The Browns were widely panned for their wide-ranging and long-lasting coaching search, but history suggests their boldest gamble — pursuing and putting together a draft-pick compensation package for the 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh — was a wise one.
After all, at least three Super Bowl-winning teams have surrendered high draft pick compensation to hire their head coaches.
In 1970, the Dolphins hired Don Shula away from Baltimore. Commissioner Pete Rozelle ruled Miami had tampered with Shula and forced the Dolphins to give up a 1971 first-round pick.
Shula led the Dolphins to an unbeaten season and victory in Super Bowl VII in his third campaign with Miami.
In 2000, the Patriots surrendered a first-round pick to hire Bill Belichick from the Jets.
The following season, Belichick led the Patriots to an upset of the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
In 2002, the Buccaneers sent two first-round picks and two second-round selections to Oakland for Jon Gruden.
In Gruden’s first season on the job, the Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII.
Overall, Belichick (three), Shula (two) and Gruden (one) have combined to lead teams to one-eighth of the Super Bowl titles in NFL history.
While the Browns might not be a ready-made Super Bowl contender, they have a talented core. In short, they are exactly the sort of team that could take a sudden step forward with the right coach.
Perhaps Mike Pettine will be that leader for Cleveland. (Who knows — perhaps Rob Chudzinski could have been that guy.) Nevertheless, it’s understandable why the Browns would have interest in Harbaugh, who has led the 49ers to at least the conference-title round in all three of his seasons on the job. He has been a difference-maker for San Francisco.
The Browns have made more than their share of missteps in recent seasons. But their home run cut for Harbaugh was logical. A club’s head coach is its CEO, its tone-setter. The Browns’ pursuit, though failed, was just smart business. They identified and pursued an effective, strong and successful leader for their football operation.
The next step is closing the deal. But Cleveland was on the right track. It’s a start.