The 49ers, a team with an eminently talented roster and legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, find themselves in a fairly enviable position heading into the 2014 campaign. They are not, however, worry-free. There is the drama surrounding Aldon Smith, a suddenly fragile collection of running backs, and then there is head coach Jim Harbaugh‘s uncertain contract situation.
The 49ers made an extension offer to Harbaugh early last month, but Harbaugh did not immediately respond to it and contract talks reached an impasse shortly thereafter. As we learned earlier this week, the parties ultimately decided to table those talks until after the 2014 season. Harbaugh’s contract does run through 2015, but there are some sources who believe that, if a new deal is not consummated next offseason, the team will either trade Harbaugh or will simply allow his contract to expire.
Harbaugh has all the leverage in these negotiations (depending, to some extent, on the team’s performance in 2014). Over the course of his collegiate and professional coaching career, he has proven himself as someone who can quickly establish a strong foundation and a winning culture. If his contract is not renewed before the end of the 2015 season, Harbaugh will be besieged with lucrative offers from one of a handful of teams that will inevitably be looking for a new head coach at that point. If he is traded, the acquiring team will also be quick to give him a handsome deal (remember, the Browns reportedly tried to trade for him in January of this year). And, if the 49ers bring home the Lombardi Trophy this season after coming tantalizingly close to it in Harbaugh’s first three seasons with San Francisco, CEO Jed York might just hand him a blank check.
While Harbaugh has said all the right things regarding his relationship with the 49ers front office and his focus on the upcoming season, it is not easy to forget reports of the alleged tension between the head coach and the San Francisco brass. While the parties would almost certainly set aside any negative feelings they may harbor on a personal level if the team’s on-field success continues, that tension may create a bit of an obstacle when contract talks begin anew.
Although it is somewhat difficult to predict what teams will want to trade assets for a new head coach after the upcoming season, and even more difficult to predict which clubs will be in the market for a new head man following the 2015 season, there is no question that Harbaugh’s next contract–whether it is with the 49ers or someone else–will pay him a salary that rivals or surpasses those of the highest-paid coaches in the league. Sean Payton of the Saints currently tops the list with an $8MM annual salary, and the Patriots’ Bill Belichick, the Chiefs’ Andy Reid, and the Ravens’ John Harbaugh, Jim’s older brother, are not far behind.
But for a team searching for an established coach with a proven track record of quick success–Harbaugh took over a 49ers team that went 6-10 in 2010, guided them to a 13-3 record in 2011, and has compiled a 36-11-1 record over three seasons–that price tag will be worth it. And if Harbaugh delivers a sixth Super Bowl title to San Fransisco, the 49ers will really have no choice but to match or beat whatever offers he gets and to decline whatever trade offers come their way.
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