Could search have ended with Harbaugh?

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- There truly is no end to the NFL maze of wildness that involves the Cleveland Browns and their coaching search.

The latest news that broke happened Friday, when ProFootballTalk.com’s Mike Florio reported that the Browns were going to trade for Jim Harbaugh to coach the team before it hired Mike Pettine.

Not that acquiring Harbaugh would have been a bad result, just that the Browns always seem to find ways to take their fans to different places.

Florio wrote that the Browns discussed sending several draft choices to the San Francisco 49ers for Harbaugh, who was born in Toledo and who has family still in Ohio. San Franciso owner Jed York tweeted the story was not true, but Florio vehemently stood by its accuracy.

Why the trade didn’t come to fruition is up for debate. Florio reported Harbaugh backed out, but 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland reported the Browns backed out because of the price. The Cleveland station also reported that Harbaugh expressed interest when the Browns called to ask about interviewing 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula.

The timeline is interesting:

On Jan. 15, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam released a letter to Browns fans asking them to be patient.

On Jan. 19, the 49ers played in the NFC Championship Game and lost, after which the Browns could have interviewed San Francisco assistants.

On Jan. 23, the Browns hired Mike Pettine. That day former CEO Joe Banner admitted there was another mystery candidate, but declined to identify him.

On Feb. 11, Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi were fired by Haslam, who cited a "cumbersome" front office arrangement. On that day, Haslam said of hiring Pettine: "I think we got the best head coach we could get."

Friday, the Browns released a statement that did little to deny the Harbaugh report. In fact, its non-denial spoke loudly.

"The team conducted an extensive coaching search, and explored several options," the statement read. "That search produced an outstanding head coach in Mike Pettine, and we're excited about his future with the club."

The last time a coach was traded was when Tampa Bay sent two first-round picks, two second-round picks and $8 million to Oakland for Jon Gruden. Gruden won the Bucs a Super Bowl, but the Bucs set their franchise back years by trading the picks.

Harbaugh has taken the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game three years in a row, so the price would have been comparable. The Browns did a lot of work a year ago to amass extra draft picks; would they then have traded those picks for a coach who was finagling his way out of a team he led deep into the playoffs?

Harbaugh is very close to Lombardi. Harbaugh hired Lombardi’s son Mick in San Francisco and has a good relationship with the Browns former GM, now working in New England. His hiring in Cleveland would seem to have been a coup for Lombardi, and would seem to have strengthened his position as GM.

For the Browns, the effort to acquire a top coach might have resulted in them hiring Harbaugh. The only argument against hiring him would have been the cost; would it have been worth mortgaging the future they’ve acquired for a coach.

They move on with Pettine because ... well ... because he’s the guy they hired.

For the 49ers, though, there will be hard questions. Why would Harbaugh want to leave a team so close to a title, a team he did much to help build? Why would he even be willing to leave the Bay Area for Cleveland, a championship level team for a team that has lost 11 games six years in a row? How does he return to his team and ask for full commitment when he was willing to be committed to another team? What of the much-discussed contract extension that Harbaugh and the 49ers were seeking?

The words "never a dull moment" come to mind.