Jim Harbaugh could be available again.
So what is Dolphins owner Stephen Ross going to do this time?
Well, the short answer is nothing. Contrary to rumors that have spread since the story about Harbaugh’s tenuous situation in San Francisco made headlines, the Dolphins are not a possible landing spot for Harbaugh in the coming days if a divorce happens out west.
A Dolphins source with authority to speak on the subject said Ross has not and will not be vying for Harbaugh’s services for the 2014 NFL season. So that kills that fanciful idea.
But, of course, that’s not the end to the story. And to understand where all this might go, first you must understand the background.
Three years ago Harbaugh was ready to make the jump from Stanford to the NFL, and Ross saw that as an opportunity to do something bold, something dramatic, something “out of the box,” as he said then.
So Ross got on a plane, met then-general manager Jeff Ireland in California and tried to hire Harbaugh even though Tony Sparano, a good man, was still sitting in the Dolphins’ head coach’s chair back in Davie.
The move cost Ross — and I’m not referring to the contract extension Sparano extracted in exchange for the embarrassment the coach suffered.
No, the cost was much higher in that Ross didn’t land Harbaugh, and that has become a cornerstone to the argument he cannot close the deal on any prized talent he chases. Everyone found out about the flirtation, which surprised Ross, which in turn made him look naive. And the attempt ruined Miami’s leadership chemistry because Sparano never trusted Ireland again.
Now Ross is facing the choice of making a similar attempt for the same Michigan man the Dolphins owner, himself a Michigan man, respects and admires.
So why isn’t Ross going to make the attempt this time?
Ross doesn’t feel repeating the thing same thing he tried and was roasted for three years ago is the right thing to do now.
Ross apologized for his first failed cross-country Hail Mary to get Harbaugh. He acknowledged trying to hire a coach when he still had a coach in place was wrong. He said he learned his lesson.
To chase Harbaugh now, even through back channels (which inevitably and eventually will be brought to light) would compromise the owner’s integrity. It would mean Ross would be breaking trust with current coach Joe Philbin the same way he did with Sparano.
It would show that nothing’s changed and Ross hasn’t learned from his first failed experience.
The irony in this is I’m convinced a majority of Dolphins fans would cheer Ross if he were able to poach Harbaugh — behind Philbin’s back or not — as long as it upgrades the Dolphins. It wasn’t so much the fact Ross went after Harbaugh the first time that bothered so many fans but rather that the brazen attempt failed and made the franchise look bad.
But whatever most Dolphins fans might think, Ross doesn’t think the timing is right.
And that leads me to this: The timing might be right 11 months from now.
The truth is Ross’ Dolphins and Harbaugh are indeed a fit.
Consider that in the three seasons since Ross chased Harbaugh, the Dolphins have been treading water with a 21-27 record. Ross fired Sparano but has convinced no one he indeed found “the next Don Shula,” he said he was looking for when he hired Philbin.
The Dolphins are just as mediocre today as they were in January 2011 when Ross first chased Harbaugh.
Harbaugh, meanwhile, has blossomed as an outstanding NFL head coach.
He turned a floundering San Francisco franchise that had been 6-10 in 2010 into a perennial Super Bowl contender.
He has not won it all, but he has been to the NFC Championship Game each of his three seasons and went to the Super Bowl in January 2013.
He might be able to fix the Dolphins.
But if he’s so good why is Harbaugh’s San Francisco future uncertain?
Well, Harbaugh is wound tighter than an alarm clock. Lately he has been irritated that he has outperformed the original contract he signed in San Francisco and hasn’t been given an extension to bridge the gap between his performance and salary.
He also hasn’t been given more say within the organization, and it’s fair to say he would like that, too.
That has put Harbaugh and 49ers management, specifically general manager Trent Balke, at odds.
National and Bay Area reports have painted a vivid and unsightly picture that something is amiss in San Francisco. Local newspapers have reported Harbaugh and Balke communicate mostly by email rather than by speaking to one another. ProFootballTalk.com reported the Cleveland Browns saw an opportunity to hire Harbaugh by “trading” for him. The website also reported the 49ers might be open to letting Harbaugh go to another NFL team if they can get compensation.
We’re talking about a coach who has a 36-11-1 record the past three seasons, but the only reason he’s not the Browns’ coach now is because he apparently didn’t want to go there.
And where the Cleveland story ends is where the Dolphins rumors begin.
Those rumors are empty for the time being. Nothing is happening now. The Dolphins are making that clear.
But that says nothing about 11 months from now.
If Harbaugh remains in San Francisco this coming season but doesn’t get his extension and doesn’t resolve the issues with Balke, he might be available again after the season. If the Dolphins don’t win in ’14, which happens to be Philbin’s third season with the team, there is no guarantee he will be the coach for a fourth season.
If the pieces to that complicated puzzle fit snugly, then the idea of chasing Harbaugh would be one Ross could consider.
It would require Ross firing his current coach first. It would require Ross being able to finally close the deal after chasing someone he covets. In other words, a lot of things would have to go exactly according to a well-designed plan.
That plan, however, does not exist right now.