The Scouting Combine for the Cleveland Browns took a dramatic turn when it was revealed that the Browns were in discussions with the San Francisco 49ers for the services of head coach Jim Harbaugh. A deal that would have included compensation in the form of draft picks, the deal was discussed but not done with the Browns ultimately deciding on Mike Pettine as the team’s head coach. The fact that fans and media have gotten the facts out of order does not change the fact that Pettine is their guy or do anything that would serve to undermine him in his job now.
The Browns front office promised a thorough coaching search to find their man. They interviewed a ton of candidates in a search that had plenty jumping to every silly conclusion possible. No one wanted the job and people were turning it down left and right, even taking lesser jobs elsewhere to avoid Cleveland, but that is the level of insanity that this protracted streak of terrible football has created. Only two coaches have legitimately turned down the Browns job; Adam Gase from the Denver Broncos and Gus Malzahn of Auburn. Though not publicly done, it is pretty clear that the Browns inquired as to Malzahn and he politely and privately declined. Everyone else who turned down the job was doing it to save face and were not really in the conversation. In fact, Josh McDaniels, who took himself out of the process, was still keeping his name in the search at the end.
The fact that Harbaugh wanted to come to Cleveland should only work to prove that point. Harbaugh, in what is apparently a situation where he and general manager Trent Baalke are less than thrilled with each other, was interested in coming to the Browns to work with Mike Lombardi. Had this deal been done, it appears as though CEO Joe Banner had no place within the organization and Lombardi would have either taken the CEO job (something he later was reported to have thought was going to happen) or simply remained the general manager with Harbaugh as the head coach.
Whether it came down to a question of value or the 49ers were simply unwilling to pull the trigger is a question that remains unanswered. It is possible that Pettine was a better candidate to the Browns than was Harbaugh when the picks are thrown into the mix. Since there is no indication what the picks were or if the talks even progressed to that point, it is a guessing game.
Those who have generally been unhappy with the search and convinced the team is simply a mess will jump to the worst conclusion while there will be people who are always going to hope for the best and give the benefit of the doubt. The truth is unknown and probably not terribly important in the end and simply becomes a bar argument.
Harbaugh has obviously had a lot of success with the 49ers as well as with Stanford and success with the University of San Diego. So, there will be people who see this as a huge missed opportunity. The problem with Harbaugh is he never seems happy with where he is. The progression from San Diego to Stanford to the 49ers certainly fits the role of simply being ambitious and wanting to get to the highest level. However, when adding in that despite going to the Super Bowl and having such a tremendous amount of success in San Francisco, he has been linked to multiple jobs with talks of him leaving.
From the University of Texas to now with the Browns, Harbaugh’s name has been linked to a number of different jobs. And while that could simply be dismissed as speculation and noise, there is now concrete evidence that Harbaugh was trying to get out of San Francisco. So, if Harbaugh was willing to leave a perennial power that he helped create with the 49ers, why should anyone believe he would not find a reason to be unhappy in Cleveland and ultimately want to leave in a few years? That is putting aside the amount of time that Harbaugh seems to suffer from foot in mouth disease with some of the things he says and does, critical of his team’s fans among other issues.
The argument can certainly be made that a few years of a good coach would be great and a dramatic improvement, the goal is to find a coach for the next decade or more rather than a few years. Harbaugh has been a great coach, but he has also benefited from one of the best general managers in the NFL in Baalke. While Baalke may rub Harbaugh the wrong way, he keeps loading that roster with talent and putting him in position to succeed.
For example, in addition to the complement of draft picks the 49ers have this year, they also stashed defensive lineman Cornellius ‘Tank’ Carradine and running back Marcus Lattimore on their injured list because their roster was simply too full of great players, so they could take tremendously talented players that were injured this past year. Both have been regarded as first round talents.
This discussion happened before they hired Pettine, so the idea that any of this undermines Pettine is frankly stupid. That would be like suggesting the coaching search as a whole serves to undermine Pettine. The Browns went and did their due diligence, looking into just college coaches, head coaches with experience, high end coordinators and even a head coach on another team. Pettine is their guy. And appropriately and expectedly, Pettine shrugged this whole thing off because he knows as much as anyone else how idiotic this situation is.
Some have suggested this is an indication that Pettine has a short leash. Maybe Pettine does have a short leash, but that would be the move of an irrational, meddling owner rather than the decisive one that fans are hoping he is. Jimmy Haslam has as much on the line with Pettine and Ray Farmer as they do in terms of their credibility. He has said he is done making drastic actions and these type of purges. If December or January rolls around and he does the same thing, he is in the same conversation as Stephen Ross or Daniel Snyder as a terrible owner who has no clue what he is doing.
Overall, because people found this out late, they have reacted as if it just happened and could have hired Harbaugh. They can be disappointed in not getting Harbaugh if they want, but that has no bearing or impact on the job Pettine was hired to do. The Browns have to get better and Pettine has to prove he can be the guy to lead them there. Nothing about any of this changes the scope of that job or importance of it.