If you don't want to believe any part of ProFootballTalk.com's blockbuster report yesterday that the Cleveland Browns recently had a deal in place to acquire Jim Harbaugh from the 49ers before it collapsed -- that there is nothing here to examine at all — that's your call and it's an understandable call.
"Report isn't true," 49ers owner Jed York said on Twitter in response to a back-and-forth between PFT's Mike Florio and the NFL Network's Ian Rapoport after Rapoport quickly knocked down Florio's report with two unnamed 49ers sources.
Later, Harbaugh sent this text-message to ESPN's Ed Werder, BANG's Cam Inman and CSN Bay Area's Dave Feldman:
"I echo Jed York's comment — isn't true ... I know nothing about a trade with the Cleveland Browns and us, involving me."
Then when Inman reached him by phone in Indianapolis and asked directly whether he nixed the deal, Harbaugh reiterated the "isn't true" comment.
(Harbaugh also told Matt Maiocco that the story was "ridiculous" this morning on his way to the combine workouts.)
If you believe this all meant nothing in the larger 49ers firmament and management structure of York, Trent Baalke and Harbaugh -- that everything is wonderful between them, with no potential pitfalls ahead, and that Harbaugh is destined to coach the 49ers for a long time -- that's certainly one way to interpret this.
The terse denials do publicly shut down the more fanciful parts of this.
(Most fanciful: Harbaugh to Cleveland, with no quarterback and the same division as his brother.)
But in my view, the denials don't shut it all down when you look at the larger Harbaugh/49ers picture. This is all just the start of things, not the end.
The following assessment assumes that the principals involved are operating within the margins of plausible, tightly-constructed deniability in all tactic discussions about Harbaugh-to-Cleveland.
And that's fair play by the principals involved; I'm not suggesting this is anything other than normal off-season, coach-and-executive back-and-forth.
This happens all the time, it doesn't become public all the time, and I would caution 49ers fans -- and mostly Harbaugh fans -- that there are a great many of these instances to come.
Larger point: Some 49ers fans don't want to hear this, but the reality is that Harbaugh is a combustible commodity's coming up on a contract extension that he thought he deserved last year -- so things are a little pent-up between coach and management.
As always, it's stipulated that Harbaugh is a great coach 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 not.
(And yes, I reported back in December that there was growing tension between Harbaugh and Baalke. At the end of the season, I heard that the two men — while definitely a lot chillier than they were when they were running hills together in 2011—were getting along just a bit better.)
But there is this contract extension that Harbaugh wants, and he wants a large one. As in: The largest one.
York, to this point, has happily paid Harbaugh $5 million per year and probably would up that to $6.5 million, but he does not want to make Harbaugh the top-paid coach in the league until he wins a Super Bowl.
So Harbaugh and agent David Dunn are going to do what they can to pressure the 49ers to getting that deal, or to eventually finding a place that will give him maybe an even larger deal. The 49ers will presumably push back.
All fair, by both sides.
It's negotiations, and both sides know that they pretty much have to get the deal done this off-season or else Harbaugh's 49ers tenure will be moving towards an end period.
That's what caused the weirdness of yesterday -- and there will be more, I predict, right up until the moment a new deal is signed or the 49ers and Harbaugh decide there's just no way to get a deal done.
And then there will be even more weirdness.
What follows are my best presumptions about how this could've all unfolded, fitting the larger points of the ProFootballTalk story, the clipped denials by York and Harbaugh, and what I know about the general personalities and background involved.
Again: I am not reporting that this is how it happened, not at all. I am postulating the most reasonable way, in my opinion, that it might've and could've occurred, within the constructs of what we know.
MY BEST PRESUMPTIONS
* Presumption 1: Sometime after the 49ers' NFC title-game loss in Seattle, Cleveland GM Mike Lombardi could have called Harbaugh for permission to talk to Greg Roman, Vic Fangio and/or Jim Tomsula for the Browns' new head-coach vacancy.
The person who'd pick up that phone call to Harbaugh's office? Hey, it could possibly have been Lombardi's son, Mick, who is currently the assistant to the 49ers head coach. Hmm, probably not that tough for any Lombardi family member to find a working Harbaugh cellphone number, either, I'd assume.
Also not tricky for Mike Lombardi to already have an idea about how Harbaugh was feeling about 49ers management.
* Presumption 2: Harbaugh, long-time pals with Lombardi back to their Raiders days, probably would highly recommend Roman-Fangio-Tomsula, but it wouldn't be out of the question for him to also conveniently let Lombardi know that he hasn't been thrilled with the pace of his own extension negotiations and that he and Baalke aren't so chummy lately.
Lombardi could've stayed away from outright tampering (you'd hope), but maybe he sounded out Harbaugh about his interest in, say, the merits of living in Ohio and variations on the color brown, and heard a non-negative response.
Harbaugh has lived and coached in many places and he lays claim to many "home" areas, the Midwest being one of them. I don't think he yearns to get back there because he's had plenty of chances to go back and hasn't, but he can certainly claim the Midwest as an essential part of his background.
* Presumption 3: Maybe then Lombardi shot a call to Harbaugh's agent, Dunn, who hypothetically did not hang up the phone when Lombardi wondered if Harbaugh could be ready for a change of scenery... if it's for $10 million a year to be back with his old pal.
I would guess that Lombardi and the Browns knew it was a long shot no matter what, but if Harbaugh and Dunn were interested enough, why not goose the 49ers by seeing if they could pull this off—and at the worst, Lombardi would be handing his friend even more leverage in the 49ers negotiations.
* Presumption 4: From there, Lombardi could've gone to his team president Joe Banner and desperate owner Jimmy Haslam, cited his friendship with Harbaugh, and the Browns maybe started coming up with a plausible trade offer for a game-changing move.
Harbaugh in Cleveland? That'd be something to sell some tickets and get the fan base stirring. Even in the large likelihood that it didn't happen, it was a home-run swing that could make Browns fans realize Haslam was at least trying.
* Presumption 5: Through the process, we can guess that neither Harbaugh nor his agent pushed away the Browns' general interest (without tampering of course!), if for nothing else to let the 49ers know that he has options.
Like he implicitly did with the University of Texas' off-book interest in December (and also USC's quiet interest — which, I've heard, is the one that really got the 49ers churning), Harbaugh and his agent have never minded letting the 49ers know they have options.
* Presumption 6: Baalke and York, already having gone through the Texas/USC thing, could've taken the Browns' call and perhaps coolly spoken hypothetically about what they might want in return for the rights to Harbaugh.
This wouldn't mean they were leaping to dump Harbaugh or that they were seriously ready to trade him away; but it might've meant that they at least wanted to let Harbaugh know that they have options, too, and if he wanted out, they were not going to swoon in panic, basically.
That's what York did with Texas and USC: In December, York asked Harbaugh directly if he wanted to stay or go -- and if he wanted to go, the 49ers would let him go. Back then, Harbaugh said he wanted to stay. That was just as the 49ers were about to enter the playoffs, remember.
York long ago tipped his hand that if it's a choice between Harbaugh or Baalke, he's leaning to Baalke, who is signed through 2016 and has full control of the roster.
* Presumption 7: I believe strongly that the 49ers did not want Harbaugh to go, but York and Baalke were determined not to let Harbaugh push them on this, so the 49ers once again ticked through a replacement short list. You know, just in case.
The hypothetical options: Elevate Roman, Fangio or Tomsula (or maybe special teams coach Brad Seeley) or see if an available top veteran coach would be intrigued by this opportunity.
Or give Stanford's David Shaw a call, just to check. Everybody goes through these short
lists (if you're smart), and if you have Jim Harbaugh as your coach, you have to do it all the time.
At some point, I'll probably run through these options in greater detail, but not now, because I think there will be a time when the 49ers go through it more seriously.
I don't think York and Baalke needed to go through it that deeply this time because...
* Presumption 8: At some moment right before the point of no return, when the 49ers had to decide whether they wanted to actually consider that Harbaugh wanted to leave the 49ers and coach the Browns, York probably had to go to Harbaugh again and ask: Do you want us to keep going down this road?
It's similar to what happened with the Texas scuttlebutt. If you know your coach is high maintenance, you know these things will keep happening and you play it out.
The final play each time: Ask Harbaugh if he wants out and if he wants out, then fine.
* Presumption 9: And at that point, either Harbaugh or York or both probably stepped back and said, you know, let's stop this right here. Walk it back into reality. It's just not realistic for the 49ers to want to move on or for Harbaugh to want to jump ship. Not now.
And that was the end of it, for now, except there's never and end to something like this; and then somebody -- probably from the Cleveland or Lombardi side -- started talking about it, which is presumably how this story got out.
Okay, let's circle back and summarize some things:
Harbaugh is still the 49ers coach, still with two years on his contract and almost certainly still very much wanting a new extension with a very high salary.
The 49ers still are very talented and still are starving for a Super Bowl; their best option is to have Harbaugh coaching them towards that.
Lombardi and Banner hired Mike Pettine as the new Cleveland coach on Jan. 23, so any presumptive talks with Harbaugh had to have taken place before that.
Lombardi and Banner were fired on Feb. 11. Ray Farmer was hired as GM.
Now, one critical point:
Other than the idea of a new start, why would Harbaugh truly want to jump from a team as loaded as the 49ers — and with a locker room atmosphere he admits was great even before he got here — to go to Cleveland?
I don't think he seriously would. Harbaugh is very, very, very smart; so is Dunn; and Harbaugh wants to win Super Bowls -- not lose a lot of games while trying to figure out what to do at quarterback.
Would he entertain the thought? Sure. But he entertains a lot of thoughts. That's called strategy.
If Harbaugh's going to try to jump, I think it's going to be to a team a lot better situated and run than the Browns. I've never heard the Browns mentioned before as a potential landing spot for Harbaugh, and believe me, I've heard a lot of teams suggested.
A few of the teams I've heard, just in casual conversation: Dallas (owner who'd pay anything to win), Chicago (Harbaugh played there, huge market), Detroit (ties to the area), New York Giants or Jets (biggest market), San Diego (ties to the area) and yes, the Raiders.
Cleveland had the Lombardi tie, and that's how it got going, but that's it, and look what happened to Lombardi.
Back to the larger 49ers/Harbaugh picture:
Does any of this hurt the relationship between high-strung coach and Super Bowl-starving management? No, I don't think so.
If you presume this would create mistrust between the two sides, well, that assumes Harbaugh and 49ers management were great cuddly frat buddies beforehand and, as I've said, that just isn't the case.
This is a tense situation. York created it by hiring Harbaugh and Baalke in the first place. And York isn't beyond some tension-play, either.
It didn't just get tense because of a Cleveland dalliance, however serious anybody really was (other than Cleveland, I'm sure).
Negotiations continue. Both sides are playing big-time poker, throwing out some bluffs and putting some chips on the table, and we have a long off-season ahead of all of us.
Maybe 49ers management and Harbaugh aren't in love anymore, but they can obviously work together. That's how this has operated for the last year or so, anyway. Sometimes it's easy, but this relationship is not fated to be easy, which York knew from the get go.
Hey, remember who the other finalist was when York hired Baalke as GM in 2011?
Yeah, it was Mike Lombardi.
Why? Because Lombardi was so close to Harbaugh.
This is how things go in the higher levels of the NFL and you'd rather have this stuff happen than to be irrelevant.
And at least 49ers fans don't have to worry about Harbaugh getting traded to be the coach for Lombardi's new team — the Patriots.
Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/timkawakami.