INDIANAPOLIS -- It is a metal fastener, and a metaphor, and -- in the eyes of one proud franchise searching for employees and answers at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine -- a highly relevant and potentially revelatory topic of conversation.
I'm talking about the essential office supply known as the paper clip, and I'm doing so because it became a somewhat surprising prop in the 15-minute interview sessions conducted over the weekend at the Crowne Plaza hotel. At least two prospects, and likely a whole lot more, were shown the diminutive double-looped device during their meetings with officials from one team and were then asked, "How many different things can you think of that you can do with a paper clip?"
Presumably, "holding pieces of paper together" was considered a gimme. And I'm fairly certain that none of the potential draftees went with the reply I'd personally prefer ... Here's one: I can straighten it out and stick it right through my eardrums, so that I don't have to hear another one of these brilliantly constructed, esoteric queries.
We've previously revealed some truly ridiculous questions at combines past, including one concerning Gerald McCoy's preferred undergarments and another about whether Toby Gerhart felt "entitled" as a white running back. And we can now add the Paper Clip Puzzler to the list.
Rather than ponder the possible utility of such an exercise, I'd like to ask a question of my own: Which team's brain trust do you suppose was responsible for this cunning gem?
Ladies and gentlemen, YOUR Cleveland Browns.
I know: It's utterly shocking. The organization that took hot mess to a new level on the eve of Black Monday before running a scattered and sloppy coaching search and then deep-sixing the CEO and general manager who ran it is seemingly on an intellectual level that its 31 competitors can't possibly comprehend.
Tragically, however, the wasting of interviewees' time was not the Browns' most memorable embarrassment of the past few days. In a bombshell of a story that hijacked the combine, dwarfing other subplots like Michael Sam's impressive press conference and Johnny Manziel's fast 40-yard dash in terms of attention, ProFootballTalk reported Friday that Cleveland made a run at San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh before settling on Mike Pettine as Rob Chudzinski's replacement.
In other words: Um, sorry about that, Mike, but you were the guy we wanted all along! Really!
Numerous coaches and executives to whom I've spoken in Indy the past few days believe there are Brown-colored fingerprints all over this story, especially given embattled owner Jimmy Haslam's subsequent statement to USA Today's Jarrett Bell that "there was an opportunity there, and it didn't materialize."
Judging by the reactions of Harbaugh ("I know nothing about a trade with the Cleveland Browns and us, involving me") and 49ers owner Jed York (who forcefully denied the story on Twitter in the immediate aftermath before eventually telling TheMMQB.com's Peter King, "The Browns reached out to me, and we had no interest in pursuing it"), it sure doesn't seem like either party had a whole lot to gain by putting out that information after the fact.
I'm not sure what the Browns gained, either, other than trying to convince a passionate and increasingly skeptical fan base that Haslam is inclined to take big, bold swings in an effort to produce a winner. It certainly couldn't have done a whole lot for the psyche of Pettine, who took the job suspecting he was an afterthought, got paired with a new general manager (Ray Farmer) who wasn't even present during the interviews that preceded his hiring and now has to be judged against the red-and-gold standard of hot, program-changing coaches.
And all of this is presuming that the reported pursuit of Harbaugh occurred before Pettine was hired. "Can you imagine if it was after?" asked one Browns veteran player. "Haha."
Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.
Yep, these Browns are funnier than a certain trio of slapstick-loving short-film icons, and a lot of people around the league are laughing at them, not with them. That doesn't mean Farmer and Pettine aren't good hires -- they well might be -- or that a quick turnaround is impossible.
Given everything I'm hearing, though, Harbaugh clearly wanted no part of Cleveland. For I'm convinced that if he had, his current employer would not have stood in his way.
As much as York and his top executives value Harbaugh and appreciate the swift and sublime success he has enjoyed since arriving in 2011, a stretch that has included three consecutive NFC Championship Game appearances and a near-miss Super Bowl defeat, they are not inclined to beg him to stick around, either through words or emphatic financial gestures of support.
Yes, they like him, and acknowledge that he's very good at what he does. Sure, he is high-maintenance and at times demanding -- but they can live with that. What Harbaugh's bosses won't do is panic in the face of reports that he might be wooed to greener (as in the color of money) pastures, be they the University of Texas, the University of Southern California or the Capital of Creative Combine Questions.
"We didn't do that when we hired him in the first place, either," one top Niners official reminded me on Saturday, referring to the team's refusal to raise its offer to Harbaugh in the face of a late push (and reportedly sweeter deal) from Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. "Why would we run scared?"
Simply put, the Niners' brass believes that general manager Trent Baalke has assembled a talented team and is likely to continue making smart roster decisions -- and that Harbaugh is hardly the only person who could coach this team to a championship.
Whatever did or didn't go down between the Browns (who clearly pursued a trade) and the 49ers (who insist that no legitimate discussions ever occurred), in the end, Harbaugh's heart remained in San Francisco -- but this situation bears watching.
As the coach and his bosses engage in a staredown over his perceived value, with Harbaugh reportedly seeking a top-of-the-market contract extension and the Niners offering significantly less, this could provoke a disconnect as the 2014 season progresses and precipitate a possible divorce thereafter.
It's also quite possible that each side will assess its leverage in light of recent events, decide that meeting in the middle is the prudent and desired play and hammer out a deal that keeps this excellent coach in charge of this stacked team for the foreseeable future.
To borrow from a former Niners star: Getcha popcorn ready.
Over the next few months, we might see signs that Harbaugh and the Niners are growing apart, providing the drama associated with such a state of affairs. For now, however, they remain loosely affixed -- kind of like they're joined together by, you know, a metaphorical paper clip.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver