Shortly after the 49ers season ended on Jan. 19, the Browns called to inquire about 49ers assistant coaches Greg Roman and Jim Tomsula, according to a source with knowledge of the conversation. During subsequent conversations, Jim Harbaugh's name also came up, at which point then-Browns CEO Joe Banner listed the compensation Cleveland was willing to provide for the 49ers head coach.
The source, however, said the offer was rebuffed and the conversation never developed from there.
That scenario starts to explain the widely differing reactions by the 49ers and Browns to Friday's report by Pro Football Talk that the two teams were close to pulling off a deal that would have sent Harbaugh to Cleveland for multiple draft picks.
"There was an opportunity there, and it didn't materialize," Jimmy Haslam told told USA TODAY today. Haslam did not elaborate on why the deal fell through.
Haslam's counterpart, however, took to Twitter on Friday with a terse take on the subject. "Report isn't true," Jed York wrote. Harbaugh, meanwhile, said the same thing to several reporters and called it "ridiculous" in a brief interview with CSN Bay Area. While the Browns issued a press release that did not deny the original report, the 49ers have not had an official statement.
It's in the 49ers' interest, of course, to steer clear of a story about trade talks involving their head coach. Acknowledging would only add to any sense of instability at the top of the organization.
Why would the Browns have asked about Harbaugh in January? A month earlier, a report by The Mercury News detailed friction between Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke. Harbaugh and the 49ers also began talking about a contract extension during the summer, but it was tabled when the two sides realized how far apart they were. Talks are expected to resume this offseason.
Meanwhile, the Browns' general manager at the time, Mike Lombardi, is a friend of Harbaugh's from their time with the Raiders. Harbaugh hired Lombardi's son, Mick, as an assistant last year. The Browns may have thought that working alongside Lombardi would appeal to Harbaugh.
Both Banner and Lombardi were fired earlier this month. The Browns never have denied the initial report. Mere days after they called the 49ers, they settled on Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as their head coach.
-- Matt Barrows