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The Amazing Pace

The Curious Case of Jim Harbaugh

Nine burning questions about the big aborted trade with Cleveland

On Friday afternoon, a relatively quiet NFL scouting combine was interrupted by a stunning story, as Pro Football Talk quoted multiple league sources in reporting that the 49ers and Browns had nearly completed a trade that would have sent 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh to Cleveland. Mike Florio’s initial report said a swap of Harbaugh for picks “was in place between the teams,” and when the Browns released a statement that failed to deny the report, rumors began to run rampant. While 49ers owner Jed York denied the story was true on Twitter, multiple sources around the league — including Browns owner Jimmy Haslam — have since confirmed there were some discussions regarding a possible Harbaugh move to Cleveland. Exciting!

Of course, this move won’t be happening; the Browns eventually hired Mike Pettine to be their new head coach and promptly overhauled the remainder of their front office by parting ways with executives Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi, so even if there was a brief window of opportunity for a Harbaugh trade, it’s now safely shut. But that doesn’t make the idea of a Harbaugh trade much less interesting, nor does it preclude the 49ers from considering one in the future. That this story even happened might very well tell us a lot about Harbaugh’s future with the team, or at the very least, his current level of happiness with the organization. Let’s break down what happened, how it could have worked for both sides, and what to look for going forward with the Harbaugh-49ers relationship.

1. Is the story true?

There’s almost definitely some truth to the rumors. There is little reason to believe the Browns would make up the story, leak it to multiple league sources, allow them to leak it to the media, and then refuse to deny it, especially after failing to complete the transaction and hiring a different coach. Harbaugh would gain nothing from confirming the reports publicly and seeming like he wants out of San Francisco when no such deal is coming, but if his camp leaked the story, it would be their way of casting aspersions on the organization and beginning to create the narrative that the team doesn’t want him around. The 49ers have absolutely nothing to gain from confirming the story whatsoever. Put it this way: The Browns are one of the most sputtering organizations in football and have been for a decade now. Do you really think they’re suddenly capable of pulling an elaborate con that lured in some of the most notable reporters around the league? Something happened here.

Of course, the specific nature of what exactly happened is up for grabs. One man’s negotiations can be another’s hypothetical conversation. Florio’s report suggested the Browns and 49ers had agreed on compensation for Harbaugh, but that the head coach turned down the opportunity. ESPN’s Chris Mortensen confirmed the “substance” of the report, noting that the Browns’ run at Harbaugh had reached a “serious stage.” York said the report “isn’t true,” a statement Harbaugh reiterated when reached for comment by 49ers writer Matt Maiocco.

There’s enough wiggle room in all those statements for there to have been some contact between Harbaugh and the Browns without anybody having to lie. Tim Kawakami laid out a convincing-if-hypothetical argument suggesting that the Browns would have contacted Harbaugh through Harbaugh’s assistant, Mick Lombardi, the son of Mike Lombardi. The initial inquiry might very well have been to interview one of the respected assistants on San Francisco’s staff, but Kawakami suggests Harbaugh might have instead told the Browns that he would be interested in a possible deal to leave for Cleveland. For what it’s worth, Cleveland radio host Joe Lull laid this out as the actual way things went down, with the deal falling apart over terms of compensation.

In any case, it doesn’t take much to satisfy the terms of the various rumors and reports. Through some channel, the Browns and Harbaugh need to have expressed some level of interest in completing a deal, at which point the rest of the San Francisco front office was likely made aware of a possible situation brewing. There were likely preliminary discussions of what the draft-pick compensation would look like, either internally in San Francisco or via an offer from Cleveland to which the 49ers were, at some level, amenable. An outline of terms for Harbaugh’s contract and specific level of power within the organization was likely discussed with Harbaugh’s agent, David Dunn. And then, at some point, the deal fell apart. It seems unlikely the parties had all agreed on everything, only for Harbaugh to decide against putting his name on the dotted line at the last moment. Likewise, it’s hard to figure this was as simple as the Browns asking about Harbaugh, the 49ers saying no, and the discussion ending there. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

2. Is it even legal to trade your head coach?

It appears so, yes. The league banned the practice of trading assets for coaches in 2003, after the Buccaneers sent a bounty of picks to the Raiders for Jon Gruden, but at some point in the interim, the rules again changed to legalize the practice. NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello released a statement noting the following league policy:

Except for Head Coaches and High-Level Club Employees (club presidents, general managers, and persons with equivalent responsibility and authority), clubs are not permitted to exchange draft choices or cash for the release of individuals who are under contract to another organization.

A Harbaugh trade would have been legal under league rules.

3. Why would Harbaugh want to leave the 49ers for Cleveland?

A fair question. Of course, it would seem odd for Harbaugh to leave what is regarded as one of the league’s best franchises for one of its worst. The 49ers are overflowing with young talent and set to compete for the foreseeable future; the Browns have three stars in Josh Gordon, Joe Haden, and Joe Thomas, but lack the sort of depth the 49ers have in spades. While the Browns have two first-round picks in this year’s deep draft after the Trent Richardson trade, Cleveland would surely be forced to give up a serious haul as part of any trade for Harbaugh, limiting his ability to quickly turn around the roster. Having built one of the league’s best coaching staffs in San Francisco, Harbaugh would likely need to rebuild things in Cleveland without the services of his coordinators. And, obviously, it’s a lot easier to build a winner with Colin Kaepernick than it is with Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden, Alex Tanney or Jason Campbell, the three current quarterbacks on Cleveland’s roster.

So, if it’s impossible to construct a case for Harbaugh to leave for football reasons, it seems logical to believe the reasons he might choose to leave would be personal. Namely, Harbaugh would want to leave San Francisco only if he didn’t enjoy being part of the 49ers organization. It’s the only plausible explanation, and in the past 72 hours, arguments to that point have begun to arise. Kawakami’s description of Harbaugh, almost surely informed by folks within the 49ers organization, speaks to the perception surrounding the head coach:

Larger point: I know some 49ers fans — or mostly Harbaugh fans — don’t want to hear this, but the reality is that Harbaugh is a combustible commodity who has 49ers HQ very unsettled most days and now he’s coming up on a contract extension that he really thought he deserved last year, so things are a little pent-up between coach and management.

That looming contract negotiation pops up in reports as a flash point for the organization. Harbaugh signed a five-year, $25 million deal to take over as 49ers head coach before the 2011 season, and after going 36-11-1 while leading the team to a Super Bowl and three consecutive NFC Championship Games, Harbaugh likely expects his next deal to be among the largest in football. Both Kawakami and Maiocco, though, report that the 49ers are hesitant to make Harbaugh one of the league’s highest-paid coaches until he wins a Super Bowl, with Maiocco reporting that the 49ers would likely offer Harbaugh an extension similar to his current contract, only with a hefty incentive for winning the Super Bowl. Such an extension — my speculation here — could look like a three-year, $20 million deal with a $2 million escalator were Harbaugh to claim the Super Bowl at any time during the deal. Harbaugh would probably expect to receive something like $8 million per year in an extension with the 49ers. The Browns would surely have had to pay over the odds to get Harbaugh, but more on that in a minute.

4. Why would the 49ers want to move on from Harbaugh?

For a few reasons. If the contract impasse is significant enough that the 49ers fear Harbaugh would leave for another NFL team (or a high-profile college program) at the end of his deal, it would make sense for the 49ers to sell high on Harbaugh while they can, allowing them to replace him with one of the members of his highly touted staff while picking up a fortune in draft picks in the process.

Kawakami also reported as recently as December that there was definite tension in the relationship between Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke, who has final say in the team’s personnel decisions. A move might give Harbaugh the chance to, at the very least, have a much larger say in shopping for the team’s groceries; it might also give Baalke a chance to mold the team without public disagreements from his head coach. (It’s also worth noting that every combination of head coach and general manager disagrees on specific player valuations, so it’s entirely possible the conflicts don’t represent a problem.) Harbaugh might have suspected Lombardi to be a more amenable partner.

The 49ers can certainly afford to sign Harbaugh, but if they felt like a large contract extension didn’t represent good value, they could certainly pocket a significant return while paying another coach a relatively cheaper sum.

5. Why would the Browns want to acquire Harbaugh?

Chris Palmer
Butch Davis
Terry Robiskie
Romeo Crennel
Eric Mangini
Pat Shurmur
Rob Chudzinski

6. How much should it have cost the Browns to acquire Harbaugh?

The fun stuff! For whatever issues the 49ers and their head coach might possibly have, it certainly doesn’t appear that Harbaugh is exactly on the trading block. The public-relations hit the 49ers would take if they dealt away their wildly successful head coach, especially as they move into a new stadium, would be downright brutal, especially if they failed to make it back to the NFC Championship Game without Harbaugh around in 2014. It would be a very risky move for the 49ers, and with two years left on Harbaugh’s original contract, it would take an overwhelming offer for the 49ers to even consider trading him away.

The most similar situation to a possible Harbaugh trade would likely be the aforementioned Jon Gruden deal between the Raiders and the Buccaneers. Gruden had taken over a 4-12 team and gone 38-26 in his four years with the Raiders, taking a trip to the AFC Championship Game in his third season before losing to the Patriots in the infamous Tuck Rule divisional-round contest during his fourth and final season at the helm. He was regarded as one of the league’s better coaches, but like Harbaugh, he hadn’t yet broken through to the Super Bowl level. The 9-7 Buccaneers had just fired Tony Dungy after six seasons at the helm, owing mostly to Dungy’s 2-4 record in the playoffs. The Buccaneers expected to replace Dungy with Bill Parcells, but after Parcells turned Tampa down, the Buccaneers were left desperate for a big name.

They attempted to first go after 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, but after that fell through, the Buccaneers went after Gruden, who had one year left on his deal. Afraid of losing him for nothing, the Raiders bit the bullet and dealt Chucky to the Buccaneers for a massive haul: Tampa Bay’s first- and second-round picks in the 2002 draft, their first-rounder in the 2003 draft, a second-rounder in the 2004 draft, and $8 million in cash. That’s pretty close to the haul the Rams got for trading down in the 2012 draft and handing Washington the rights to Robert Griffin III.

The Buccaneers had been a playoff-caliber team for years under Dungy, so the Raiders likely made the trade figuring that the picks would be toward the bottom of each round. In constructing a similar haul for a possible 49ers-Browns deal, it’s not necessarily fair to make the same assumption about Cleveland’s picks, which are likely to be toward the top half of the draft. Furthermore, at the moment, the Browns are loaded with picks; by virtue of the extra first-rounder they have from the Richardson trade and the third-rounder they acquired from the Steelers in a draft-day deal last year, Cleveland has the most valuable set of selections in football for this year’s draft. (More on that after compensatory picks are announced.)

If the 49ers wanted to go for the quantity-over-quality approach, the Browns could have offered a pretty similar deal to what Tampa offered for Gruden a decade ago. They could have sent Indy’s first-round pick (26) in this year’s draft, their own third-rounder (71), and Indy’s fourth-rounder (125) while still maintaining at least one pick in each round. They likely would have also had to throw in their 2015 first-rounder (likely to be juicy unless Harbaugh turned things around quickly) and a 2016 second-rounder, providing the 49ers with five picks for their head coach. Cash considerations would also likely come into play, especially if the 49ers planned on using some of the money to buy a coach like Stanford’s David Shaw out of his college deal.

On the other hand, the 49ers could have opted for a premium pair of selections. Would they make this trade if the Browns offered them the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft, their first-rounder in 2015, and a conditional midround pick in 2016? With one of the deepest rosters in the league and five picks in the first three rounds this year, the 49ers might very well prefer to pick up a premium selection at the top of the draft. Could they have ended up with Jadeveon Clowney to play across from Aldon Smith if they get up to four? What about lining up Mike Evans or Sammy Watkins on the outside across from Michael Crabtree? The 49ers don’t lack for much, but if they’re going to lose Harbaugh, why not get a top-five pick out of it?

If the Niners are weak anywhere, it’s in the secondary, so a third option could have seen the Browns include one of their core players, cornerback Joe Haden, in a Harbaugh deal. Haden’s rookie deal is up after this season, so the Browns wouldn’t have taken a huge hit in dead money by dealing him, but the 49ers would have had to give Haden an extension as part of any trade. Haden is probably worth a first-round pick in today’s market (think the Percy Harvin and Darrelle Revis trades), so the Browns might have alternately offered something like Haden, the 26th and 71st overall picks in the 2014 draft, and a second-rounder in 2015 to try to get the job done.

I don’t know that the 49ers would have accepted any of those deals, but if the Gruden trade is a fair comp (and I think it is), those three deals represent roughly similar levels of compensation.

7. How much is Harbaugh worth on an annual basis?

Wouldn’t you know I just happened to write about this very topic on this very site? In December 2012, I wrote that Harbaugh was one of the biggest bargains in football, and nothing has changed to make me think otherwise. You can read that piece for a longer explanation, but my logic dates back to those trades for the likes of Gruden. The haul the Buccaneers sent to Oakland for Gruden isn’t much different from the sort of deal Washington did for Griffin or the Bears did to acquire Jay Cutler.

In other words, a great coach has roughly the same trade value that a Pro Bowl–caliber young quarterback enjoys. When those quarterbacks sign extensions or hit the free market, they get paid in a way coaches simply don’t. Cutler’s deal pays him an average of $17 million over its first five seasons. It should stand to reason, then, that the value of a great coach like Harbaugh should approach that same figure; my estimate is that Harbaugh is probably worth around $15 million per year.

Bizarrely, the coaching market doesn’t allow for anywhere near that large of a deal, even though coaching salaries are uncapped. Sean Payton is reportedly the highest-paid coach in football, and he made $8 million last year. Isn’t that crazy? Twenty-four NFL players made more than that last year, and as you might suspect, some of them aren’t any good! Mark Sanchez ($8.3 million) had a larger salary than Bill Belichick ($7.5 million) last year, and the Sanchize made it over $10 million with bonuses included. How does that make sense?

The coaching market has a correction coming at some point over the next 10 years; with colleges able to pay coaches more than ever before and teams desperate to find advantages outside the salary cap, the current market just doesn’t make much sense. The Buccaneers tripled Gruden’s salary when they acquired him from Oakland; I doubt the Browns would have done that for Harbaugh, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they offered to give him $10 million per season to become their head coach, which would make him the first coach in league history with an eight-figure annual salary and double his current pay.

8. Should this deal have happened?

I don’t like it for either side, honestly. While the Browns unquestionably want a coach with a proven track record of success to oversee yet another rebuilding project in Cleveland, it was only a few years ago that they turned to Mike Holmgren as team president and found him lacking, with Haslam firing him after three years at the helm. Harbaugh would have more input as a head coach, obviously, but he would have needed time to rebuild the roster with Lombardi, a move that would have been exceedingly difficult after having traded four or five key picks away to the 49ers as part of Harbaugh’s compensation package.

While there’s always value in picking up a host of draft picks, this isn’t a move that makes a ton of sense for the 49ers, who already have plenty of picks and need a star coach to help get the most out of their talented roster. The team might be in solid hands if they turned things over to defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, or another candidate, but there’s no guarantee those guys can match what Harbaugh does. It seems distant now, but the 49ers spent most of the decade before Harbaugh’s arrival in the NFL wilderness, floundering with the likes of Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, and Mike Singletary at the helm. While Singletary did a good job of setting a locker-room tone and culture of discipline within the organization, Harbaugh has gotten more out of virtually every player who was around during the Singletary era since taking over as head coach. He might be abrasive, but given his bargain-basement price and the scarcity of truly great coaches, it’s just too difficult to trade away Harbaugh unless he leaves the team with no other choice. And that’s not the case yet.

9. What does this mean for Harbaugh’s future in San Francisco?

Well, for the first time during his run as 49ers head coach, there will be serious questions about the likelihood of Harbaugh signing an extension with the team. While some stories briefly linked Harbaugh to the Texas job in late 2013, those rumors were never serious. Now, the league will be watching closely to see if Harbaugh does decide to secure his long-term future in San Francisco. If he makes it to 2015 without an extension, there will be serious questions about whether Harbaugh will be entering a lame-duck year with the Niners. It might actually encourage both parties to come to the negotiating table for an extension earlier than otherwise would have happened.

I also think it makes a Harbaugh trade less likely, just because the element of surprise is gone. The 49ers will be hesitant to even discuss Harbaugh trade talks with another team having already gone through this, and once it looks like they’re shopping their head coach around, it limits their leverage and, with that, their expected return for Harbaugh.

To be honest, I think the 49ers end up re-signing Harbaugh before long. It’s the best move for both him and the team. This might end up as only a trivial footnote on Harbaugh’s Wikipedia page, but if there’s more than meets the eye here, it could be the first sign that Harbaugh’s successful reign in San Francisco is beginning to come to an end.

Filed Under: NFL, San Francisco 49Ers, Cleveland Browns, Jim Harbaugh, Bill Barnwell

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell

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