Harbaugh And Baalke Are Perfect Strangers
Most of the 49ers talk this week should've been about the NFL Combine. It has become one of the marquee events on the post Super Bowl schedule in the lead up to free agency and the draft, with prospects, coaches, and scouts all flocking to Indianapolis during the last week of February. However, while the Niners should've been watching the wide receivers and quarterbacks intently this week at the Combine, another story stole the headlines.
By now, we're all familiar with the backstory of the Harbaugh-to-Cleveland saga. It's only grown since Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio came out on Friday and hinted that a trade between the Browns and 49ers for the coach was close. Since then, the story has been refuted and revised, objected and confirmed, and everything in between. Moreover, the supposedly strained relationship between Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke has come under the microscope, with a few NFL insiders in the media world saying the future of the 49ers may come down to picking one of the two men.
Here's what we do know. Browns owner Jimmy Haslem was on the phone with the 49ers, inquiring about Harbaugh, just like the Universities of Texas and Southern California. However, those discussions didn't get very far, as Cleveland didn't even put one first-round pick on the table. If you'll recall, the Bucs traded multiple first-rounders for Jon Gruden back in 2002, in addition to two second-rounders as well. So, realistically, the Browns were not close to even being in the ballpark for the only head coach to ever go to three consecutive conference championship games to start his career.
Right now, this situation is not about any possible trade for Harbaugh. Not now, or even a year down the line when the head coach's contract is one year closer to running out. All these rumors have done is slant the leverage even more in Harbaugh and his agent, David Dunn's favor during their preliminary contract negotiations. In my opinion, regardless of his ego, style, and whatever other drawbacks he might have, Jim Harbaugh deserves to be paid like a top 5 coach. Whether the Niners believe that or not, the results speak for themselves.
With Baalke and Harbaugh's relationship coming into focus, that muddies things even further. The 49ers would be foolish to let their head coach get away, but if the situation between the GM and Harbaugh is irreparable, they might have no choice. That unfortunately leaves the Niners with few options if this saga drags out until next year. In early 2015, Harbaugh would have one year left on his deal. If the Niners win a Super Bowl, CEO Jed York and Baalke would likely make the former Michigan man the highest paid coach in the league, and give him more personnel power.
However, if the Niners come up short again, the questions will start as soon as the season ends. If the situation truly is irreconcilable, wouldn't the Niners be foolish NOT to investigate a trade? Despite losing the last year of Harbaugh's contract, they could be rewarded with multiple top draft picks.
Let's slow down a little bit though. Who’s to say the various sources feeding information to the media aren’t members of Harbaugh’s group. The more speculation and frenzy created about the head coach’s contract, the more he’ll end up getting paid. Whether the 49ers or some other franchise is paying him, it may not matter to him.
One fact that is likely true, although to what extent we can’t know for sure, is some of the tension between Baalke and his coach. I think it’d be unhealthy for the relationship to be all puppy dogs and ice cream cones. The pair have turned around one of the league’s flagship and most well-known franchises in just a few seasons, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when there’s a few personnel disagreements. Baalke never saw eye-to-eye with Mike Singletary when he was head coach, which helped played a part in Singletary’s exit from the team during the 2010 season.
However, the situation with the current coach is different. Jim Harbaugh has success on his side, which Singletary undoubtedly lacked. That’s why any talk of the partnership becoming too strained seems a little like hyperbole. They may both be alpha-type personalities, which can make it difficult to work together, but after three seasons of success, and three straight NFC Championship game appearances, it seems a little far-fetched. There has to be some annoyance in Santa Clara after seeing their bitter rival to the north hoist the Lombardi trophy, especially after the Niners were just a handful of plays from appearing in three Super Bowls in three years. So, while there, no doubt, is some tension between the top personnel man and the head coach, until there is some harder evidence, I’m looking at this as nothing more than the garnering of leverage in contract negotiations. For now.
Disclaimer: In case the working relationship between Baalke and Harbaugh has completely fallen apart, it would implore Jed York to select his head coach over his general manager. Put simply, Jim Harbaugh is a better NFL head coach than Trent Baalke is an NFL personnel man. We can applaud the GM for his work building the team in 2010 as VP of Player Personnel and 2011 as GM, adding the likes of Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Chris Culliver, Kendall Hunter, and Bruce Miller through the draft alone.
Then, in 2012, Baalke made some obvious missteps. Although the Niners had a loaded roster, they weren’t able to find one solid contributor to the team yet. In their first two picks, A.J. Jenkins was given up on and shipped off to Kansas City for Jon Baldwin right before the start of the 2013 season. Second-rounder LaMichael James has been underused offensively and only significant production has been in the return game. Offensive lineman Joe Looney, a fourth round pick, may get a chance to compete for the starting center spot in training camp, but even that would be his first real contribution.
The early returns from the 2013 draft look favorable, and 2014 looks promising, but the 49ers have been flush with picks. The point is, Harbaugh was able to take most of the talent Mike Singletary failed with and turn the team into a perennial contender. He took a physically limited quarterback and tailored his offense around Alex Smith’s strengths and weaknesses. If the Niners reach the NFC Championship again following the 2014 season, and fall short of winning their sixth title, Harbaugh would further his own record by becoming the first coach to reach four straight conference championships to start his career.
So, at the end of the day, it comes down to which scenario is more beneficial for the Niners going forward. Keep Baalke and bring in another head coach who could become hostile with his GM in a few years. Or, let Baalke go, subsequently giving Harbaugh more power, and select another talent evaluator/capologist to take over. A transcendent coach is hard to find, so the choice should be easy for the 49ers’ brass. Will they make the right choice if and when the time comes?