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.