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Jim Harbaugh Was the Commonsense Hire. And That’s Exactly What the Chargers Need.

L.A. hired the former Michigan coach on Wednesday because he can develop quarterbacks, he’s flexible with scheme, and he wins everywhere he goes—all of which would go a long way toward getting the most out of Justin Herbert and changing the Chargers’ reputation

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Jim Harbaugh doesn’t lose. If you need an explanation for why the Los Angeles Chargers decided on Wednesday to entrust their team, and Justin Herbert’s future, to a coach who’s been away from the NFL for a decade, just remember that. Starting with his first head-coaching job at the University of San Diego, Harbaugh has won everywhere he’s been. He left the Toreros after back-to-back 11-1 seasons. He left Stanford after a 12-1 season and a win in the Orange Bowl. He made three NFC title games in four seasons as the 49ers head coach. And he left Michigan after winning a national championship (and causing a couple of NCAA investigations).

All of that is important to note because Los Angeles doesn’t typically hire winners. In fact, after firing Marty Schottenheimer following a 14-2 season in 2006, the Chargers went on a spree of hiring coaches who had losing track records, or no track record at all. Norv Turner went 49-59-1 in Washington before getting the Chargers job in 2007. Mike McCoy replaced him after serving as Tim Tebow’s offensive coordinator in Denver and had no prior head-coaching experience. Next in line was Anthony Lynn, who had been an interim head coach in Buffalo for one game—which he lost. And then there was Brandon Staley, who had only a few years of experience as an NFL assistant and one year as a coordinator before the Chargers hired him in 2021.

Harbaugh is the commonsense hire the Chargers have needed for a while now. He has a habit of taking over losing programs and instantly turning them into winners. San Diego was in the middle of a turnaround by the time Harbaugh arrived but hadn’t won anything of significance before he led them to back-to-back conference championships. Stanford was fresh off a one-win season when he took over in Palo Alto. The 49ers hadn’t won a playoff game in nearly a decade when they gave Harbaugh the job. The Chargers could be his easiest reclamation project to date.

Jim Harbaugh Turns Losers Into Winners

Team Pre-Harbaugh (5 yrs) Win% With Harbaugh Win%
Team Pre-Harbaugh (5 yrs) Win% With Harbaugh Win%
Stanford 16-40 0.286 29-21 0.580
49ers 33-47 0.413 44-19-1 0.695
Michigan 38-26 0.594 89-25 0.781

In L.A., Harbaugh will have a bona fide franchise quarterback in Herbert, who’s easily one of the five most talented quarterbacks in the NFL. He’ll also have … um, well, that’s really all this team has going for it after former general manager Tom Telesco left behind an aging roster and a bloated payroll. The new GM, who hasn’t been hired yet, will inherit a $44 million cap deficit and a number of starters headed to free agency in March. But no other team with a current head-coaching vacancy has a quarterback with this kind of elite ability. Even with a problematic cap situation, a flawed roster, and a division shared with Patrick Mahomes, the Chargers job was widely seen as the best one available this offseason.

Herbert will make Harbaugh’s job easier, and the hope is that Harbaugh can return the favor. The veteran coach’s track record makes that seem likely. Even going back to his first major coaching gig, when he served as the Raiders quarterbacks coach for two years, Harbaugh has consistently made quarterbacks better. Rich Gannon had a career year and won an MVP under him in Oakland in 2002; Harbaugh turned Josh Johnson into someone capable of becoming a longtime NFL backup at USD; he developed Andrew Luck at Stanford (though I think Luck would have been just fine on his own); he brought Alex Smith’s career back from the dead in San Francisco; and he turned J.J. McCarthy into a day-two prospect on his way out of Michigan.

Harbaugh is a proven winner and quarterback developer. That’s an attractive combination for any franchise. But since it’s been 10 years since he’s done any winning at the pro level, it’s fair to ask whether he still has it—especially with how things ended in San Francisco. That was the one team he left—though he says, “The 49er hierarchy left me”—on a down note, after a disappointing 8-8 season in 2014. The team had been to three straight NFC championship games, including a win in 2012, before the campaign that ended his four-year stint. There were reasons for this falling-out beyond the record: Harbaugh had been involved in a power struggle with then-GM Trent Baalke—a clash of type A personalities is how it was framed at the time. But either way, the 49ers were in decline, and Harbaugh was fortunate to leave when he did. Baalke was gone a few years later, and the team wouldn’t get back to the playoffs until the 2019 season.

Before the breakup, though, there were plenty of good times in San Francisco. Harbaugh took a team that had finished 6-10 the previous season to the NFC title game, where the 49ers lost to the Giants in overtime. They made the Super Bowl the following year after Harbaugh swapped out Smith for Colin Kaepernick. San Francisco lost a close game to the Ravens, coached by Harbaugh’s brother, and the following season dropped a heartbreaker to the rival Seahawks in the conference championship game. But even taking into account his final 8-8 season, Harbaugh was announced as Michigan’s next head coach two days after parting ways with the Niners.

By choosing the Chargers, Harbaugh is, in a way, choosing to pick up where he left off in San Francisco. The roster isn’t short on talent, but it needs to be overhauled around a young quarterback fresh off of signing a record-breaking deal. We don’t know who will be in charge of overseeing the churn of the roster that the salary cap demands—it could be Harbaugh himself or someone he handpicks. But if said person can craft a solid team, Harbaugh has shown he’s capable of great things. After all, not including the COVID season in 2020, Harbaugh’s only nonwinning season since Barack Obama took office was his 8-8 final season with the 49ers. Did I mention the guy doesn’t lose?

Since Harbaugh is coming from the college game, where schemes don’t always translate to the pro level, it’s hard to predict what his staff will look like. Bringing along Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, who was already on the NFL’s radar before Harbaugh made the jump, would make a lot of sense. Minter runs a defensive scheme similar to the one Mike Macdonald runs in Baltimore. If it’s not Minter, Harbaugh’s old 49ers defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, is available all of a sudden—though he’s been tentatively linked to the Eagles’ new opening.

Things are even murkier on the offensive side. Michigan offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore will almost certainly stay behind in Ann Arbor, where he’s the favorite to replace Harbaugh as head coach. There was a report that Harbaugh could be eyeing Greg Roman as his offensive coordinator. The former Ravens assistant called plays for Harbaugh at Stanford and in San Francisco. Results were mixed with the 49ers: The two successfully implemented a read-option-based offense around Kaepernick, which was innovative at the time, but the passing game never evolved—which may sound familiar to Ravens fans—and the offense regressed when defenses caught up to the run game. Roman’s offenses have dealt with similar problems in recent years.

Harbaugh has had a good eye for assistant coaches in the past, so he deserves the benefit of the doubt. He hired Fangio before his defense was cool; Roman was a good hire for 2011; David Shaw, who’s had his own flirtations with the NFL, was an assistant for Harbaugh at Stanford; and Harbaugh sent Macdonald to the NFL, where he’s already established himself as a top defensive coordinator. Plus, Harbaugh proved at Michigan that he’s not stubborn when it comes to philosophy—on either side of the ball. If one of his coordinators isn’t doing the job, he’ll make a switch. He fired famed defensive coordinator Don Brown after his failures against Ohio State, replacing him with an unknown in Macdonald. He scrapped his pro-style offense for a spread offense after his first few years with the Wolverines—and then scrapped the spread for more of a pro-style-spread hybrid offense that eventually won him a national championship.

Harbaugh wins. He develops quarterbacks. He adapts when he needs to. And he’s so competitive that it may have rubbed off on a staffer who decided to go on illegal reconnaissance/scouting missions … allegedly. And, really, that’s why Harbaugh couldn’t stay away from the NFL. He’s too competitive to let the loose end of his San Francisco days stay untied. The Chargers offered him the gig because they want to win a Super Bowl. Harbaugh took it because he needs to win a Super Bowl. And that’s why he’s the right coach for the job.