Jim Harbaugh handoff Kendall Hunter

Pro Football Talk dropped a bombshell today that had nothing to do with combine 40 times.

Per multiple league sources, the Cleveland Browns nearly pulled off a trade with the 49ers for the rights to coach Jim Harbaugh.

A deal that would have sent multiple draft picks to San Francisco was in place between the teams.  But Harbaugh ultimately decided not to leave the 49ers.

It’s difficult to make sense of this story because there are so many moving parts. Michael Lombardi is close to Harbaugh, and after the recent coaching fiasco in Cleveland he was let go. Lombardi could be the source Mike Florio (PFT) is getting all this from, for all we know. The Browns could be floating this rumor to save face after looking more inept over the last month than the Dolphins during the Incognito brouhaha. We also don’t know how much money Harbaugh is looking for, or if he’s looking for control over personnel, but we can probably assume the answers to those questions are “a lot more than what he’s making now” and “the final say on all matters that aren’t directly related to the salary cap.”

A lot of people pointed to an article from 2003 saying the NFL stopped allowing teams to trade coaches for picks, but that’s not true. The Jets sent Herm Edwards to the Chiefs for a fourth round pick (and a goddamned snack?) back in 2006.

We know how Trent Baalke loves to hoard picks (multiple first rounders and the chance to grab another head coach from The Farm might sound pretty tempting to the Baalkster), but what’s been lightly discussed but never totally proven is possible tension brewing in Santa Clara between the head coach and general manager.

As far as this Browns business is concerned, this is probably nothing more than some internal discussions that had little to no chance of going anywhere, but can now be leaked because, well, screw it. But we’re seeing a pattern. 49ers fans want to believe all the wins and playoff appearances have the power brokers in Santa Clara in perfect lockstep. Harbaugh arrived, the 49ers became relevant again and built a stadium. The decision-makers are grateful, Harbaugh’s blood runs red and gold, and as a result he’ll be around longer than Andy Lee.

But Harbaugh has two years on his contract, and there have been more rumors that sound ridiculous (Harbaugh to Texas, Harbaugh to Cleveland) than reports that an extension is coming anytime soon. If the UT stories — that Harbaugh did nothing to squash — rankled the 49ers, letting him know that he’s an asset like any other could’ve been a way to send a message.

It’s all speculation, but speculation can cause hurt feelings and establish bargaining positions.

What does all this mean? Unfortunately for those who’ve grown to love seeing a man berate officials while wearing $8 khakis, there’s a distinct possibility Harbaugh will end up elsewhere sooner than 99% of 49ers fans would like. Rumors like these, as ridiculous as they sound, haven’t circulated around Bill Belichick for over a decade. Nothing like this is ever reported about Pete Carroll, or Jim’s brother in Baltimore. The very existence of these wild tales brought to us by anonymous sources and rabid news breakers/aggregators means Harbaugh is inviting speculation, at least indirectly.

There are two things working against the 49ers and Harbaugh maintaining a relationship that lasts anywhere near as long as Bill Walsh’s 10-year tenure.

1. The 49ers have no advantage here simply because they’re the 49ers. The Seahawks are younger, and in 2013 they were better. Unless the 49ers’ offense improves dramatically and they figure out a way to patch together an above average secondary this offseason, that will probably remain the case. The point is, the 49ers aren’t the only place Harbaugh believes he could win. The 49ers have talent, sure, but Harbaugh probably thinks he can turn around just about any team. He’s spent a good deal of time living in the Bay Area, but location isn’t important. Lots of teams have new-ish stadiums, rabid fanbases and plenty of tradition. San Francisco holds an advantage over a couple terrible teams, like the Browns or Jaguars, but Harbaugh seems like he’d listen to just about anybody with money and a smart plan.

2. Harbaugh wants to be paid like a Super Bowl-winning coach, but a source told Matt Maiocco that the 49ers are hesitant to do so until Harbaugh actually does the deed.

Since PFT’s report, the 49ers have issued a denial. Here it is.

York needed to make a statement, and on the surface it’s easier to believe the 49ers than the Browns because Cleveland has nothing to lose. But with Harbaugh, anything can happen. Until he’s the highest-paid coach in the sport, that will remain the case.