San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh acknowledged in December that he and general manager Trent Baalke often "butt heads," but insisted that any reports of tension between the two men are overblown.
Baalke toed that same party line, claiming his relationship with Harbaugh is "no different than it's been since Day 1."
We now have an indication that the tug of war over control might be real.
NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported Friday that the Cleveland Browns made a run at Harbaugh during their coaching search, as did the University of Texas, per sources informed of the Browns' thinking. The news was first reported by ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio, who added that the Browns nearly pulled off a trade for Harbaugh before hiring Mike Pettine as head coach.
According to Rapoport, Harbaugh was not interested in making the move to Cleveland.
Another high-ranking Niners source told NFL Media's Albert Breer that the club did not communicate with Cleveland about Harbaugh.
And yet the Browns released a statement that not only failed to dispute the report, but seemed closer to confirming it:
"The team conducted an extensive coaching search, and explored several options. That search produced an outstanding head coach in Mike Pettine and we're excited about his future with the club."
While we tried to reconcile the conflicting reports, the news sent shockwaves through the NFL.
Already one of the NFL's most successful coaches, Harbaugh has taken his team to the NFC Championship Game in three consecutive seasons.
He's due for a lucrative contract extension, but CSN Bay Area reports the 49ers are reluctant to pay him like a Super Bowl-winning coach because he's yet to win a Lombardi Trophy.
Perhaps that spurred talks between Harbaugh and Michael Lombardi, who was recently fired as Browns general manager.
Lombardi was connected to Harbaugh as a potential tag team with the 49ers back in 2011 before Baalke got the job instead. Three years later, Lombardi went from nearly consummating that joint venture with one of the NFL's most respected coaches to losing his job in Cleveland.