By John Boyle Herald Columnist
The Seattle Seahawks struck the most significant blow yet in the NFL’s best rivalry when they earned the Super Bowl title that narrowly eluded the San Francisco 49ers a year earlier.
But within the past week, we’ve seen what could give the Seahawks the biggest long-term advantage over their NFC West rivals. While Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider continue to praise each other’s work for helping Seattle earn its first Lombardi trophy, news out of the Bay Area has painted a picture of front-office dysfunction for the 49ers, or at least tension that could lead things in that direction.
There are plenty of similarities between the Seahawks and 49ers, from their recent success to their physical, stingy defenses to their run-first offenses to their hyper-competitive coaches with Pac-10 roots.
Those similarities apparently end, however, when it comes to front-office harmony.
In one of the surprising stories of this NFL offseason, ProFootballTalk.com reported Friday that the Browns and 49ers nearly pulled off a trade that would have sent head coach Jim Harbaugh to Cleveland for draft picks. Since then there have been denials, non-denials, confirmation of discussion between the two sides, and a whole bunch of different versions of the story, all of which points to the fact that some sort of conversations indeed happened, though just how serious talks got depends on who you believe.
Regardless of how close Harbaugh was to leaving San Francisco, it brings up the question of how this could have even been a possibility, and what it means for the 49ers going forward.
After all, Harbaugh, for all of his personality quirks, is clearly one of the best coaches in football. So why would the 49ers consider trading him, or for that matter, why would Harbaugh be willing to leave a place where has had so much success, and seemingly has a bright future, to go coach a franchise that has become one of the least stable in the NFL? For either side to consider a change, things clearly aren’t completely right in San Francisco.
Well as it turns out, things may not be so friendly at the top of the 49ers organization when it comes to the relationship between Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke. That’s not actually new news; there have long been rumblings of tension between the two when it comes to the amount of control Harbaugh has — or more accurately, doesn’t have — when it comes to roster decisions, but the report of a near trade and what has come since shows just how frosty the relationship may be. In the end Harbaugh might get the new contract — you just know it kills Harbaugh that Carroll makes significantly more money than he does — and more control that he wants, and this could end up just being a strange offseason story we forget about as the 49ers roll to another double-digit victory season. But this could also, as CBSSports.com’s Jason La Canfora suggested in an article Monday, end with 49ers owner Jed York deciding he has to choose between the two.
Maybe in the end Baalke and Harbaugh realize that, despite their difference, they are better off with each other than without. Or maybe they continue to lead a winning team while quietly resenting each other, but as Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News noted in an article detailing the tension between the two, “Grudges can last forever with high-powered men.”
Which brings us back to the Seahawks, and more importantly, the relationship between the two men on top. While the 49ers have shown they can win with Harbaugh and Baalke running things, even if there is conflict there, it hardly seems like an ideal long-term solution. Mike Holmgren led the Seahawks to plenty of wins after losing his GM title and being put into something of an arranged marriage with Tim Ruskell. But that eventually fell apart, leading owner Paul Allen and then-Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke to push the reset button after the 2009 season. At the time, Leiweke admitted there had been some dysfunction within the front office, and he wanted to make sure they had a strong partnership — a “fantastic collaboration” he called it — between coach and GM.
And four years later, the Seahawks are Super Bowl champions in large part because of the structure at the top of their organization.
Unlike a more traditional structure where the GM would be in place first, then help hire a coach, Leiweke and Allen hired Carroll first, then let him help in the hiring process that eventually brought Schneider to Seattle.
“I think it’s absolutely the most crucial relationship and aspect of our program,” Carroll said of his relationship with Schneider. “All of the decisions that we make, we make together, and the fact that we communicate so well and we trust one another so much, it’s helped us throughout.”
Schneider describes their relationship saying: “We both recognize that nobody has all the answers and we’re continually pushing the envelope every single day trying to get better. Regarding Pete, one of the biggest things with him is he’s a no-ego guy. All he wants to do is win games and be successful. He just has a unique ability to bring out the best in people and he’s done that with me.”
Can you imagine Harbaugh and Baalke saying that of one another right now? According to La Canfora, the two are barely speaking anymore, communicating mostly by email, while Carroll describes his relationship with Schneider as a marriage.
Again, maybe in the end the 49ers will move past whatever bad blood there is in their front office and win for years to come. Or maybe Baalke or Harbaugh will win a power struggle and force the other out, and the last man standing still will lead a winning franchise. But all things being equal, that “fantastic collaboration” in Seattle sounds like the much better path toward sustained success, doesn’t it?
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.