In a way that was just so NFL, around closing time this past Friday afternoon the story of the magical Jim Harbaugh trade to Cleveland that wasn’t made it to your eyeballs before beginning to shatter brains. Although there are examples of similar kaboom trades involving coaches which ended in success (most notably, Jon Gruden going from Oakland to Tampa), the immediate question for both sides here was a simple one: why?
Why would the 49ers even consider for a moment a trade to part with a mastermind head coach who has taken them to three NFC title games in each of his first three seasons and a Super Bowl, and as an advanced offensive mind he’s steadily brought along Colin Kaepernick, a young quarterback in a unique system?
And why would the Browns, a flawed offensive team with many needs and a quarterback chief among them, sacrifice presumably multiple first-round picks? The simple answers to those simple questions: every head coach is replaceable for the right price (or if he out-prices himself during contract negotiations), and desperation can lead to wild home run cuts which become regrettable fast. The Browns’ desperation isn’t difficult to locate with their front office and ownership which couldn’t operate a light switch, and a lack of consistent leadership with now three head coaches since 2011.
But even after ProFootballTalk’s report was quickly gunned down first by Ian Rapoport’s two unnamed 49ers sources, and then later the principle players in team owner Jed York and Harbaugh himself, one other question remains, one that’s at the core of the Harbaugh-49ers dynamic/divide. Why does it matter if a successful person is also a controlling person?
Harbaugh is currently signed through the 2015 season, and he’s pushing for a contract extension he fully deserves. In three seasons his 49ers have lost only 11 regular-season games while winning five times in January. Of their three playoff loses which have kept Harbaugh from having a Super Bowl ring — the ultimate piece of bargaining leverage — two of them ended on plays involving fingertips. The final play of last year’s Super Bowl was a fade to Michael Crabtree that landed just beyond his outstretched hands in the back corner of the end zone on a play that was, at best, questionable and could have drawn a holding penalty. Then about a month ago Kaepernick’s game-ending interception came after a leaping tip by Richard Sherman, one only Richard Sherman could make.
Yet as it stands, the mere thought of a coach who’s had three double-digit win seasons (36 regular-season wins in total) entering a lame duck year will become increasingly baffling the longer Harbaugh waits for his extension, and the further we get into this offseason. Even more troubling is a widely reported reason for the delay, and the politics of power within the 49ers fortress.
Harbaugh is a controlling and demanding individual, which is about as polite as I can word that. Even the television audience at home can see how his Alpha-ness could wear you down over time, with his sideline flailing and red-faced pirouetting far more emphatic than most. The problem begins when that personality erodes a relationship over time, and specifically his connection with general manager Trent Baalke. Inherently, the job of general manager and the control which comes with it is also one that brings out the loudest and most stubborn amongst us.
When you put men with an unquenchable thirst for power in one work space for an extended time, the result can often be a crumbling foundation. For the 49ers specifically, you get the growing creative tension between Harbaugh and Baalke that Tim Kawakami reported back in December, which he repeated that over the weekend while noting communication between the two has improved:
As always, it’s stipulated that Harbaugh is a great coach, but he has never been known as a soothing, pleasant personality and he has never claimed to be.
He wins, and he also wears on people. Three years of winning with the 49ers, three years of wearing people down. Just ask the people at Stanford how they felt about him after four years there.
Harbaugh might say the same about Baalke, who also isn’t the sweetest of personalities. The two alpha-types are extremely good at what they do–Baalke finds the talent, Harbaugh coaches it–and they’ve been very good for each other… up until they moment when they decide that they’re very much not.
When a profession is rooted in creative work which must be controlled, the truly elite and most successful are also often difficult to manage and work alongside. Difficult often to the point of being ruthless, and the late/great Steve Jobs is a prime example. That’s the fundamental nature of the creative genius personality: they want to control their creation, and their product.
For their success to be maintained and enjoyed by all involved, a compromise has to take place. In this case, if it’s determined that Harbaugh is central to the 49ers’ long-term plans and needs to be retained, Baalke will have to become the slightly less stubborn and hard-headed individual. The opposite seems far less likely, and worse, Harbaugh with less control isn’t the same Harbaugh.
Inevitably this will all be forgotten quickly once Harbaugh is given his cash, and a sizable raise from the $5 million annually he’s currently paid. That still feels like the ultimate ending, and if even a fleeting Browns discussion really did take place and is being hidden, it wasn’t real, and it was instead the product of negotiations and a grasp for leverage. But right now Harbaugh may still be in the power struggle stage of his relationship with the 49ers front office, and that’s a dangerous place to be.