It was reported last week that the Cleveland Browns had a deal in place to acquire Jim Harbaugh from the San Francisco 49ers. Cleveland was in search of a new head coach and with the chaos and frustration surrounding the Browns, the franchise wanted to make a big splash. However Harbaugh declined to go to Cleveland. The 49ers have denied the report, while the Browns have been rather transparent about it. The dust has settled for now, at least for the 2014 season. Harbaugh will remain in the Bay area and Mike Pettine is the man in Cleveland.
However the fact that the 49ers were ready to trade him Harbaugh despite him leading the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship appearances and one Super Bowl appearance tells you Harbaugh's relationship with management must be strained. CEO Jed York and Harbaugh don't seem to be getting along despite the team's success on the field. Harbaugh is under contract for another two seasons and will be paid $5 million a year. Harbaugh should receive a raise considering the 49ers' success. The question is whether Harbaugh and York, as well as GM Trent Baalke will all be able to put egos aside and realize that Harbaugh clearly has the pulse of his players and that he's the best coach for them. While the 49ers have a ton of talent, it always takes a great coach to lead talent to success.
If differences are not set aside however, you have to wonder if the 49ers would entertain the thought of trading Harbaugh next offseason. If the 49ers don't once again enjoy the success they've had in recent years, maybe it'd be easier to justify the 49ers exploring the trade market for Harbaugh. There certainly could be opportunities. Every year we see several coaches lose their jobs and if a team is looking for a coach with a proven track record, why wouldn't they look at acquiring Harbaugh? Plus, the 49ers have Greg Roman as offensive coordinator and Roman has been a coaching candidate for the past couple of years. The 49ers would likely hand the job to him if they were to trade Harbaugh.
If you're trying to think of the price a team would have to pay to get Harbaugh, Bill Belichick was dealt to New England for a first-round pick. Jon Gruden was traded from Oakland to Tampa Bay for a pair of first-round picks, two second-round picks and $8 million in cash. That may sound like a steep price, but the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl in their first season with Gruden. If you think you're getting the right coach for your team, it's worth it.
Lets look at some possible trading partners for San Francisco should they look at trading Harbaugh in 2015.
An easy one is the Miami Dolphins. Owner Stephen Ross infamously pursued Harbaugh while Tony Sparano was still under contract as the Dolphins' head coach. Ross naively thought word wouldn't spread that he was after Harbaugh. Well Harbaugh clearly couldn't have felt comfortable negotiating with a team who still had a head coach, so he elected to go to San Francisco.
The Dolphins are clearly lacking direction at the moment. The team mutually parted ways with GM Jeff Ireland this offseason and several candidates turned down the job for GM before the team went with Dennis Hickey. Hickey was signed to just a two-year deal which is a really bizarre contract for a general manager. Head coach Joe Philbin was brought back for 2014 despite a lacklustre finish to the team's season and a bullying scandal happening right under his nose.
Miami has not been to the playoffs since the 2008 season and if Philbin can't get them there in his third year, it's very likely Ross will be looking elsewhere for his coach and it's very easy to see him try to land Harbaugh yet again. Money would be no issue with Ross, as he was already willing to make Harbaugh one of the highest-paid coaches in the league when he first tried to recruit him. Ross would likely even give Harbaugh more control than San Francisco appears to be willing to give him.
That's the easy possibility to imagine, but if Harbaugh turned down the Dolphins once, so he could very likely block a move to Miami if the 49ers wanted to trade him.
There are a few other teams without stability that could very well look to go in a different direction next year. Picture this: the Dallas Cowboys looking to bring in Harbaugh. Jason Garrett has led the Cowboys to three straight 8-8 seasons, losing out on the NFC East on the last day of the season in each year. If he falls short again this year, maybe Jerry Jones will look to make a big splash next offseason. If there's one thing Jones knows, it's how to keep people talking about Dallas despite their mediocrity over the last decade.
The only problem is it's hard to envision Jones' massive ego stepping aside and letting Harbaugh handle things. Jones is about as meddlesome as owners come as he's refused to hire a general manager. I doubt Jones would have a change of heart, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't try. Also consider that Tony Romo is entrenched as the Cowboys' quarterback for another five years and Harbaugh is a proven quarterback guru. Maybe Harbaugh could be the one to take Romo to the next level.
One last possibility I could see is Harbaugh moving just across the Bay to Oakland. That's right, the Raiders! GM Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen are likely in a make-or-break year after a pair of 4-12 seasons. This year, they have the ammunition to finally improve the team. They have a top-five draft pick and close to $70 million in cap space. If they can't improve the Raiders in 2014, who's to say owner Mark Davis wouldn't look to shake things up? How fitting would it be if Davis followed in his father's footsteps and made a bold move like making a trade for Harbaugh?
If Davis were to bring in Harbaugh, he'd likely give him some management control as well. He'd clearly have to throw in a sweetener to convince Harbaugh to cross the Bay Bridge to the Coliseum. It clearly would restore some faith of the fan base in knowing they'd have a great coach. Doesn't Harbaugh's brash, outlandish personality fit the Raider mould perfectly?
These are fun scenarios to think about. The 49ers have a tough path in 2014 with the NFC West being the best division in football. If the team's record slips and they explore trading Harbaugh again, these all could be possibilities as to where Harbaugh would coach in 2015.