The Harbaugh-to-Cleveland story has taken on a he said-she said-Browns said quality. The truth usually is in the middle. But in my mind, at least, it skews toward the 49ers' side of the story. Here's why:
Jed York said an offer was made for Harbaugh and was quickly rejected. Adam Schefter's report that a first-round pick was not part of the offer supports York's version. After all, Tampa Bay once gave up two first-round picks and a second rounder for Jon Gruden. York should have hung up the phone if two first-round picks weren't included. A league source told me Sunday that the Browns' offer was "laughable." That's a far cry from the imminent deal that was painted in the original report on Friday.
So why would Browns owner Jimmy Haslam say his team had an "opportunity" to get Harbaugh? It's quite possible he was led to believe by either one or two men who realized their jobs were on the line -- CEO Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi -- that landing Harbaugh was more realistic than it was. That sense easily could have been bolstered by Harbaugh's agent, David Dunn, who has been in the background pulling strings and trying to leverage a bigger deal for his client. It's no coincidence that Harbaugh's name came up during USC's and Texas' coaching searches even though he had no intention of taking either job.
The Browns had suffered through a humbling coaching search to that point. That also may have made Haslam, et alia more desperate to shoot the moon with a whopper of a hire and made him more willing to believe that was a possibility. Perhaps Haslam felt that by essentially saying, 'Well, we did almost land Jim Harbaugh,' it adds legitimacy to what has been a widely panned coaching search. Was Haslam unhappy with how everything turned out? The man who inquired about Harbaugh, Banner, was fired earlier this month. So was Lombardi.
Who wins in all this? Certainly not the Browns, who only have undermined their current head coach, Mike Pettine. And definitely not the 49ers, who now have to deal with all sorts of questions about tension at the top of their organization.
The winners are Harbaugh and his agent. Their goal is to create as much chaos as possible and hope that York and the 49ers crack. Their stance: 'You can make this entire mess go away if you just give Harbaugh the deal he wants. And if you don't, there's going to be a queue of teams at the end of the 2014 season - Miami? Dallas? - with deeper pockets and a more desirable location for Harbaugh than Cleveland.'
And that's what makes this soap opera so interesting. York can't capitulate. And it's not just because being bullied by Harbaugh would set a bad precedent. It's because Harbaugh never will be content. It's in his nature to create chaos. He thrives in it. He's the god of discord. If this current crisis is solved, another will pop up in a few months. If general manager Trent Baalke is dismissed, Harbaugh will pick a fight with the next guy.
Which is why, when you follow this drama to its terminus, you have to wonder if, should the Dolphins or Cowboys or whoever call York at this time next season, he'll stay on the line longer than he did with the Browns.
- Matt Barrows