The single most fascinating story in the NFL -- the single most fascinating story in sports right now -- is about the future of Jim Harbaugh.
The saga of the impending divorce in San Francisco between the fantastic, difference-making coach and the 49ers has it all. The potential chase -- by the Raiders, Bears, Jets, Dolphins, other NFL clubs and Harbaugh's alma mater, Michigan -- gives it sizzle. And that was true before NFL Media insider Ian Rapoport dropped a major scoop Wednesday, reporting that the University of Michigan is going all in on Harbaugh with the offer of a whopping six-year, $48 million contract that would make him the highest-paid coach in college and among the highest-paid coaches at any level.
It's eye-opening. It's jaw-dropping. And it would be a fantastic hire for a downtrodden Michigan program. The Wolverines are one of the entities in major sports that you want to be great and relevant; the college football landscape is better when you have Michigan to love or loathe. Harbaugh is a "Michigan man," but one with fresh ideas. The combo is exactly what the school needs. He would land big-time recruits, boost morale and build a powerhouse. It would be a perfect home-run hire, and the best possible fit.
But Jim Harbaugh should reject the school's offer and instead coach an NFL team that hasn't been to the playoffs in over a decade.
After mulling over the mega-bucks deal on the table -- and pretending to mull it over some more -- Harbaugh should declare his love for Michigan, then turn it down. Because while I'm sure there is an emotional pull to the school, Harbaugh has coached in college already, at San Diego and while mounting a fantastic turnaround at Stanford. And he wants to win a Super Bowl. Consider that he was two plays away -- Kyle Williams' fumble against the Giants in the 2011 NFC title game and Colin Kaepernick's pick on Championship Sunday last season -- from going to three straight Super Bowls. After coming that close to winning the Lombardi Trophy in the big-boy league, you don't respond by trying to convince 17-year-old offensive linemen to call Ann Arbor home. Not when you're as competitive as Jim Harbaugh.
The Raiders seem to have wanted either Harbaugh or a reunion with former coach Jon Gruden -- and on Monday, it was announced that Gruden signed a long-term deal to stay at ESPN and keep calling "Monday Night Football" games with Mike Tirico. It was a win for the network, as Gruden is great. It was a loss for the Raiders. And it was a win for Harbaugh. During the process of Harbaugh's faux deliberation, Oakland owner Mark Davis will start to sweat, presumably leading him to add more money and power to his eventual offer.
With the Michigan news and Gruden's ESPN extension being announced in the same week, it appears Christmas came early in the Harbaugh household.
The thing is, the Raiders, believe it or not, actually offer Harbaugh everything he wants. Seriously, they do. An organization that hasn't won in forever and is seemingly in a constant state of flux is perfect for a coach who oozes competitive fire.
Davis knows what he doesn't know, and he is more than willing to let his football people make football decisions. Unfortunately for the Raiders, general manager Reggie McKenzie and former coach Dennis Allen -- who was fired earlier this season -- failed. In McKenzie's two-plus seasons on the job, the Raiders have won 10 games, including just two in 2014. They need a change.
Harbaugh thrives on challenges, and Oakland most certainly represents one. He isn't afraid of being tested, as evidenced by the way he transformed the total mess former Niners coach Mike Singletary left in San Francisco, building an instant contender while resuscitating Alex Smith's career. Harbaugh craves a resurrection project, starting from scratch, as he's shown both in San Francisco and in college.
Plus, to McKenzie's credit, Oakland already has a quarterback. Rookie Derek Carr has the tools to be successful. And McKenzie drafted a star linebacker in Khalil Mack, a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. The Raiders are going to have a top pick this year. Can you imagine if they can snag Alabama receiver Amari Cooper to team with Carr? They could also trade down to stockpile additional picks and talent.
Finally, Harbaugh, who reportedly feuded with49ers general manager Trent Baalke over power and with CEO Jed York over respect, appears to want full autonomy. According to another general manager, "Jim wants the setup Pete (Carroll) has. He wants to coach. He wants final say. He wants to pick his GM. And he wants to get paid. How many places will do that?"
Well, Oakland for one.
But what about other NFL teams? The situations with the Bears (embroiled in toxic Jay Cutler drama) and the New York Jets are too chaotic for Harbaugh. I don't think either team would check all of the above boxes. And would they pay him? Fellow Michigan man and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross tried to hire Harbaugh before, and money wouldn't be a problem in Miami. But Ross has a large inner circle. (The Miami Herald did a fantastic job reporting on this.) That would drive Harbaugh batty. Here's guessing he knows that.
I think the tension and negativity in San Francisco bubbled over and seeped into the team, which was eliminated from the playoff chase last week. It's a shame that Harbaugh, Baalke and York couldn't seem to get on the same page. Winning and making three straight NFC title games served as the ultimate deodorant, but this year, it was too much to bear moving forward. Now, though there's one year left on Harbaugh's contract, it's time for the Niners -- who no doubt want to facilitate their own search for his replacement -- to cut the cord and either fire him, reach a settlement or trade him.
Can you imagine Harbaugh, a former Raiders assistant, guiding Oakland out of the abyss? It's the ultimate challenge for the ultimate competitor -- and it would satisfy his ego, family life and bank account.
Michigan could be enticing. But I don't see it for this coach, who should just say no.
Harbaugh restored the magic to the Niners, and he could accomplish something legendary across the Bay.