There is plausible deniability.
The San Francisco 49ers can say they didn't entertain a trade offer that would have sent Jim Harbaugh to Cleveland. They can say they remain enamored with a head coach who has won 76.6 percent of his games and been to three straight conference championship games and one Super Bowl. They can say Harbaugh is their man of today and tomorrow.
They can say the Harbaugh-to-Cleveland narrative was just that, a story, fiction, ridiculous and a one-way advancement by a franchise -- the Browns -- desperate for an impact move.
That all might be true. But so is this: Despite how difficult Harbaugh might be to co-exist with, the Niners need him way more than he needs them. He is the commodity. He has made the difference. He is the reason why San Francisco has returned to prominence.
It is not owner and CEO Jed York. It is not general manager Trent Baalke. Those men have done a fine job building a stadium and a roster, but it is Harbaugh who has taken the talent and molded a winner. He is the one who has convinced the players no one has it better than them. He is the one who has assembled a talented staff that has maximized each player's potential. He is the reason San Francisco is an attractive spot for free agents.
Want proof? In the eight seasons prior to Harbaugh's arrival from Stanford in 2011, the Niners had zero winning seasons, won zero division titles and made zero playoff appearances. In the three seasons since, they have averaged 12 wins a year, won two division titles, hosted one conference championship game and played in eight playoff games, winning five and coming within a goal-line stand of a Lombardi Trophy.
San Francisco has not had a run like this since Steve Mariucci was the coach.
Harbaugh has made the difference.
So it would behoove San Francisco to figure out a way to make Harbaugh happy. Yes, he is quirky, prickly, controlling and intense. That is not breaking news. He can wear out even the most dedicated employee. He has a singular purpose and expects everyone in the organization to share it.
But Harbaugh also is a tremendous head coach who has been able to motivate and maximize a talented roster.
That is why there has been interest from others. That is why the Browns contemplated giving up draft picks to bring Harbaugh to Cleveland. Profootballtalk.com first reported the Browns' interest Friday night. ESPN's Adam Schefter subsequently reported Cleveland did not include a first-round draft pick in its proposal.
"There was an opportunity there," Browns owner Jimmy Haslam told USA Today Sports on Sunday, "and it didn't materialize."
York and Harbaugh denied there was an opportunity there, but it didn't matter. As dysfunctional as the Browns have been since Haslam bought the team in 2012, their flirtation with Harbaugh -- however brief and one-sided -- illustrates the perceived tension in San Francisco. Cleveland thought it had a chance at landing Harbaugh. It thought his relationship with Baalke, who has ultimate control over the Niners' roster, was strained enough that Harbaugh would welcome a new opportunity even with an organization that doesn't have a franchise quarterback.
York and Baalke need to remedy this situation. Harbaugh has two years remaining on his original contract. While San Francisco certainly could wait another year to extend Harbaugh before he entered a lame-duck season in 2015, it should recognize what Cleveland did. Harbaugh has value. He has not won a Super Bowl yet, but he has made San Francisco relevant again. He has made them into an annual contender.
Having stability at the top of an NFL franchise is as important as having a franchise quarterback. San Francisco has both.
For his part, Harbaugh needs to recognize that few coaches have it better than him. He has a young quarterback in Colin Kaepernick who continues to grow and evolve. He has one of the best offensive lines in football. He has playmakers on both sides of the ball. He has a defense that is as feared as any in football.
And despite the fact that they might butt heads, Harbaugh has a general manager in Baalke who has proved to be adept at identifying, signing and retaining players who fit Harbaugh's system.
There has to be a middle ground. The Niners need to find it, otherwise there will continue to be inquiries from other teams about Harbaugh's availability. There will continue to be speculation. There will continue to be noise that detracts from the team's ultimate goal of winning a sixth championship.
San Francisco's brass can say it wants Harbaugh to remain the head coach, but if it is sincere, it needs to extend his contract. Otherwise, Cleveland won't be the last team that thinks it can poach a man who has won 36 games in his first three seasons as an NFL head coach.