Jim Harbaugh (left) and Trent Baalke have had an interesting professional relationship. (Paul Sakuma/AP)
The news last week that the Cleveland Brownstried to acquire San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh via trade certainly set off a lot of fire alarms at the scouting combine and throughout the NFL. But if you've kept up on the recent history between Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke, it shouldn't come as a surprise that another team saw a possible opportunity to swoop in and take a coach who's led his team to the last three NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl.
It's no surprise to anyone who's interacted with him that Harbaugh's personality can be grating at times. He's a great coach, and a proven winner wherever he's been, but he does tend to do things his own way (which is both good and bad), and reports of tension between Harbaugh and Baalke have been out there for the last few months. In December, Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News detailed a relationship that occasionally leaked into the public eye, when Harbaugh would tout specific players to the media as future 49ers, and then, for whatever reason, the team (i.e., Baalke) would not pull the trigger.
As Kawakami noted, no one thing really popped up and alerted anyone to a serious rift, but when you get two alpha dogs in a room as Harbaugh and Baalke are, there will be sparks, and they won't always be good. Harbaugh has always had to cede control of personnel to Baalke, and after two sub-par drafts in a row (San Francisco's 2012 draft hasn't produced a single functional starter, and 2013 brought only safety Eric Reid), one wonders if Harbaugh is a bit agitated at the lack of new talent coming in the room. In today's NFL, recovering from two such drafts is very hard to do, especially with the core of your talent base getting up there in age.
On Monday, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported that the divide between the two men has grown so great, San Francisco's higher-ups (meaning CEO Jed York) may have to choose between the two.
The men are barely speaking, I'm told, and almost all communication is through email. Harbaugh also has a strained relationship with team president Paraag Marathe, sources said, and he has clashed with many within the organization. It could prove untenable. If anything, the impression I got this week was that the situation there is actually much worse than how it has been portrayed in the media, and helps explain the delay in giving a new deal to the coach, who has two years left on a contract he has outperformed.
NFL.com and former Sports Illustrated writer Mike Silver, who's been connected in the Bay Area for eons, added Sunday that while those in charge view Harbaugh's achievements as remarkable, they're not necessarily going to bend in the face of any pressure when it comes to locking him up with a new long-term contract.
"We didn't do that when we hired him in the first place, either," one top Niners official reminded me on Saturday, referring to the team's refusal to raise its offer to Harbaugh in the face of a late push (and reportedly sweeter deal) from Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. "Why would we run scared?"
Simply put, the Niners' brass believes that Baalke has assembled a talented team and is likely to continue making smart roster decisions -- and that Harbaugh is hardly the only person who could coach this team to a championship.
York has said that there was no truth to the rumors that the Browns were close to a trade for Harbaugh -- the idea was floated from the Cleveland side, possibly when the team called to express interest in offensive coordinator Greg Roman. We do know that the Browns didn't even submit Harbaugh's name to the league in the latter stages of a head coaching search that ended with the hire of former New York Jets and Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.