity” to get Harbaugh?

It’s quite possible he was led to believe by either one or both of the men who realized their jobs were on the line – CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi – that landing Harbaugh was more realistic than it was.

And that easily could have been bolstered by Harbaugh’s agent, David Dunn, who has been in the background pulling strings and trying to leverage a bigger deal for his client.

It’s no coincidence that Harbaugh’s name came up during USC’s and Texas’ coaching searches, even though he had no intention of taking either job. The Browns’ job could have been another opening that was manipulated by an agent to further his client’s cause.

The Browns had suffered through a humbling coaching search at that point. That also may have made Haslam and his top officials more desperate to make a whopper of a hire and made Haslam eager to believe that was a possibility.

Perhaps Haslam felt that by saying, “Well, we did almost land Jim Harbaugh,” it added legitimacy to what has been a widely panned coaching search.

Was Haslam unhappy with how everything turned out? Banner, who inquired about Harbaugh, and Lombardi were fired earlier this month.

It’s also worth exploring who benefits from all this drama.

It’s certainly not the Browns. They undermined their current head coach, Mike Pettine, who was hired just days after the attempt to lure Harbaugh. And it’s definitely not the 49ers, who now have to deal with questions about friction at the top of their organization.

The winners are Harbaugh and his agent. Their goal is to create as much chaos as possible and hope York and the 49ers give in on Harbaugh’s contract. Their message: “You can make this entire mess go away if you just give Harbaugh the deal he wants. And if you don’t, there’s going to be a queue of teams at the end of the 2014 season – Miami? Dallas? – with deeper pockets and a more desirable location for Harbaugh than Cleveland.”

And that’s what makes this soap opera so interesting.

York can’t capitulate. And it’s not just because being bullied by Harbaugh would set a bad precedent. It’s because Harbaugh never will be content. It’s in his nature to create chaos. He thrives in it. If this crisis is solved, another will pop up in a few months. If general manager Trent Baalke – with whom Harbaugh reportedly is at odds – is dismissed, Harbaugh will pick a fight with the next guy.

Which is why, when you follow this drama to its terminus, you have to wonder if, should the Dolphins or Cowboys or another team call York at this time next season, he’ll stay on the line longer than he did with the Browns.