In hindsight, the 49ers and Browns, purveyors of horrible football and questionable decision making for quite some time now, we're actually on to something. In what would have been one of the rare, proactive, insightful maneuvers for either moribund franchise, they were privately discussing a trade of Jim Harbaugh to Cleveland following the 2013 season. Now, with both again affixed to the bottom of the NFL standings, in a losing race for the No. 1 pick in the draft, I couldn't help but reflect on what could have been.
Would the 49ers, if spared the agony of living through that inevitable, brutal divorce with Harbaugh that bogged down the 2014 season and has had them scrambling for leadership since, have been better off getting two significant draft picks for the coach? Harbaugh was out a year later, leaving the organization tainted with an ignominy that fans won't soon forget? Would the Browns have been better off finding a way to entice Harbaugh sufficiently -- financially and otherwise -- to consummate that trade, finding a figure in the process who seemed uniquely qualified to save hapless owner Jimmy Haslam from himself?
It doesn't take much mental calculus to solve this equation. It would've been a definite win-win. To see these floundering teams take the field every Sunday is to appreciate what might have been. The 49ers wouldn't have engendered nearly as much ill-will with their listless fans while the Browns would at least have some reason to believe there might actually be better days ahead.
Certainly, it couldn't have been any worse for these two franchises, and such an outside-the-box solution to their malaise is exactly the kind of creative thinking it will take either to reverse course. Since those trade talks devolved, the 49ers are 14-28. They are 6-20 since Harbaugh departed and have lost nine straight games this season under Chip Kelly/Trent Baalke. The Browns, meantime, are 10-33, and just 3-29(!!!) dating back to Thanksgiving 2014. Cleveland has lost all 11 games this season under coach Hue Jackson and GM Sashi Brown.
These teams are a very real threat to close this season with a combined 31 straight defeats. Let that settle in for a moment. In a season in which the NFL is as watered down as ever, and shrinking ratings and quality of play are weekly storylines and in which both the NFC West and the AFC North are as weak as we've seen in years, the 49ers and the Browns are redefining futility. In a bizarre-yet-predictable twist, the only defense that might be worse than Cleveland's is in San Francisco, where Kelly hired the Browns' embattled former defensive coordinator to run their unit. Serendipitous!
Don't kid yourself -- it is at least as difficult to be this bad as it would be for a team to be, oh, 11-0 at this point in the season. In fact, it might even be harder to be this bad in this of all seasons. And the future holds more quandaries than solutions.
Would ownership blow up either coaching regime after just one year? Certainly there is a precedent. Ask Cam Cameron how his one-and-only season in Miami ended (1-15). Baalke and Brown have long been survivors in tumultuous team headquarters, and continuing to empower them could come at a cost to others. Neither team has displayed much vision or cunning in the draft, neither has anything close to the long-term answer at quarterback on the roster and the Browns in particular have precious little to show for their much-trumpeted 2016 draft. Quantity doesn't equal quality when these guys are picking their players, and there isn't a trusted evaluator out there I've talked to who thinks they remotely hit on the vast majority of their 2016 picks.
The Browns reached another nadir this week, getting two more quarterbacks pummeled. Rookie Cody Kessler -- the guy Cleveland chose over Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott -- is out with a concussion and the Browns, rightfully, are getting questioned by veterans Joe Thomas and Terrelle Pryor for their stingy and short-sighted free-agent approach and willingness to let vital offensive linemen walk away, only to get the predictable result of having quarterbacks destroyed with alarming regularity.
Then the GM tops it all off by opining to the media that "we are not focused on wins and losses." Which, is actually, only half correct. The Browns are only focused on losses, because all they do is lose. They even went 0-4 in the preseason, for what it's worth. They haven't won a thing. Should we evaluate them on player development? Because they have the worst roster in the league. Maybe they should be evaluated on how many quarterbacks they get sent to IR. Or how many people show up at the parade fans are planning should they attain that 0-16 mantle.
Or, perhaps, it's best to evaluate them on the investment they have made in their product (letting Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz walk, among others). Alas, the Browns are about $50M below the cap again and have devoted just $110M to their payroll this season, $15M less than any other team. The 49ers, it should be noted, have the third lowest payroll in the NFL, at $127M.
So, since we're not supposed to pay any mind to the standings, or, I suppose, the fact the Browns have been outscored 161-60 after halftime (Participation medals for all! We don't need no stinkin' scoreboard!), maybe Browns fans should find something else to be "focused on." Maybe they should "focus on where all that money went," or why they are forced to pay full-price for a half-assed product or how many quarterbacks it will take to finally finish this brutally awful season.
Reality is, maybe even Harbaugh couldn't have fixed this. But it would have been fun to see him try.