With tensions rising, 2014 could be make-or-break for Jim Harbaugh

Tuesday February 25th, 2014

Jim Harbaugh is entering the second-to-last year of his five-year deal with the 49ers.
John Biever for Sports Illustrated

So much for the notion that winning cures all in the NFL. Apparently that theory no longer applies in San Francisco, which, including the playoffs, is tied for the most overall wins (41) in the league over the past three seasons -- a run of success that dovetails exactly with the three-year Jim Harbaugh coaching era.

But despite the 49ers' three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship Game, with their 2012 Super Bowl season representing their highlight, the questions surrounding the team are suddenly about Harbaugh's under-the-microscope fourth season, and whether the relationship between him and management already has suffered too much damage to allow for the long-term marriage that we all presumed was in place. Like the couple everyone thought was perfect for each other, it turns out there are some troublesome issues lurking just beneath the surface of this ideal pairing.

No matter how seriously you think the topic of Harbaugh's potential trade to Cleveland was discussed between the 49ers and Browns -- and there's room for different interpretations of the facts -- that such a mind-boggling deal was considered at all speaks volumes about how tenuous things are between the 49ers management and the talented but high-strung coach who led them back to NFL relevance.

MORE: Jim Harbaugh reportedly at odds with 49ers | Jim Harbaugh almost traded to Browns?

My inescapable conclusion based on what we know about the state of the union between the powers that be in San Francisco and Harbaugh? It's going to be a very tricky maneuver to try to put this particular genie back in the bottle, and I'm not even sure the awarding of the lucrative and long-term contract extension that Harbaugh has sought would put a happy, smiley face on the situation and lead to a long and successful future together.

For months now, there have been reports and rumors of friction between Harbaugh and 49ers general manager Trent Baalke, who has final say on personnel matters in San Francisco. Creative tension is one thing, but the Harbaugh-Baalke working relationship might have left behind that relatively harmless stage a while back and moved on to thinly veiled mistrust of each other.

Harbaugh is known to value his own opinion and judgment above all else when it comes to personnel decisions, and it's clear he has grown frustrated with some of Baalke's calls in the past two, mostly low-impact drafts and in regards to in-season veteran player acquisition choices. The mixture of Harbaugh perhaps simultaneously seeking more money and more power, or at least say-so in terms of his roster, could force a showdown that would inevitably lead to 49ers CEO Jed York having to choose between the two men.

In classic Bill Parcells style, Harbaugh hasn't come out and said he'd like to have more to do with picking the groceries if he's going to be expected to cook the meal, but all indications are that he feels his top-tier success in his first three years should translate into his voice carrying more weight on the personnel front.

Stylistically, Harbaugh's famed intensity and hard-driving style were exactly what the 49ers needed when he was hired away from Stanford in early 2011. There was talent on hand in San Francisco, but there was insufficient direction and leadership. Harbaugh supplied that in spades. He's a proven leader, a gifted motivator of men, and he has gotten results everywhere he has been in his still-young coaching career. But there's the growing realization that there can be an expiration date on his shelf life in any particular job, and perhaps San Francisco is coming to grips with that reality.

It is telling that his longest stop as a coach was the four years he lasted at Stanford (2007-10), and that he had only one tenure longer than that in his 15-year playing career as an NFL quarterback, that being the seven seasons he spent in Chicago (1987-93). True, he left his previous coaching jobs by his own choice, in order to climb the ladder. But the downside of his Type-A personality is a tendency to wear on people, create some contentious relationships, and perhaps need a new challenge to focus on every few years or so. It's just the way the ultra-competitive Harbaugh is wired.

In that light, this portends a very interesting and pressure-packed season to come in San Francisco. Harbaugh is entering the second-to-last year of his five-year, $25-million contract, and there's almost no imaginable scenario where he would enter 2015 as a lame duck. That means this year should tell the story of where his 49ers tenure is headed, and winning the Super Bowl is the only outcome that might ensure he remains in San Francisco.

Then again, a Super Bowl ring might also be the perfect exit strategy, allowing him to go out on top, complete his mission of franchise restoration and set him up to become the NFL's highest paid head coach in his next gig. He could write his own ticket with a Super Bowl victory to his credit, and move on to his next coaching frontier. Even if that doesn't mean taking over in the NFL's version of Siberia, i.e. the Cleveland Browns.

Bottom line? Don't be shocked if Harbaugh and the 49ers are preparing for their final season together, as implausible as that would have sounded even a week ago. It would be one last attempt to finish the job they have been so close to completing the past three years, with the narrow home-field loss to the upstart Giants in the 2011 NFC title game, the agonizing Super Bowl defeat at the hands of Baltimore the following season and most painfully of all, the opportunity missed against division rival and eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle in last month's NFC championship.

Make no mistake, the urgency to finally win the biggest game of the year just got ratcheted up even higher than it already was in the Bay Area. Even when you're at an elite level, being stuck in a pattern of status quo usually prompts change in the NFL. Unless York feels the club has no choice but to extend Harbaugh before this season, paying him the roughly $8 million annual salary that he could expect to earn with a Super Bowl victory -- and San Francisco has shown no interest in doing so before that Lombardi Trophy is on the shelf -- 2014 might already be make-or-break time for the 49ers' highly-regarded and tightly-wrapped coach.

It's a poorly kept secret within the league that San Francisco's management is convinced well-respected 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula would make an excellent replacement for Harbaugh if the need arrives. And with the impending opening of the team's new stadium in Santa Clara, a young and talented roster that's headlined by franchise quarterback Colin Kaepernick and a bevy of picks in this year's deep draft (it's expected they'll have 12 choices after compensatory selections are handed out), the feeling in San Francisco's organization is that life after Harbaugh would not mean a return to the long and dismal playoff drought that preceded his hiring.

Harbaugh has led the 49ers to a remarkable run of early success, becoming the first NFL head coach to ever take a team to the conference title game in his first three years on the job. But now that the Browns trade story has broken and revealed some fissures between him and the team, it already feels like it's getting late in his San Francisco tenure. Maybe that perception is wrong and the pieces can all still fit back together, but the Humpty Dumpty tale does come to mind. Even winning and winning big hasn't been able to obscure the cracks that are starting to show in San Francisco.

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