Speculation continues to swirl that Jim Harbaugh is coaching his final season with the 49ers, that continued conflicts with general manager Trent Baalke and an unwillingness to agree on a long-term contract will result in Harbaugh coaching elsewhere next season.
Why not the Jets?
With Rex Ryan's future in doubt after a 2-8 meltdown this season, the Jets most likely will be in the market for a new head coach for the 2015 season. And if Harbaugh is available, team owner Woody Johnson should go after the quarterback-turned-head coach.
Though Ryan remains popular with a large segment of fans and is well-liked by Johnson, the downward trajectory of his career after two trips to the AFC Championship Game in his first two years means it might be time to look in another direction. And if Johnson is in the market for a new coach, Harbaugh should be high on the list.
Johnson surely will consider big-name former coaches such as Jon Gruden, the "Monday Night Football" analyst whose dalliances with a handful of teams in recent years haven't translated into a return to the sideline, and former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who continues to express a preference to remain with CBS and analyze the games, not coach them.
But if I'm Johnson, I take a number for Harbaugh, who will be in demand if he can't agree to a contract extension. His deal runs through 2015, but with no talks scheduled until after the season -- if then -- there is increasing speculation that the 49ers are willing to trade Harbaugh to another team.
There reportedly were discussions about a Harbaugh-to-the-Browns deal earlier this year before Browns president Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi were jettisoned by owner Jimmy Haslam. And with no deal in place for a long-term extension with the 49ers, an impending divorce appears likely.
Harbaugh's name has been linked to the University of Michigan, which is expected to part ways with underachieving coach Brady Hoke. Harbaugh was a star quarterback at Michigan and had a successful run at Stanford before taking the 49ers' job in 2011. Harbaugh and Michigan officials have downplayed the idea that he would take over the Wolverines, but that's merely what they're saying publicly. Things change once firings are completed, and there's no denying there would be interest on both sides.
If Harbaugh stays in the NFL, there will be tremendous demand for his services. The Bears might be in the market for a new coach, and Harbaugh, who played under the demanding Mike Ditka, would be a popular choice. Harbaugh already has drawn interest from the Dolphins, as team owner Stephen Ross lost out to the 49ers after Harbaugh left Stanford. Dolphins coach Joe Philbin may be doing well enough to save his job, but Ross still could be infatuated enough with Harbaugh to bring him in next season.
Other potential openings in Oakland and Atlanta, or possibly the Giants, might include Harbaugh as a candidate. He is worth the interest, and he'd be a terrific hire with the Jets.
Harbaugh has a very good track record with quarterbacks, something the Jets are desperately in need of after Ryan flopped with Mark Sanchez and now Geno Smith. Harbaugh has a strong personality that quickly would win over the team if the Jets were to part ways with the popular Ryan. And his performance in three-plus seasons with the 49ers has been almost as good as any coach out there.
Harbaugh has been to three straight NFC Championship Games and went to the Super Bowl in his second year before losing to his brother John, coach of the Ravens. And despite injury problems that have decimated his defense, the 49ers are in contention for a fourth straight playoff berth.
For now, Harbaugh insists he isn't thinking of his long-term future. He's also fine with all the noise from outside the organization about his temperamental personality.
"I really don't care in terms of the outside flak," Harbaugh said. "I don't mind being a human sponge for criticism. I actually prefer it."
"I guess that's just my personality," he said. "It's different from other personalities, I guess. I don't know. It's the only one I have. All the other personalities were taken."
His personality is big and his resume is strong. If there's a chance for the Jets to bring him in, Johnson needs to go for it.