Chargers hire Jim Harbaugh as coach: Perfect match for both sides?

ByBill Barnwell ESPN logo
Thursday, January 25, 2024

If you have to hire a head coach, landing the reigning national champion seems like a good place to look. The Los Angeles Chargers got their man Wednesday, hiring Jim Harbaugh away from Michigan to take over. After nine seasons at the collegiate level, Harbaugh returns to the NFL, where he went 44-19-1 in four seasonswith theSan Francisco 49ersfrom 2011 to 2014.

I'll start with the conclusion: This is a great hire. Things obviously can go haywire on all sides in the NFL, but if the Chargers were going to hire someone to rebuild their organization, Harbaugh had to be the most qualified candidate available, short of formerNew England Patriotscoach Bill Belichick. And if Harbaugh ever wanted to return to the NFL, this feels like the right place for him to go. There's still some work left to be done, though, and what happens next for L.A. might be even more intriguing than its hire.

Subscribe: "The Bill Barnwell Show"

Before all that, let's look at this hire from each side's perspective. Why is this a great fit?

Jump to a section:

Harbaugh's fit with the Chargers

The Chargers' reasons for wanting him

The looming decisions to figure out

The Harbaugh side

Two years ago, Harbaugh had an interview with the Vikings, lost out on the position to Kevin O'Connelland said "this is the last time" he would pursue an NFL position. Last year, he had a video meeting with the Broncos before taking his name out of the running for Denver's job. This year, after winning a national championship, the lure of the NFL and the chance to win a Super Bowl apparently was too strong.

If Harbaugh was going to pursue an NFL job, the Chargers opening clearly seems like the sort of role that would best align with what he might look for in an opportunity. Even without considering the finished business at Michigan, he and the Chargers are a better match than the previous openings in Minnesota and Denver. I had reservations about the L.A. opening when I ranked it second among the likely openings earlier this offseason, but there were elements that should appeal to Harbaugh, especially in light of what happened during his first tenure in the league.

To start, there's a franchise quarterback already in place. Harbaugh will inherit a 25-year-old budding star in Justin Herbert, albeit one who has yet to make the leap from very good quarterback to superstar. Just about everyone believes Herbert to be capable of making that jump, and I'm sure his new coach wouldn't have taken this job unless he felt the same way.

From the coach's perspective, the last time he had a quarterback this good to tutor would have been when he coached Andrew Luck at Stanford. When Harbaugh took over the 49ers job, he inherited Alex Smith and used a second-round pick on Colin Kaepernick. Smith started in 2011 before Kaepernick took over the job in 2012. The 49ers also traded for Blaine Gabbert after long-standing interest from the coach in the 2011 first-round pick, although Gabbert didn't start a game for San Francisco until after Harbaugh had left for Michigan.

While there was speculation Harbaugh might take over a team like the Falcons and draft J.J. McCarthy, his quarterback from Michigan, the decision to lead the Chargers surely brings that train of thought to a close. Herbert hasn't even started the new seasons on his five-year, $262.5 million extension, and the team wouldn't be able to handle the $108.5 million in dead money on a trade. Harbaugh won't be reuniting with his title-winning quarterback anytime soon.

The other element that would likely be most valuable to Harbaugh is personnel control. He famously grew apart from general manager Trent Baalke during their shared tenure with the 49ers, leading to tension between the coach and both Baalke and the team's ownership. After the team lost three straight games to fall to 7-7 in 2014, the organization told Harbaugh he wouldn't be returning. He finished out the season, and while the 49ers characterized it as a parting of ways, Harbaugh believed he had been fired.

The 49ers chose Baalke over Harbaugh with disastrous results, as they cycled through Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly with dismal results before turning things over to Kyle Shanahan and John Lynchin 2017. It was always going to be tough for Harbaugh to join an organization where an existing general manager had power as Kwesi Adofo-Mensah does in Minnesota and George Paton in Denver. Most teams in the NFL simply aren't willing to hand one person control over both coaching and personnel, and two of the coaches who had been afforded both those responsibilities (Belichick and Pete Carroll) were fired earlier this month.

After the Chargers fired Tom Telesco in December, there is no general manager in the building for Los Angeles. The Bolts hired Harbaugh before picking their general manager, which seems telling. At the very least, whomever they hire to take over personnel duties will need to be comfortable with Harbaugh as the coach, while Harbaugh should have the ability to say whether he'll feel in tune with whichever candidate team owner Dean Spanos has preferred. When push inevitably comes to shove down the line, though, Harbaugh's status as a desired candidate and as the first of the two to join the organization suggests that the coach will get his way, not whoever eventually lands here as general manager.

Of the eight NFL head-coaching openings that came available this offseason, the Chargers' might have been the only one that was going to offer some level of personnel control. The Titans and Seahawks had existing general managers who have assumed more power after their coaches were let go. The Commanders were about to hire a general manager. The Patriots, Raiders and Panthers have given a coach personnel control in recent years with disappointing results. The Falcons might have been willing to let a new coach make decisions over Terry Fontenot. But L.A. was the only franchise that had a clear opening and nothing standing in the way of a coach with significant power.

Harbaugh also lands in a destination where it will be easy to recruit. California doesn't offer the same state income tax-free benefits that warm-weather states such as Texas and Florida do for players, but Los Angeles has been a highly desirable destination for free agents in every single major American sport for decades. Beyond big names, the Rams have been able to lure players to suit up for less than they would have likely gotten elsewhere. That can be a big name toward the end of his career -- such as Clay Matthews or Bobby Wagner--or a lesser-known player such asAhkello Witherspoon, who played for close to the minimum this season and produced excellent results for the Rams. Harbaugh should have no trouble selling players on L.A.

The Chargers' side

While beating the Rams for hearts and minds in Los Angeles shouldn't be Spanos' primary goal, this has to feel like one of the few things the Chargers could do to draw attention. The Chargers have spent most of their time in Los Angeles as unwanted afterthoughts amid a steady run of success from Sean McVay and the Rams. The Bolts' home games are typically overrun by fans of the opposition, who can both take a trip to a warm-weather destination to support their team while knowing they'll likely be surrounded by more of their brethren than Chargers fans. People aren't going to suddenly love this team because Harbaugh is around, but when Herbert didn't move the needle, the only thing to swing long-term support toward the Chargers in Los Angeles might be a coach who consistently wins.

The expectation for Harbaugh should be that he'll turn around the ship. In 2004, Harbaugh took over a University of San Diego team that had never won double-digit games and got them there in his second and third seasons at the helm. He then inherited a 1-11 Stanford team in 2007, got them to a winning record in Year 3 and went 12-1 in his fourth and final season with the school. And while it took him six years before he really challenged for a national title with Michigan, he acquired a 5-7 team from Brady Hoke and immediately got it to 10 wins, a mark the Wolverines hit in six of Harbaugh's eight full seasons in Ann Arbor.

The most impressive turnaround might have been what he accomplished with the 49ers. After cap issues and subpar drafting finally sank the dynasty that began in the Bill Walsh era, they wandered through the wilderness for nearly a decade. They went 9-23 with Dennis Erickson, 18-37 with Mike Nolan and 18-22 with Mike Singletary, posting zero winning seasons in the process.

Singletary was fired late in the 2010 season, during a year in which the most memorable moment likely came in Week 5. Smith, the team's first overall pick in 2005, had been under center for an 0-4 start. Amid an ugly performance against the Eagles, fans booed Smith off the field while chanting, "We want Carr," in reference to journeyman backup David Carr, who hadn't started a game since 2007. Smith eventually lost his job via injury to Troy Smith, who held the role before it went back to Alex Smith for the end of the season.

Alex Smith was a free agent, and it seemed like it was time for a clean break between the highly touted prospect and the 49ers.

Instead, while it didn't happen until July because of the lockout, Harbaugh brought Smith back. He immediately morphed into a different quarterback. Smith cut his interception rate from 2.9% to a league-best 1.1% and topped a 60% completion rate and 7.0 yards per attempt for the first time in his pro career. A quarterback who had gone 19-31 across six pro seasons went 13-3. The same fans who were booing Smith off the field a year earlier roared for their quarterback as he went punch-for-punch with Drew Brees in one of the great playoff games in league history, culminating in a final-minute touchdown pass to Vernon Davis for a famous 49ers victory. The organization Smith described as "dysfunctional" and a locker room that had been "very separated" suddenly coalesced around Harbaugh.

A year later, Harbaugh made it to the Super Bowl, but it wasn't with Smith under center. Kaepernick, a second-round pick out of Nevada, had come out of a pistol attack that didn't look much like any NFL offense at the time. (The Chiefs used the pistol with Tyler Thigpen out of necessity because of injuries in 2008, but it didn't stick.) Kaepernick was seen at the time as a raw prospect, a guy whose physical tools translated more to the NFL than his tape.

Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman instead built their offense around Kaepernick's dual abilities as a passer and a runner, allowing him to work out of the pistol at the pro level. In a season in whichRobert Griffin IIIexcelled with the zone-read and other zone concepts for Washington, Roman built a more gap-heavy quarterback run game for Kaepernick, who also posted gaudy numbers as a passer. Kaepernick's 263-passing yard, 181-rushing yard performance against the Packers in the divisional round was one of the most dominant performances I've seen from a quarterback while covering the league, and he brought the 49ers within a drive of winning Super Bowl XLVII.

Beyond the quarterbacks, there were so many players who either improved on what they had previously done with the 49ers or excelled after arriving in San Francisco. Harbaugh got the most out ofAlex Boone, Michael Crabtree, NaVorro Bowman, Chris Borlandand Tarell Brown. Imports such as Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitnerand Ahmad Brooks were better with the 49ers than they had been during their prior stops.

The Chargers have a class of players they're hoping to see more from in 2024, including high draft picksZion Johnson, Asante Samuel Jr.and Quentin Johnston. Harbaugh's work in maximizing talent in San Francisco lends hope he can get everyone on the same page in Los Angeles.

In 2012, I wrote that Harbaugh might be the most valuable person in the NFL. In February 2014, when reports came out that the Browns were trying to trade for Harbaugh, given that he was making $5 million per year at the time, I suggested he was underpaid by half and worth two first-round picks in a deal. The Chargers are getting him for nothing more than a $1.5 million buyout. While allowing that things went south for Harbaugh in 2014, that's an incredible opportunity for this franchise. I'd call it a buy-low deal, but can you really buy low on a contract for somebody who just won a championship?

What's next for Harbaugh and the Chargers?

Here's the part I find so fascinating. This was already going to be a transitional year for the Chargers' roster, given that they're $44 million over the projected salary cap without re-signing starters Austin Ekeler, Gerald Everettand Kenneth Murray. Some of those players won't come back, and Corey Linsley might be forced to retire because of a medical condition. Khalil Mack and Keenan Allen have massive cap numbers and are on the wrong side of 30. Harbaugh will have to decide whether he wants to keep them with new contracts to reduce their cap hits or go younger at key positions.

The next big question for Harbaugh and the Chargers is who he hires as his coordinators. He sent one head-coaching candidate to the league from Michigan in Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who will be either get a head job somewhere or be blocked from following his old boss to Los Angeles by Baltimore. The more logical candidate is Macdonald successor Jesse Minter, who helped the Wolverines allow a nation-best 10.4 points per game this season.

Before Wednesday, Minter would have seemed like an obvious choice to join Harbaugh. A few hours before Harbaugh was hired, though, news broke that the Dolphins were parting ways with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio after just one season. Fangio is regarded as one of the best defensive coaches in all of football, and Miami led the league in defensive expected points added (EPA) per play over a 10-week span after Jalen Ramsey returned and before all of its edge rushers suffered injuries. Fangio didn't seem to mesh with the locker room, however.

Reports have linked Fangio to the Eagles, where he would take over for Sean Desai and Matt Patricia. But what about a reunion with Harbaugh? Fangio was Harbaugh's defensive coordinator in San Francisco, where the 49ers ranked in the top three in scoring defense in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The Chargers ran a version of the Fangio defense under Brandon Staley and never seemed to get things sorted out, but the roster is already built to play this style, and perhaps Fangio would do a better job of coaching up that talent than Staley. (Update: Fangio is headed to Philadelphia, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.)

Harbaugh's coordinator on the other side of the ball from his time in San Francisco is also available. Roman followed Harbaugh from Stanford to the 49ers, with whom he served as the O-coordinator for four seasons. Roman was one of several playcallers in San Francisco during that time frame, with Harbaugh overseeing the operation and having the right to overrule calls.

Roman has since gone on to call plays with the Bills and Ravens. In the latter stop, a Roman-authored offense that looked a lot like an expanded version of the attack he ran with Kaepernick in San Francisco helped Lamar Jackson to an MVP season in 2019. Roman's offense seemed to run out of steam, and the move to replace him with Todd Monken as coordinator appears to have unlocked a new level as a passer from Jackson, who is expected to win his second MVP award this season.

The idea of installing Roman as the coordinator for Kaepernick in San Francisco, Jackson in Baltimore and Tyrod Taylorin Buffalo made sense, given how heavily they were going to feature as part of the run game in addition to what they offered as passers. Herbert can scramble and is tough as nails, but the Chargers probably don't want their franchise quarterback running QB power five times per game. Chargers fans who have seen Jackson flourish in a more diverse passing attack after perhaps being stifled at times under Roman understandably don't want that with Herbert.

I'd instead point out that Roman and Harbaugh coaxed what was to that point a career-altering year from Alex Smith in 2011. The 49ers used Smith as a runner at times, with that famous third-down sweep for a touchdown in the playoff win over the Saints as the most notable example, but they ran a more conventional passing attack with Smith than memory might serve. If Roman can do that with Smith, he (and Harbaugh) shouldn't have any trouble building a coherent offense with Herbert's array of talents.

On the other hand, the incumbent here should have a reasonable case. Coordinator Kellen Moore had the Chargers in the top quarter of the league in both EPA per play (fifth) and points scored per drive (seventh) during the first half of the season before injuries sank them in the second half of the campaign. Moore was a hot head-coaching candidate after his run with the Cowboys, and while Dak Prescott had arguably his best season after Mike McCarthy moved on from Moore last offseason, Moore was interviewed by the Chargers for their head-coaching role during this process.

Ownership also blocked Moore from interviewing with the Bears for their offensive coordinator role before Chicago hired Shane Waldron, a decision that seems telling about how they value the 34-year-old. Harbaugh, 60, isn't going to be forced to take on an offensive coordinator he doesn't want, but there's a chance Moore sticks around with a new coach in Los Angeles next season.

While hiring Harbaugh has to be considered a victory for the Chargers after such a disappointing season, there's a lot more work to be done here. The identity of the coordinators might tell us how aggressively he wants to rebuild the roster, while there are serious decisions to be made about veteran stalwarts over the weeks to come. The last time he took an NFL job, he endured a lockout before building an instant Super Bowl contender out of a 6-10 team that had been disappointing for a decade. Now, with a full offseason to work, Harbaugh will try to take a 5-12 team that has underwhelmed for even longer and repeat the feat. This should be fun.

Related Video