After a third straight disappointing and dramatic finish to their year, the San Francisco 49ers dealt with external heat this offseason stemming from a reported conflict between two of the organization's most important figures: head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke.
But at the owners' meetings in Orlando, Florida this week, the two parties and team CEO Jed York cleared the air, explaining that whatever conflict the two shared was healthy and warranted. They also did their best to debunk the story that trading Harbaugh to the Cleveland Browns was a distinct possibility.
"There's a lot of tension," York said, according to Tim Kawakami of the Bay Area News Group. "There's a lot of build-up and when you don't win you drive and push even more and that creates friction…
"They get along. They're just grinding. They want a ring. And they're trying to battle and fight to get to that ring. And sometimes it wears on people. But I like that tension. I think they like that tension. And I think both of them compete better when there's something to compete against."
It's been no secret around the 49ers' facility that Harbaugh and Baalke don't see eye-to-eye on every decision made. And naturally that conflict has bled into the storyline surrounding Harbaugh's contract, which is up after 2015 and one he's outperformed.
"I know this," said Baalke to reporters this week, "he's our football coach, he's a damn good football coach, and we expect him to be our football coach for a long time."
Despite being the first coach in league history to take his team to the championship round in his first three seasons, Harbaugh and the 49ers have been unable to piece together an extension making him one of the highest-paid coaches in the league. He's entering year four of his five-year, $25 million deal. He's also just the third-highest paid coach within the NFC West behind Pete Carroll and Jeff Fisher.
All of these factors have led to rampant speculation that the situation is untenable and that the relationship between Harbaugh and Baalke is the road block to Harbaugh's extension - thus leading to the idea the 49ers were actively trying to shop their head coach to Cleveland for draft picks.
"A lot has been made about the relationship between Trent and I and it's good; we don't like to talk about it that much ‘Trent and Jim,' you know? It's a team effort here," Harbaugh told reporters Wednesday.
"But yeah, working very well together, to answer your question."
York admitted the conversation between the 49ers and the Browns took place, and that York called Harbaugh to run the idea past him in case it was something in his best interest.
"They called," York said. "We said we didn't have any interest. There was not a lot of shock or surprise on their side. And I just asked (Harbaugh), I said, ‘Is this something that you wanted?' He goes, ‘I don't even know what the hell you're talking about.'"
The story that the trade "nearly happened" naturally picked up steam at the annual scouting combine, an event usually lacking much narrative punch, but also the rare occurrence when numerous representatives from every organization and media outlets are under one roof, allowing speculation and rumors to spread like wildfire.
Indeed, there were too many signs of disfunction leading into the combine to quickly dismiss the report, especially when those national outlets that reported it were so staunchly sticking by their guns.
But now with the air cleared in their minds, the 49ers' triumvirate hopes to continue pushing torward to that elusive sixth Super Bowl ring in 2014. And with sky-high expectations yet again, one has to wonder how these relationships will continue to evolve - or devolve - if they come up short a fourth straight season. As long as Harbaugh continues with San Francisco without a contract extension, the questions surrounding his future won't go away.
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