With Jim Harbaugh’s tenure in Ann Arbor not going as well as some had hoped, and with owners for several bottom-dwelling NFL teams already starting to mull their next coaching move, numerous league sources suggested the former 49ers coach will have numerous opportunities to return to the pro game should he so desire.
There are several teams falling well below expectations already — the Buccaneers and Giants, most notably, and the Browns are still searching for their first win after earning one victory a year ago under Hue Jackson — and with a limited pool of coordinators and potential first-time head coaches emerging, Harbaugh will be in demand, according to sources with some front offices where a coaching change is expected. A year ago, sources said, Colts owner Jim Irsay reached out to see if Harbaugh, a former Colts quarterback, had any interest in his job, while three years ago Browns owner Jimmy Haslam made the most comprehensive approach to land him.
At that time, the 49ers approached the Browns about potentially trading the coach, who was nearing the end of his contract and had no long-term prospects in San Francisco due to strained interpersonal relationships with ownership and management, as was widely reported at the time. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam was enamored with the prospect of adding Harbaugh and, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, agreed to send two third-round picks to the 49ers for him, and offered the coach a five-year, $40 million contract to coach the Browns.
Harbaugh balked at going to Cleveland, which was in turmoil, at the time and believed he would have a multitude of options open to him if he played out his situation in San Francisco. The Browns have continued to sink since, though sources said Haslam remains enamored with the head coach — who has a history of developing quarterbacks — and with the Browns headed to a possible first overall pick and possibly two picks in the top 10, the job could be more attractive to Harbaugh come this winter should he be open to the opportunity. Other coaches and executives have noted as well that the Browns could be the only — or one of very few — situations this offseason where an individual could possibly gain full football authority to rework the coaching staff and football operations staff as he sees fit, with Haslam in a desperate situation.
With the Colts going through some bumpy times with injured franchise quarterback Andrew Luck, and controversy swirling about allegations that Irsay insinuated Luck’s recovery from major shoulder surgery was somehow “mental,” reaching back to the man who coached Luck at Stanford would have a particular allure as well. Irsay’s reputation in coaching circles is hardly pristine however, though Harbaugh has obvious ties to that area from his playing days.
Regardless, he is hardly off the NFL radar since returning to college coaching, and some close to the coach believe a return to the NFL at some point is inevitable,