Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen the stability within the 49ers organization tested in a way most teams never have to worry about. First came the report from Pro Football Talk that the Browns and the 49ers had nearly struck a deal that would have sent 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh to the Cleveland Browns. Then, Jed York came out of San Francisco’s camp to say the report simply wasn’t true.
Since then, it’s become clear that the Browns considered making a play for Harbaugh, but the 49ers weren’t interested, and Harbaugh himself has stated he’s happy where he is. Crisis averted right? Unfortunately, that’s not where the story ends for the 49ers and Harbaugh.
As it stands, Harbaugh’s contract expires at the end of the 2015 season. That gives the 49ers two more years before they’ll either be stuck with paying Harbaugh a huge sum of money or letting him walk out the door. That decision will likely come down to a philosophical belief. Could anyone coach this team deep into the playoffs, or is Harbaugh one of the driving factors in the 49ers’ success over the past three seasons? Obviously, that answer won’t come for some time, but there’s no denying that, outwardly, the 49ers appear to be leading to the former option.
So why are we seeing so much tension of late between the 49ers and their head coach?
First and foremost, much of that tension is likely driven by media interpretations of the current situation. The type of tension described by reports over the past two weeks doesn’t suddenly happen. If the 49ers are currently at odds with Harbaugh, the situation has been developing for some time, not just over the past few weeks.
The other factor that the team has to consider is their own players. Sure, we can say that professional players should be able to work with coaches they simply don’t like, but we also know that’s just not the case. Players leave teams on a frequent basis for reasons not directly associated with their on-field play. It’s possible, or probable if we believe reports that players are upset with Harbaugh, that the 49ers are sensing that some of their key players are unhappy with Harbaugh’s coaching style. If San Francisco believes those players want out, they may have enough reason to slowly push Harbaugh out of the picture. Of course, that’s completely speculation on my part, but it’s something valid to consider.
The problem with all this Harbaugh talk is the lack of a smoking gun. Everyone wants to point at the team and exclaim there’s trouble in paradise, but the people involved continue to reiterate that they’re moving ahead with business as usual. If there really is trouble in San Francisco, they’re doing a great job hiding any evidence from the media. In fact, some of the most dysfunctional teams in the league could take notes from the 49ers about how to keep their problems to themselves.
Harbaugh’s contract expires after the 2015 season, likely meaning he’ll be negotiating a contract extension during or following the 2014 season. Those talks will be a lightning rod for speculation, but they won’t be in the news in the immediate future. If the 49ers really are souring on Harbaugh, that’s when we’ll see the hard evidence.