Bay Area Buzz 2/25: Jim Harbaugh Saga In National Spotlight

Harbaugh is 49ers’ difference-maker

There is plausible deniability.

The San Francisco 49ers can say they didn’t entertain a trade offer that would have sentJim Harbaugh to Cleveland. They can say they remain enamored with a head coach who has won 76.6 percent of his games and been to three straight conference championship games and one Super Bowl. They can say Harbaugh is their man of today and tomorrow.

They can say the Harbaugh-to-Cleveland narrative was just that, a story, fiction, ridiculous and a one-way advancement by a franchise — the Browns — desperate for an impact move.

That all might be true. But so is this: Despite how difficult Harbaugh might be to co-exist with, the Niners need him way more than he needs them. He is the commodity. He has made the difference. He is the reason why San Francisco has returned to prominence.

It is not owner and CEO Jed York. It is not general manager Trent Baalke. Those men have done a fine job building a stadium and a roster, but it is Harbaugh who has taken the talent and molded a winner. He is the one who has convinced the players no one has it better than them. He is the one who has assembled a talented staff that has maximized each player’s potential. He is the reason San Francisco is an attractive spot for free agents.

Want proof? In the eight seasons prior to Harbaugh’s arrival from Stanford in 2011, the Niners had zero winning seasons, won zero division titles and made zero playoff appearances. In the three seasons since, they have averaged 12 wins a year, won two division titles, hosted one conference championship game and played in eight playoff games, winning five and coming within a goal-line stand of a Lombardi Trophy.

San Francisco has not had a run like this since Steve Mariucci was the coach.

Harbaugh has made the difference.

So it would behoove San Francisco to figure out a way to make Harbaugh happy. Yes, he is quirky, prickly, controlling and intense. That is not breaking news. He can wear out even the most dedicated employee. He has a singular purpose and expects everyone in the organization to share it.

But Harbaugh also is a tremendous head coach who has been able to motivate and maximize a talented roster.

That is why there has been interest from others. That is why the Browns contemplated giving up draft picks to bring Harbaugh to Cleveland. Profootballtalk.com first reported the Browns’ interest Friday night. ESPN’s Adam Schefter subsequently reported Cleveland did not include a first-round draft pick in its proposal.

“There was an opportunity there,” Browns owner Jimmy Haslam told USA Today Sports on Sunday, “and it didn’t materialize.”

York and Harbaugh denied there was an opportunity there, but it didn’t matter. As dysfunctional as the Browns have been since Haslam bought the team in 2012, their flirtation with Harbaugh — however brief and one-sided — illustrates the perceived tension in San Francisco. Cleveland thought it had a chance at landing Harbaugh. It thought his relationship with Baalke, who has ultimate control over the Niners’ roster, was strained enough that Harbaugh would welcome a new opportunity even with an organization that doesn’t have a franchise quarterback.

York and Baalke need to remedy this situation. Harbaugh has two years remaining on his original contract. While San Francisco certainly could wait another year to extend Harbaugh before he entered a lame-duck season in 2015, it should recognize what Cleveland did. Harbaugh has value. He has not won a Super Bowl yet, but he has made San Francisco relevant again. He has made them into an annual contender.

Having stability at the top of an NFL franchise is as important as having a franchise quarterback. San Francisco has both.

– Ashley Fox, ESPN.com

Is 49ers’ championship window closing?

A high-ranking NFL personnel evaluator I ran across at the NFL scouting combine Thursday morning said he was hearing sensational stories about the San Francisco 49ers. He would not elaborate because the stories were unsubstantiated, but we can assume at least one of them found its way into the news over the weekend.

There is sensational, and then there is trade-the-head-coach sensational. Harbaugh to theCleveland Browns by trade? The 49ers initially denied ever discussing such a transaction. The Browns issued a non-denial before their owner, Jimmy Haslam, confirmed that such discussions took place. The particulars matter less at this point than the gathering idea that Harbaugh might not be part of the longer-term future for San Francisco. It’s no secret that Harbaugh and the team’s executives have been unable to make progress toward a contract extension amid rumblings of friction.

Here are the questions: Could the 49ers remain a contender without Harbaugh? And is their championship window closing regardless? It’s a debate colleague John Clayton and I took up on his radio show at the combine, and one begging for a closer examination. The future of a flagship franchise is at stake.

Three years ago, we heralded Harbaugh’s hiring as a “home run” for the 49ers. San Francisco had won just 21 games over the three seasons before Harbaugh took over, a total that ranked 21st when postseason games were counted. San Francisco has 41 regular-season and postseason victories in Harbaugh’s first three seasons. That total ranks tied for first with New England. The net gain of 20 victories from the first three-year period to the next leads the NFL. Seattle (plus-18), Denver (plus-17), Detroit (plus-13), Cincinnati (plus-11) and St. Louis (plus-7) are next.

If you only consider those numbers, Harbaugh’s long-term employment as 49ers head coach should be a foregone conclusion. But if you’ve been following the 49ers, you know the situation feels tenuous and even volatile. Harbaugh and management have gotten nowhere in contract talks, and this has become known publicly. Harbaugh’s name has perhaps conveniently come up in relation to college jobs at USC and Texas. We’ve heard about how Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke “butt heads” within a framework the team says remains healthy and professional. Most recently, 49ers CEO Jed York denied any serious talks with the Browns while insisting this was a one-way conversation. It’s a lot to sort through.

Here are my … thoughts on where this team stands now and in the future:

1. The championship window can remain open even if Harbaugh leaves.
Nearly all of the 49ers’ key players remain under contract for the coming season. The team is healthy from a salary cap standpoint. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been a dynamic if inconsistent player to this point; he should improve with additional experience. There’s enough talent for this team to remain a championship contender even if Harbaugh isn’t part of the long-term equation, though this assumes the 49ers would find a skilled replacement for Harbaugh if the coach departed.

While it’s easy to say the 49ers were nothing before Harbaugh arrived, most would agree that his predecessor, Mike Singletary, got far less from his players than a more skilled replacement for Harbaugh might get from them. Losing Harbaugh would hurt in a division featuring heavyweight coaches Pete Carroll, Bruce Arians and Jeff Fisher. But if the 49ers’ division rivals could find highly skilled coaches, San Francisco could find another one as well. This is a prime job.

With or without Harbaugh, the 49ers will need to draft low-cost replacements for aging players such as Justin Smith and Frank Gore. Will they be able to pull it off? This is where John Clayton and I differ some. We went back and forth on his Saturday radio show about whether the 49ers are doing a good enough job maximizing all the draft choices they’ve acquired over the years. Clayton is not as sold as I am. We can agree that the 49ers’ 2011 draft secured franchise building blocks in Aldon Smith and Kaepernick. Some of the other players selected that year – Chris Culliver, Kendall Hunter and Bruce Miller – have become key contributors.

The 2012 draft, however, was a disaster, especially when you consider how well the Seahawks fared in adding Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, Russell Wilson, Robert Turbin, Jeremy Lane, J.R. Sweezy and potential Red Bryant replacement Greg Scruggs. The 49ers did pretty well in 2013 with first-round choice Eric Reid, but the 10 other selections they made have yet to pay off much. That was by design. If you think the 2013 class will come to resemble the 2012 version, you’ll be less optimistic about how the 49ers might fare with their league-high 11 choices this year. But it’s too early to pass judgment on that 2013 class, and several of those guys could begin to play bigger roles this season.

2. Mistrust could be a problem.
The Harbaugh-to-Cleveland report from Pro Football Talk left the 49ers wondering where the information originated. Were people close to Harbaugh trying to paint the organization in a bad light as part of an attempt to leverage better contract terms? Were previous reports linking Harbaugh to college jobs part of something similar? Anonymously sourced reports such as the one from PFT and one from CBS Sports should have little impact if all parties are on the same page internally.

In the 49ers’ case, there’s been enough chatter over a long enough period to fuel mistrust, which can cause imperfect relationships to deteriorate. I think Harbaugh’s unrelenting intensity was going to limit his shelf life in San Francisco, anyway. That has been the feeling around the league for coaches with hard-charging styles. An AFC executive put it this way when I asked him early in the season about Harbaugh’s staying power: “You don’t really know those warts until they don’t win. That is when that stuff shows up. It will not show up in the euphoria of back-to-back NFC Championship Games, getting the new stadium, getting the franchise quarterback right.”

The surprising part with the 49ers is that warts seem to be showing even without any real adversity. If these are the sorts of things the team is working through after winning 41 games over three seasons, imagine what things will be like during a true down season. It shows just how much the 49ers have been reeling from the double whammy of losing to Seattle in the NFC title game and then watching the Seahawks win it all.

That is why it’s even harder to see the relationship enduring in its current form. Having the head coach and GM on the same page is critical for maximizing draft choices, one reason the Harbaugh-Baalke relationship is so important.

3. The 2014 season feels like championship or bust.
The 49ers have been reluctant to pay $8 million or more annually for Harbaugh in the absence of a Super Bowl victory. Ownership can rightly say the team has squandered prime opportunities by failing to win a Lombardi Trophy despite three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship Game. Losing at home to the New York Giants in the NFC title game (2011 season) and to the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl (2012 season) was frustrating enough. Losing to the division-rival Seahawks this past season was downright excruciating.

I believe the 49ers’ leadership was obsessed with beating the Seahawks before that game, and that Seattle’s subsequent victory over Denver in the Super Bowl has turned up the pressure in the short term. “We need to win a damn Super Bowl,” is how one team official put it to me. Falling just short of that goal for three consecutive seasons has taken a toll. Having it happen a fourth consecutive time might be too much for the current leadership to bear.

– Mike Sando, ESPN Insider

Jed York learns valuable lesson

The Jim Harbaugh/Jim Haslam BFFs Forever story has run its course . . . we think . . . for a moment anyway . . . except for one thing. Nothing is ever over with Jim Harbaugh.

And maybe a couple of others.

The contract negotiations will drag on awhile longer, and we suspect at some point Harbaugh, being the gambler he is, may just say, “Okay, we’ll wait this year, see how far we go, and then I want the works.” This is dangerous business, because nothing is more fired than a coach in the last year of his deal, but Harbaugh lives on the edge, and finds a way as often as not to put his supervisors and colleagues on it with him.

But there is also the matter of John Edward York, a.k.a. Jed, who got caught in something of a whopper when Haslam, the owner of the Cleveland Browns, essentially exposed his initial denial as a lie. York slapped the Pro Football Talk story that linked Harbaugh to the Browns, dismissing it with those three little words: “Report isn’t true.”

He has since had to backtrack after Haslam described the discussions as “an opportunity there, and it didn’t materialize.”

Whatever the hell that means.

But this isn’t about examining whatever menageries dance inside Haslam’s head, but York’s cavalier dismissal of, and misunderstanding about, the real backstory that has recast his operation – namely, that he, Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke get along like firemen and arsonists.

Even if their relationships are strained but workable (and that seems to be the operative phrase for now), the matter of Harbaugh’s contract, and more importantly the organization’s willingness to stomach him, will now color everything the 49ers do or say from here until Harbaugh either gets that new deal, or that going-away fruit basket.

And York wasted a perfectly good lie because he thought brevity was more important than getting in front of a budding organizational mess.

By denying the PFT story so cavalierly in the beginning, he essentially trusted two noted loose cannons, Haslam and Harbaugh, to maintain radio silence on it. Harbaugh, he could control. Haslam he couldn’t, and his cover was blown inside of 36 hours.

Now he has had to backtrack through Peter King of The MMQB, saying: “The Browns reached out to me, and we had no interest in pursuing it.”

That’s different than the fun-filled blanket denial he originally Tweet-blurted, and it calls into question his veracity on the subject from here on out, when it didn’t have to be so jeopardized.

You see, as a wise old general manager once told me, “You should spend lies like money.” In other words, lies are part of any executive’s brief case, but the truth is usually a better first option. Moreover, said executive should use them for necessities rather than frivolities, and never in a situation where they can be quickly dismantled.

York essentially thought he would be out of the woods on what may very well have been a routine tale of leverage suppression, but by opting for the riskier strategy of playing the lie card when the truth may have served him just as well, his word is no longer as platinum as it used to be.

Put another way, had he merely said what he told King, he’d have come off better than he does here. Even if he’d added out of simple charity to the journalistic community, “They asked, but they don’t have anything that matches the coach we have so we dismissed it,” he’d have been fine. And if he actually did entertain it for even a minute, he could have even gotten away with something like, “It was going to take a whole lot more draft choices plus Josh Gordon for us to even think about it, and even then we still like our guy more.” Or, in a worst-case scenario, “We asked Jim if he was interested in leaving, he wasn’t, and we said no before it even got to an offer stage.”

The issue of the contract would still be there, because the relationship of the YorBaalkBaugh troika is clearly a wobbly one and will remain so even after any deal is struck, but at least York could stand on his rep as the honest guy who just wants to do right by the franchise.

– Ray Ratto, CSNBayArea.com

Topics: Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers

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